Beyond technological morality and the tip of the iceberg, part two

May 19, 2019

Part Two of a two part series exploring the human relationship with technology.

From moral dualism to contextual ethics

In part one, I introduced the concept of vulnerabilities, the hackers who try to understand them, and the economic and social context in which those hackers operate. I end in a transition from software/hardware hacking to explain how corporations like Facebook have successfully hacked and exploited vulnerabilities in the human psyche for profit.

In part two, I will explore the deeper history of the human relationship with technology, and what it means for the development of a more humane outcome that acknowledges and respects and appreciates humans holistically: mind, body, spirit, relationships, environment.

The innate human vulnerabilities I mention in part one didn’t come out of nowhere. Likewise, they aren’t as simple as software to patch. Lastly, we need to be careful what we label as “buggy behavior,” as it is highly situation-dependent, and we will quickly end up in a victim-blaming, socially-darwinistic tailspin of naively labeling more sensitive or susceptible people as “weak.” What we often consider weakness or vulnerability in today’s social climate have, for most of our species’ existence, served us as strengths.

For example, consider breathing process and fight or flight (sympathetic nervous response). When we perceive a threat or stressor, our body prepares to fight or flight, and floods itself with oxygen and adrenaline that it expects to use in an amazing feat of confrontation or escape. This maximized our chance of surviving physically-dangerous encounters. But in a modern context, both chronic and acute stressors are often socially-constructed rather than directly physical. In this context, fight or flight doesn’t serve us well in two ways: 1. physical fight or flight often gets us into even more trouble, and therefore causes more stress damage from social consequences we are trying to avoid in the first place, and 2. the flood of oxygen in what is a “sedentary stress” situation (such as checking email) becomes excessive. Instead of helping us get out of a bad situation, it often perpetuates and extends or even creates the bad situation by translating into oxidative stress and inflammation, which can lead to depression, anxiety and irritability. Where does depression, anxiety and irritability get us? It quickly becomes a vicious cycle. In the past, our evolutionary stress response helped us avoid further stress. Currently, it contributes to greater stress, provoking more frequent and severe stress responses. Our health and relationships suffer.

I call this vicious cycle of previously-good characteristics becoming liabilities in today’s modern world “evolutionary dysregulation.” In this particular case, physical stress responses have become virtual, decoupling the stress with the actual need for more oxygen. Our evolved response does not actually match our modern sociocultural circumstances. We are simply not well-adapted to the circumstances we have created.

Breath is a drug. It is not good or bad. How we breathe matters. Likewise, technology is also a drug. How we “technify” matters. In the same way that breath work is important, we can mitigate bad outcomes in part through education and training. But while this helps us respond more effectively to bad situations, it doesn’t address the bad situation itself. What other leverage points do we have? If we created the circumstances in which we suffer, can’t we also create circumstances that help us suffer?

1. We can’t really mess with our evolutionary heritage. It is what it is. We are a long way from gene hacking, and can barely wrap our minds around the ethics of software hacking. So we have to work with it. That means we need to focus more on other opportunities, such as…

2. Environmental factors (context). Contextual factors determine whether something is beneficial or detrimental. In other words, nothing is inherently “good” or “bad.” This occurs in two ways with regards to genetics:

a. The behavior or gene or other characteristic itself doesn’t change, but will become an asset or liability purely due to change in context. Example: sickle-cell anemia in a malaria-prone context makes sickle-cells beneficial due to their innate resistance to infection, even though it comes at the cost of decreased red blood cell function otherwise.

b. The behavior or gene expression actually changes (epigenetically) based on context. This describes epigenetics: not only do which genes you have matter, but also whether/when and where/how they express themselves. Different circumstances can turn certain genes on or off, or change when or how they activate. Thus, while we can’t directly hack our genes, we can hack how the genes we do have express, by working with the circumstances in which those genes exist. That means our diet, lifestyle, social and ecological context.

A signficant part of our lifestyle includes the type, amount, frequency and duration of our exposure to various technologies throughout our lives, especially during heavy development phases (childhood and adolescence). We (as individuals and as a species) can have an immensely positive impact on our lives by changing when, where, how and to what extent we engage with a given type of technology, and also the type of technology we engage with. What do technologies that only engage us on our terms, to our benefit, look and act like? In what socioeconomic context do they make sense?

We can ascribe two major labels to technology: informational (IT) and mechanical (MT). A chainsaw is mechanical. And a computer, smartphone or TV is obviously informational. But these are not hard distinctions. IT involves MT, and MT involves IT. A chainsaw mediates our relationship with the rest of the world, as does Facebook. It acts as an “informational server and filter.” It takes in information, rejects certain types of information as invalid (which therefore becomes non-existent), and formats the remaining information for compatibility and distribution. It then redistributes that information to interested parties. Facebook takes information from users and clients (advertisers). Then it filters, formats (transforms) and redistributes it to users and clients. A chainsaw takes in information from our senses, and then filters it and redistributes to our hands to operate the chainsaw.

Thanks to the leadership of the Center for Humane Technology (CHT), we can now clearly sub-categorize the IT label based on how it interacts with our sociobiological programming: Does it attempt to hijack our vulnerabilities, as a proxy for black hat work, or does it attempt to expose and “patch” our vulnerabilities with good habits, as a proxy for white hat work? Does it distract us from life, or help us develop and share our gifts? The lines aren’t always so clear. I wouldn’t call a chainsaw (or Facebook) inherently bad, but it does have a tendency to hijack our perception to make itself useful. I have seen this over and over again with both MT and IT. My permaculture instructor, Toby Hemenway (RIP 2016), first made me aware of this phenomenon in 2006. In the same way that, “if all you have is a hammer, then all your problems start looking like nails,” likewise, “spend enough time behind a chainsaw, and a forest starts to look like a collection of trees (with some other “unimportant” stuff thrown in), and then the trees start looking like board-feet.” Before you know it, you are clear-cutting forests.

Technology enables the extractive economy. But does technology determine extraction? If so, it seems we would be doomed as a species to self-extinguish…We need a better understanding of our vulnerabilities with technology, precisely because we evolved to depend on technology for our survival. Our bodies are designed to develop and make use of technology. We are mostly hairless — we need clothes and foot protection. Our big brains and dextrous hands imagine, build and wield tools that enhance our strengths and mitigate our weaknesses. To naively dismiss technology as inherently “bad” would call into question the basis for the existence of our species. Likewise, to naively embrace all technology as inherently or innately “good” has gotten us into our current situation. A simple moral philosophy of bad/good ignores and distracts from the actual depth and complexity of the issue. Other species can make and use tools, but they don’t depend on them to the level we do. Who, for example, disputes “clothing” as a basic human need alongside food and shelter? What other species also uses clothing to protect itself from environmental hazards?

As we depend on technology, we must reconcile our relationship with it. To accomplish that, we must also understand our historical relationship with it. (what follows is a very dense condensation of a much more complex topic that ignores interesting nuances and does not apply to all humans everywhere at all times, but certainly applies to the species as a whole)

Humans have excessive brains per body weight compared most other species. We are also weaker and slower than almost every other species, per body weight or size. At our best, we can’t climb, run, jump, bite, scratch or hit to compete with most other large species, prey or predator. So how do we survive? With the same brain that makes us so vulnerable. We invent — and heavily rely on — tools of defense and assault.

The large brain we have also happens to require an incredible amount of calories per body weight. We evolved to meet this caloric need through animal fats. While vulnerable to other more adept predators, we may have used rocks to smash open bones and eat the nutritious marrow leftover from a kill after a succession of more dangerous predators took what they wanted. Predators kept our population and behavior regulated, until we began using weapons. First blunt weapons such as rocks, then later, the edge, which became knives and spear tips and bows and arrows that gave us ranged attacks and made us deadly predators and competitors almost overnight. Through these inventions, we escaped predator regulation and our ecological niche changed from prey/scavenger to apex predator, almost overnight. We could not only hunt and kill our own prey, but we could effectively defend the food from competitors. But we maintained a prey animal/scavenger mentality inappropriate to our new role as apex predator. Whereas predators ask, “What do we need, when do we need it?” A scavenger might ask, “What can I get?” Technologically-empowered with an answer of, “Anything we want,” that question becomes pathological. Similarly, our fear of apex predators became problematic when we became an apex and often the top predator.

Free from regulation, our population grew exponentially, and bands of hunters split and migrated. We invented clothing to protect ourselves from increasingly extreme conditions as we searched for more food. We began a phase of migratory overkill lasting thousands of years, following and decimating herds of prey species and the other predator species dependent on them. Everywhere we went, massive extinctions and loss of biodiversity followed, without exception. The Bible as well as anthropological record both echo this story. While technology freed us, we could not embrace the responsibility that came with such freedom. We struggle with it today.

From population growth, overkill and extinction we entered a period of prolonged food scarcity and desperation that still marks our psyche. We design and operate entire societies based on the presumption of scarcity. With few or no large animals left, we began eating lower on the food chain, making use of foods with increasingly less balanced and bioavailable nutrition and greater toxicity. We began to eat more of what our disappearing prey used to eat: the parts and children (seeds) of plants. Our control and use of fire allowed us to more efficiently hunt remaining prey and cook increasingly difficult-to-digest food substitutes, even as our use of fire in hunting and ecosystem management contributed to more overkill and extinction, creating fire-adapted and desertifying landscapes. Our dependence on these new carbohydrate-rich food sources enabled sedentary, permanent human settlement through agricultural development with intensified ecological degradation. Sedentary, carbohydrate-rich populations exploded. We began replacing and converting land and biodiversity into more humans and technomass into constructs we now call “cities” — the basis of civilization.

Settlements grew in social complexity, developing institutions and hierarchies. Populations in excess of Dunbar’s Number (the social carrying capacity of the human brain) became common, and the increased social alienation and stress required dedicated administrative attention and tools to retain social order. Humans evolved with linguistic capacity and a capacity for symbolic thought and understanding. We combined these two capacities to create the written language, the predecessor and foundation of all modern IT. As an administrative and accounting tool, writing has in its origins an association with sociopolitical power. It still holds that same sway today. We say, “knowledge is power,” and we tend to associate literacy with (access to) knowledge and power.

Literacy became linked to power and prestige in the first race to the bottom, where literate people of influence soon found their eyesight suffering, due to atrophy of the focal muscles. Eye problems and other chronic illness in civilization stem from two main causes: malnutrition and technological ergonomics (how often we blink and change focal points). IT, starting with the written language, decreased blinking (lubrication and moisture) and initiated the atrophy of the optical focal apparatus by putting us in front of non-fluctuating, near focal points for increasing times at increasing frequencies. A secondary impact of decreased moisture and increased focal muscle atrophy is the enhanced stiffening of the focal membrane with age. Modern multimedia technology intensified the problem, with more attention-grabbing features like strategically-designed flicker that have even demonstrably lowered our blink rate, causing the eye itself to dry out and become brittle.

In a physical sense, and as an example of fundamentally-unergonomic technology design, reading and writing is not really good for us. Literacy is literally bad for our eyes, locking us into a near-sighted state of increasing blindness. It can also be bad for our posture, neck, shoulders, and is strongly-correlated with chronic illness linked to physical inactivity. We also suffer regular and widespread hearing loss from loud noises of technological origin. Today’s typical civilized humans enjoy a fraction of the physical and sensory capacities that our ancestors and indigenous cousins enjoy(ed). Some part of our collective consciousness must understand this, as the popularized depiction of aliens as bald little pot-bellied figures with very large heads and advanced technology caricatures and predicts the relationship between technological development and physical degeneration.

Our (mis)use of technology in our role as a brand-new apex predator helped our species play a central role in the global extinction of most of the world’s modern megafauna, both predators and prey (about 70-90% extinction rates wherever we migrated). It did not seem to concern us that the speed of this transition into severely-augmented capacities gave most other species very little chance to adapt, until it was too late and entire populations and even species disappeared. This pattern of extinction occurred with simple technologies such as blades and spears and clothing and shelter (which allowed us to inhabit harsh climates and biomes away from the tropics), long before the appearance of the first civilization. If a piece of technology is inherently good, you needn’t consider when, where or how to use it. You just use it.

It soon became common for humans to have relatively little direct interaction with and feel alienated or independent from the rest of the biosphere. From this alienation, we developed the erroneous belief that technology is inherently “good,” even to the point of being capable of providing salvation: “Technology will save us.” More technology. New technology. Better technology. Technology will deliver us from scarcity, rather than reproduce it. And to some extent, as this account attests, it has. Technological advancement has opened new resources for us to exploit. But our relationship with it up to this point also entraps and threatens to destroy us and everything we love.

Our struggle to design and use technology ethically goes back thousands of years, at least. You might even say that it is baked into our DNA. By extension, the modern problems with technology we face today evolved out of our struggling relationship with the world and our place in it. The problem of Facebook manipulating our perspective has had thousands of years to develop, neither recent nor original. While humans are a fundamentally technological (and tech-dependent) species, we are not fundamentally literate. We created a new way to communicate where we really craved greater connection, a tragic pattern that prototyped all social media to follow. We became a highly communicative, although not necessarily more connected, species. The written language has had a profound impact on our cultural psychology and evolution. The rest, as they say, is history…written history, to be exact.

Do not mistake me for arguing against or hating technology. I write this essay on a modern Core i5 laptop running linux kernel version 5.0. I am not a luddite. Nor do I think our species can afford or acheive ludditism without millions of years of evolutionary development toward that capacity. The point of this brief history was to highlight how deep and integrated our struggles with technology are in our identity and even existence as a species. The modern problems of technological addiction and the negative impacts of technology on our development are outgrowths of this more fundamental issue that runs in the history of our species. This is a problem that is embedded within the developmental journey of our species, a species-wide crisis of identity bigger than any government or non-profit or certainly any single person, no matter how much breath work or change in diet and lifestyle we (try to) do, no matter what positions of socioeconomic privilege anyone holds. These are structural issues that we have to work with highly coordinated collaborative attention to change.

I believe the root problem of technology is fundamentally relational. We can think of technology as an amplifier of impact, for better or worse. We have often suffered from unintended consequences past whenever we engaged with technology naively, both in terms of unexpected or excessive outcomes. Blaming or giving credit to technology has rendered us blind to the relationship between technology and context, unable to assess when, where and how a given technology may prove appropriate. An outgrowth of this context-blindness has enabled the naive “more is better” mentality. Specifically, more power and more technology. If an axe works, a chainsaw must work better. If “chopping down as many trees as quickly as possible” is the only value reflected in the use scenario, then that is true. If the use scenario also represents our values of safety, health and fitness, resilient thriving ecosystems and renewable energy sources, then our answer might change.

We, humans, can create, modify and destroy those use scenarios. We haven’t addressed the issue of an ethical relationship with our technical capacities only to the ironic extent that we haven’t turned our technical capacities toward that task, yet. I see that beginning to change, which gives me hope. We are beginning to hack into the barriers and threats to our development and existence as a species. We are beginning to hook ourselves into the problem of technological addiction and abuse. The main components of this paradigm of struggle involve our innate characteristics, our beliefs about technology, and the circumstances in which technological design and use occurs. Circumstances include the state of ecosystems, culture, laws, economy, socioeconomic psychology and the extant sum of technomass with which we currently exist, and a holistic and accurate understanding of the consequences of making and using that technology in a given context.

As we cannot ethically or effectively modify our genetic evolutionary heritage, our first barrier is moving past the falsely-dualistic “technology good/bad” belief paradigm. We must acknowledge our technological dependence and end our worship/fear of technology. In doing so, we shift from a falsely-dualistic moral philosophy of technology to an ethical philosophy capable of considering both use and context in addition to inherent design. Instead of blaming ourselves or the technology, we must accept responsibility to pursue the opportunities available to us from this point. Once we transcend the dualism, we can begin to engage differently with our understanding of the current and appropriate role(s) of technology in human existence. We are neither victim nor perpetrator, nor is this a question of individual willpower.

We also need to consider the context of the technology itself. Just like every tool has a technique, a way in which it was designed to be used, it also has an appropriate context which determines whether and to what extent it can contribute to general welfare. The context interacts with the design and use to determine appropriateness. For example, in the context of the Cold War, a nuclear stockpile made sense in the context of an arms race, to get us from “assured destruction” (hegemony) to mutually-assured destruction (stalemate). The stalemate gave way to detente, and eventually, the demand for nuclear non-proliferation. Our ongoing struggle to implement nuclear non-proliferation and decommission nuclear weapons indicates the extent to which the Cold War persists.

It also made sense to develop nuclear weapon capabilities in the context of where several warring nations were attempting to gain strategic superiority. In this context, all outcomes except one affirm the existence of nuclear development. All nations would have to back out of it together in order for it to matter, which is impossible in the context of a power struggle. Unilaterally backing out would affirm the superiority of any nations who didn’t. And participating only further spurred the arms race. In this context, it becomes a bit more understandable why nations such as Iran, Pakistan and North Korea are developing nukes, when the US, Russia, UK, France, China, and Israel all have them. Our ongoing struggle to decomission nuclear weapons indicates the extent to which nations still struggle and compete for power and control. Until the relationships between nations change away from power struggles, nuclear weapons will persist.

The example of nuclear proliferation exemplifies the parable of the tribes: one tribe mobilizes for power, and surrounding tribes must either do the same or perish. Nuclear proliferation remains one of the most universally-held examples of “inherent technological evil” and a “race to the bottom” from the old morally-dualistic paradigm. This example demonstrates how a technology can (re)create and affirm the context in which it makes sense for it to exist and operate. We can say the same of assault weapons, cars, literacy and social media. As a young teenager, I saw an overnight transition one year when, where and how all my friends and cohort socialized. It came about due to a new invention: AOL Instant Messenger. Friends used to hang out in the neighborhood after school. But then some of them stopped. And the rest of us asked what they were doing. They were going home immediately after school. And then getting on the computer to use AOL IM to chat with each other. It emphasized some substantive benefits. It made chatting with multiple people from multiple cliques at the same time very easy. I felt like I could take time and space to compose my interactions on my terms, and it was easier to say “goodbye” online than on the phone or in person. In reflection, I ended up making the transition simply because everyone else had made the transition, not because I felt it was a superior way to socialize. I wonder whether everyone else felt the same.

All history is naturalized. But it is not deterministic. While development and use of technology itself may be baked into our DNA, what we develop, how we use it, and to what effect, is not. But we have some catching up to do. As entemologist EO Wilson reflected, our modern struggle emerges from the fact that we have paleolithic emotions (and bodies and genes), medieval socioeconomic institutions, and god-like technology. We need to redirect the capacities we have used to create that god-like technology toward the redesign of our institutions to respect and affirm rather than manipulate our emotions (and bodies and genes). We are a clever species. We just aren’t very wise, yet. That is our struggle, and that helps describe the struggle and mission of the CHT: the pursuit of technological wisdom and ethics to steer us away from our historic tendencies.

What, fundamentally, were we trying to accomplish with developing and using AOL IM or nuclear weapons? To what extent did we actually accomplish it? How do we feel about the outcomes? By understanding the context in which our current technological struggles make sense, we can begin to explore context shifts and the work necessary to bring them about. That means clarifying our values and matching our education (structure and process as well as content), economy and institutions (such as government, law and organizational structure) to our values.

The comparison between AOL IM and nuclear weapons may feel jarring, but I wonder whether we could use something like a “social media non-proliferation treaty” in a context where everyone is trying to “out-hook” or “out-proliferate” everyone else. Nuclear proliferation in this example serves as an analogy for how the “race to the bottom” occurs as a social construction. To undo that social construction and change our behavior, we need to move away from the context in which such behavior makes logical sense. This partly comes in the form of a completely novel psychoeconomic model of an IT marketplace, transforming competition for attention and dependency to competition (and even competitive collaboration) for demonstrative positive (humane) outcomes.

Context shift differs from merely writing new apps or designing new technologies, such as Loop Habit Tracker, which aim to use the “hooked” model of addiction for higher purpose. Doing so helps contribute to that context shift, but has severe limits ignoring the context of an overall race to the bottom of the brain stem. It is not enough to add some good into a harmful context. We must at some point also directly address the contextual factors that lead to undesired tendencies in order to continue past harm reduction toward positive outcomes that address our core existential and developmental needs.

This means creating an economic context that seeks, values and rewards (socially, financially, psychologically, spiritually) humane tech design. Part of this transition can involve “hooking” Silicon Valley with Humane Technology habits using the hooked model itself to reinforce more traditional efforts to empower well-meaning allies with education and training, policy and design work and other transformative tactics and strategies. It also involves a transformation of economic production, uncoupling it from socioecological degeneration and recoupling it to socioecological regeneration. The Regen Network exemplifies this sort of work.

Likewise, policy in large part forms the legal context in which markets operate. Populist responses to the issue of accountability typically involve more targeted regulation of markets (e.g., https://www.npr.org/2019/05/09/721685211/facebook-co-founder-hughes-says-zuckerberg-must-be-held-accountable)

I do not oppose regulation. However, micromanaging markets through highly-specific regulation is a futile game of whack-a-mole. What are the conditions we need to bring about to create and use IT (and other technology) in ways that enhance the pursuit of human quality of life rather than exploiting it? The Community Rights movement has made strange bedfellows of the political left and right as it explores a very similar question about the relationship between liberty, rights, prosperity, sovereignty and quality of life. The Community Rights movement works to create a legal context based completely on recognizing and protecting the inalienable rights of natural entities to exist and flourish, especially wherever they conflict with legal fictions (such as governments and corporations). Likewise, a discussion of regulation ignores the extent to which economic transformation may address issues of ethical behavior. Economic transformation does not serve as an alternative to policy work, but depends upon it. As the Community Rights movement demonstrates, we must use laws and other policy process far beyond targeted regulation to change the fundamental behavior of markets.

Finally, we must clarify our values to find our sense of belonging in nature and with the land and planet that ultimately birthed us and supports our existence more fundamentally than any technology. Only then will we be able to ask question about what our technology needs to accomplish to support our existence and values and affirm our sense of belonging and connection. Once we start asking that question, we can start looking at how design interacts with intended outcomes appropriate to context. In this phase of human transition and development, we have a contextually-appropriate need for technologies of transition and development. We need to make sure our proposed solutions are not band-aids sitting on top of poorly-designed and targeted reward systems. Understanding this, we can use principles of biomimicry to design technological and other contexts that better meet our evolved needs and support our individual and collective development. Permaculture and other ecological design sciences, have much to offer in this respect, by way of pattern languages and design principles for appropriate technology and human habitat.

For example, oral traditions were optimal in uncivilized societies of relatively small groups with high amount of trust, as they affirmed connection to and between land and people using innate capacities. Literacy evolved merely as a means to a greater end of the problem of storing and transmitting knowledge and experience in a manner that builds and maintains trust (i.e., through the “written record”) in the context of complex social structures where people interact regularly with others whom they know only in very shallow ways. However, our modern technology capacity has given us the opportunity to turn our focus back to the more fundamental problems of humane social structure and knowledge systems appropriate to our needs and the needs of the planet. Combined with modern understandings of biomimicry (using nature as inspiration for solving complex human problems), we can guide information technology to honor our evolutionary roots in oral tradition, and also create new ways of distributing and engaging with information that help rather than harm our bodies, relationships and landscapes, and that helps create sociobiologically-appropriate conditions for our lives that foster connection, belonging, purpose and fulfillment — a switch from dopamine-centric responses to serotonin-centric responses. A paradigm shift from scarcity to abundance.

Our relationship with technology is a never-ending, iterative process requiring constant monitoring, planning, and intervention, because it represents a type II chaotic system: Not only is it inherently difficult to predict outcomes and trends (like weather reports), but also the interactions that arise from our understanding of the system change the way it behaves. Imagine if accurately predicting the weather actually caused the weather itself to change. That is the amount of complexity we are dealing with. The ony framework I have encountered up to this point that can help us ethically and effectively engage with such unpredictable and chaotic systems is something called Holistic Management, which is a decision making framework for managing complexity. At its most general, managing holistically involves four components:

1. Understand the most important elements of our context (Whole Under Management, WUM) with regards to our decision-making, and “checking” our decisions against that understanding.

2. Maintain access to a full set of management tools (keep your options open)

3. Explore and understand the appropriate application of tools to context

4. Create a feedback loop through ecological, social and financial planning and monitoring.

Without any of these components, management becomes completely reductionist. Reductionism simplifies complexity and destroys life processes, including ecosystem and quality of life. Therefore, the management process itself also requires monitoring as to whether it trends holistic or reductionist (as per the four criteria above). Given the complexity of the Whole Under Management, we will likely never achieve even a momentarily perfect implementation of HM. Monitoring management itself not only allows us to move toward more holistic approaches, but also allows us to assess the quality of adoption rates among those of us claiming to manage holistically. Thus monitoring management itself supports higher rates and quality of adoption and implementation, ensuring the integrity of management.

The recent WhatsApp debacle and even the bigger question of Facebook and its role and impact in society represents merely the tip of the iceberg of the challenges we face as a species in our relationship with technology. There is lots more to do to bring about a revolution of humane technology, but the current work of CHT gives me hope that enough people are interested and willing to try and bridge the gap between our ability to design and create technology and our ability to use it appropriately.

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Beyond technological morality and the tip of the iceberg, part one

May 18, 2019

Part one of a two part series exploring the human relationship with technology

A white hat approach to the information economy

In Part one, I introduce some basic concepts in the sociology of technology and economy to examine the current state of information technology. In Part two, I introduce human’s historical and evolutionary relationship with technology to explore the implications for development of an ethical relationship with technology.

https://www.marketwatch.com/story/whatsapp-says-its-15-billion-users-should-update-to-the-latest-version-to-protect-against-malicious-spyware-2019-05-14

https://www.engadget.com/2019/05/13/whatsapp-call-exploit-allowed-spyware/

The recent reveal of an Israeli hacking company (NSO Group) secretly selling security exploits to governments explains why closed source publicly-held companies often don’t like open source ethos. We can examine this situation by looking at the two different classical types or intentions of “hacking” from the perspective of proprietary, for-profit (esp. publicly-held) software and IT solutions development. WhatsApp is a closed-source messaging app owned by Facebook, which is in-turn publicly-held.

Hacking itself is merely figuring out how to gain access to something. In the process, it involves learning how something works, and what might break it, or what could fix or improve it. What lessons someone learns from a hacking project, and how they use that knowledge, depends largely on the type of hacking they do.

“Black hat” hackers are traditionally known as the “bad guys.” Their work encompasses three primary objectives:

1. Find weaknesses, vulnerabilities or bugs in current design
2. Figure out how to exploit them
3. Make money or gain prestige

a. through direct exploitation
b. through the “black hat” marketplace

This is reportedly what the NSO Group did: it found exploits, and rather than responsibly reporting them to WhatsApp, they sold those exploits for money to government agencies interested in spying on people’s communications. Social conscience and implications be damned.

In contrast, “White hat” hackers also pursue three similar objectives:
1. Find weaknesses, vulnerabilities or bugs in current design
2. Figure out how to exploit them
3. Make money or gain prestige

a. by reporting the bugs directly to the company, and/or when the company doesn’t respond,
b. by making the bugs public, often to put pressure on the company to fix its problems and resecure the data for which it is responsible

White hat hackers are classically the “good guys,” because they feel concerned about others’ vulnerabilities, and work to identify and strengthen those vulnerabilities. Open source software developers make up a large subset of white hats. They don’t do it out of complete self-interest (they benefit from social prestige and income), but they attempt to integrate their self-interest with the common good. Often, hacking falls into a grey area, for example, because black hats also do white hat things (like make the exploit public, but after playing around with it or benefiting from it in some other way), or vice-versa, as white hats sometimes break laws that conflict with their ethical intentions.

I associate the white hat/black hat terms with the Mad Spy vs Spy comic, a critique of the Cold War where two nearly-identical spies were locked in endless and often-deadly competition with one-another. They were identical in appearance and behavior, differing only in the color of clothing they wore. In contrast, white and black hats of the hacking world actually derive from the Western movie genre, where bad guy archetypes wore dark hats and clothing, and white archetypes wore light hats and clothing in a simple moral dualism that our culture finds comforting. Spy vs Spy serves as an analogy for general confusion between the surface-level similarities of the two categories of hacking: all three objectives are the same. Yet the devil is in the details and intentions. White hat hackers seek to solve problems, whereas black hat hackers seek to exploit them. So why do we struggle so much to distinguish between them? Our society has a tendency to “shoot the messenger,” and white hat hackers by-definition tend to position themselves as messengers. Black hats tend to turn vulnerabilities into greater problems by exploiting them. In contrast, poor socioeconomic reactions to well-intentioned white hats tend to make mountains out of mole hills. In either case, white and black hats get lumped together as troublemakers, which in turn creates a negative general opinion of “hacking” as if it were synonymous with troublemaking.

The ethics of making exploits of software public knowledge stem from the collision between closed-source (proprietary/secretive) and open-source models in our current economic context. Black hat has immediate financial incentives attached to it. White hat doesn’t. You have to gain notoriety and become a security contractor before your contributions to security are recognized as legitimate and legal. And even then, your accomplishments and the skills they represent lead many to treat you like a liability. So immediately, here, the scales are tipped against the white hat. At their worst, white hat hackers act like whistle blowers. Nominally, they simply operate with an open source philosophy: shine a light into darkness. With transparency of open source values comes accountability.

However, accountability is expensive: it takes time, expertise and money to track down, fix and verify vulnerabilities and other flaws. It takes less to not look for them, or ignore them completely. When a company successfully avoids accountability, it can externalize those costs (such as security vulnerabilities) onto its users. This externality often takes the form of what economists call “intertemporal discounting,” where you reap benefits now and deal with the snowballing consequences somewhere “in the future.” If that “someone else’s problem somewhere else at some other time” mentality sounds familiar, it describes a lot of how our society functions, and helps us understand some of the hidden costs of goods and services offered to us for “free.” Previous and current generations regularly make choices without considering how they would impact their future, let alone the lives of subsequent generations. We often end up paying for our short-sightedness later, somehow. It would do us well to assume a cost exists, and ask who, what, when, where and how, rather than “whether.” Put another way: Free now, but you’ll typically pay for it later, one way or another.

Sooner or later, an unaddressed vulnerability or other flaw in software design becomes public. But when, where, how and to whom it becomes public matters. When a company sits on an unknown security vulnerability (or ignores a known one) for long enough, black hat hackers eventually get ahold of the information they need to pursue an opportunity. They typically get ahold of it first, simply because they are actively looking for such opportunities. When they get to the vulnerability first, they are off to the races to exploit it before a white hat finds and reports or (in an open source circumstance) fixes it. Thus, fixing vulnerabilities is a race between white hat and black hat hackers.

Ideally, white hats find vulnerabilities first, and no opportunity for black hat exploitation occurs. But publicly-owned companies operate with concern to quarterly profits. To maximize current or even next quarter profit, it is rationally better for a company to suppress or even ignore vulnerabilities rather than allow them to become public, even though this has major repercussions further into the future. Although we, the users of such technologies (and primary victims of its flaws), all want vulnerabilities and other flaws discovered by the “good guys” and patched or otherwise-corrected ASAP, that doesn’t necessarily make sense to a publicly-held, closed-source company. They a. simply can’t see that far into the future and b. are far more concerned about immediate profitability, anyway. Once a consumer purchases and “owns” a product, providing warranty and support is only expensive. It positively impacts profit only inasmuch as it contributes to company reputation and customer loyalty. While black hats are a bigger threat to a publicly-held closed-source company, white hats keep the company on their toes, increase their (short term) expenses (although often by helping them avoid the black hat threat), and even publicly embarass them. To such companies, this results in the worst of both worlds: all the extra work (to fix exposed flaws) with none of the positive PR. As long as such corporations think they can avoid accountability, all hackers (black or white) are liabilities, annoyances, or threats…with one important exception that I will discuss later.

In many cases, closed source proprietary philosophies and practices make a self-fulfilling prophecy out of white hat intentions. In closed source circumstances, white hats can only identify problems, and don’t have access to the source code to even propose or collaborate on solutions. And the closed source proprietary perspective may view anything they do submit as evidence of a violation of proprietary secrets. Thus in an economic milieu that values and protects secrecy of information, white hats get lumped with the “bad” black hats. It’s not that competition doesn’t exist in open source circumstances. It’s just that competition and collaboration behave very differently, and often even coexist in the same time and space. In contrast, closed source circumstances tend to dichotomize competition and collaboration as mutually exclusive. You are either a competitor or a collaborator. In open source, you can actually be both at the same time thanks to upstream/downstream project contribution and forking. Many people — even those heavily involved in open source projects — suffer from cognitive dissonance. As a result, it often becomes difficult to structure effective collaborations, and I have seen many react inappropriately to the presence of competition as “bad” or collaborative gestures as “disingenuine.”

Coming back to the moral ambiguity of Spy vs Spy, the view of black hats as “bad” itself is a bit more complex. Closed source philosophies and practices evolved out of and depend upon a paradigm of scarcity that itself leans heavily on a zero-sum analysis: if I have more, you have less, and the value of what I have increases. That is currently how money currently operates: its value comes not only from collective belief in it as a medium of exchange, but also from its limited presence and unequal distribution to create and maintain artificial gradients of supply and demand. If only a few people have a million dollars, that million dollars is worth a lot. However, if everyone has a million dollars, then they might as well only have one dollar, because it is all worth the same. In a scarcity-based economy, distribution of the resource matters. In other words, it’s not so much how big the pie is (economic growth), but how the pieces get divided and distributed.

However, technology development — especially information technology — deals primarily with ideas and concepts (information). And the rules of scarcity do not apply to information, which is more like the pie recipe than the pie itself. My possession of information neither devalues nor excludes your possession of the same or different information. In fact, our mutual possession of information (same or complementary) can actually add value to what we currently have. However, the context of the scarcity economy tends to infiltrate and redefine our thinking about information according to its rules. My recipe quickly becomes a guarded secret. Thus a major conflict exists between the “economic” and “informational” aspects of our modern information economy preventing us from exploring and engaging with the full potential the information economy promises, which would likely be based on open source principles that embrace or even depend upon a pre-analytic vision of abundance vs scarcity. We may need to develop new monetary systems and related institutions to replace outdated ones and overcome this conflict. At the same time, pursuit of a fully-empowered (open source) information economy also provides us an opportunity to adopt and apply abundance-based paradigm to other aspects of socioeconomic organization. We can just as easily design an economy that ties its value to the health rather than exploitation of the commons: the commonweal. Doing so uncouples economic production, for example, from environmental destruction, and recouples economic production with environmental regeneration and other forms of net good as byproducts of economic activity.

Black hats exist primarily as an outgrowth of artificial concentrations and gradients of information, money and power created by scarcity-based models of distribution and social dynamics. Nature abhors a gradient. Another way to look at it: bank robbers only make sense in a society where banking represents the accumulated financial interests of an elite few. In this sense, the problem of black hat hacking is a vestige of an elite minority wanting to “have their cake and eat it, too,” in terms of wanting to accumulate power, money or information without incurring the inherent security risks of doing so. So we can’t accurately blame the black hat problem on the “immoral” choices or “moral weakness” of individual black hats. Likewise, many white hats in the same economy often have grey ethics with regards to their motivations and methods. Like many of the corporations that black hats antagonize, they simply see opportunity. A capitalist society does not make moral (let alone ethical) distinctions between “good” and “bad” economic opportunity. The legality of pursuing “black hat” opportunities often arises more from how it impacts the interests of a politically well-connected elite rather than from ethical considerations. If they see such pursuits as opportunity, then it tends to become legal. If they see such pursuits as liability, then they tend to become illegal. Morality, ethics and actual impact be damned.

In the best of circumstances, white hats become appreciated and valued security consultants or contractors, and find a socioeconomic niche rewarding (rather than punishing) their ethical focus. And that’s part of the problem: We exist in a cultural, social and economic milieu that, for all our complex laws and rhetoric about accountability, very heavily rewards unethical behavior, and often punishes or discourages ethical behavior. The two paradigms of open and closed source are completely alien from one-another, and it confuses people to no end. In an open source context, competition and cooperation co-exist and converge. Self-interest and altruism also tend to converge. This has a tendency to lower the stakes from “fight for life” to “play,” the same way wolf pups will “play” ferociously with one-another, but will break it up or take a break before someone gets seriously hurt. Through this process, individuals explore and negotiate the limits and qualities of their strengths and weaknesses, relationships with one another and ultimately their social role or niche. They clarify and develop both their identities as individuals and members of the pack, they find their optimal niche, and they contribute to the overall viability of the pack by increasing its strengths and mitigating its weaknesses. That, by way of analogy, is the goal for our economy.

So, to change this dynamic in the software field, we have a few (and potentially coincidental) options in social design:
1. Enforce decoupling of closed-source and public holding (you can be one but not the other). In other words, you can be open source and publicly-held, or closed source and privately-held, but not both.
2. Somehow change the stock market time frame to prioritize long-term outcomes over short-term (quarterly) outcomes. The longer the timeframe, the more universal interests become. “Self-interest” and altruism tend to blend seemlessly into one-another. This change in scale of focus also leads to a substantial difference in accountability and behavior choices — not just the choices made, but even the range of choices that seem available and viable in the first place.
3. We might consider the implications of requiring an open source ethic for all technology development, as doing so completely changes the ethics of social and market dynamics by inherently supporting transparency and accountability.
4. Incorporate broader consideration of liabilities and assets beyond profit and loss analysis into economic function and valuation. For example, the Center for Humane Technology’s ledger of harms seeks to render visible the previously-ignored externalities of technology design and use. What impact does the technology have on its users? On society? On ecosystems?

The second and fourth options have positive implication far beyond the design and development of technology, extending into all investment activities.

Extending this analysis further: In today’s climate, social media and related app development have largely functioned like “black hats” with regards to social psychology of software and telecommunications development. They hack and exploit vulnerabilities in human hardware and software for profit. This is the basis of the “hooked” model for user experience design: find the vulnerabilities in the human social psyche and exploit them to reap greater attention, screen time, advertising and therefore profits. You “hook” users by designing software to maximize addiction by lowering the work threshold to receive a positive reward (dopamine response), until the user internalizes motivation and acheives dependency or even addiction.

Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology identified five core vulnerabilities in human social psychology that companies like Facebook exploit to maximize the time people spend in their interface:
1. Inaccurate forecasting (how long will this task, project or distraction actually take?)
2. Intermittent variable rewards (aka the infinite scroll, “click next” vortex)
3. Loss-aversion (fear of missing out (FOMO) with regards to something important; but even unimportant things gain importance when they come via a trusted connection)
4. Fast vs slow thought (mindless reaction to quick and easy stimuli vs mindful behavior)
5. Stress and altered states (we enter fight or flight easily, and make impulsive decisions)

While a company like Facebook (and by extension, WhatsApp) may fear and hate both white and black hat hackers…they do so with a failure to acknowledge or admit their role in society as a black hat biohacker of the human psyche, keeping us plugged into their machines for the maximum time possible. Facebook doesn’t hate hacking generally or even black hat hacking specifically. Facebook simply doesn’t care for any hacking that doesn’t help it produce greater short-term profit. Does this make Facebook evil? I don’t think so.

Black hats compete all the time for the same scarce resource: access to a potentially-lucrative vulnerability. Their opportunity lies in access to vulnerabilities for them to exploit. While they all compete, they don’t just despise white hats for making their access to a scarce resource even more scarce and tenuous. White hats represent an ethical system (e.g., open source values) completely alien and unintelligible to a black hat economy. Black hats at least make sense to each-other. They know what they do and why they do it. But white hats don’t make sense to black hats. Hacking is all about understanding and access. If something is alien and unintelligible, it remains inaccessible and unavailable to us, for better or worse. Black hats not only hate what white hats do (ruin opportunity), they also don’t understand why white hats do what they do. In this sense, widespread comprehension of the motivation and ethics of white hats may serve to indicate a significant shift in social affect toward open source principles.

Unfortunately, Facebook is not an exceptional case, but merely a case study in the rule of an extractive economy. This same pattern, for example, perfectly describes the infamous Opium Wars between the British Empire and China. Nearly 1/2 of the entire Chinese population had become addicted to opium, simply because British merchant corporations found it to be profitable. Nothing personal, just business. They didn’t want to create widespread misery. They just didn’t care about (or have to deal with) the consequences of profiteering off of opium sales. They only had to deal with a drop in sales when China tried to intervene out of self-defense, which kicked off the war. China lost the war, ceded Hong Kong and begrudgingly made opium legal in a tragedy from which it is still trying to recover. The British people (merchants and shareholders) responsible for the Opium War were not evil people. They were simply investors seeking to maximize their profit, much like many of us today who hold stock in the stock market.

We all operate with the same vulnerabilities that make us susceptible, e.g., to social media manipulation. Hackers rarely concern themselves with strengths. Rather, they focus on weaknesses — a difficult topic for our society (perhaps even our species) to address. But we must accustom ourselves to acknowledging and addressing weakness and vulnerability. What are the weakest links that render us most vulnerable to manipulation and hijacking? Likewise, what are the weakest links of the manipulation and hijacking chain of production?

The unfortunate pattern of the extractive economy will continue until society develops and enforces clear values that consider not only long-term implications of a profit scheme (to prevent intertemporal discounting), but also non-monetary externalities, such as the impact on public health, social fabric, or ecosystems. That describes the basis for the triple bottom line: not just profit, but also people and planet. Not just economics, but also ethics and environment.

Who or what will bring about such change? Again, the white hat/black hat distinction applies to this level of hacking. The Center for Humane Technology (CHT), in contrast to an outfit like Facebook, represents the first real example of what I would consider a “white hat lab” with regards to those same innate weaknesses and vulnerabilities that Facebook exploits, for example, creating a “ledger of harms” to track the true cost of our current and historical relationship with technology. Beyond a simple accounting process, such information could become embedded in monetary systems pegged to public welfare rather than reductionist profit. Imagine economic growth not just from sales, but actual, measurable growth in general public welfare, in a holistic monetary scheme that accounts for and discourages externalities with an embedded accounting process. Under such a scheme, only ethical projects would prove profitable. Sound far fetched? Check out the Regen Network. They are creating an economic currency whose value is tied to the verification of regenerative outcomes. Both the Regen Network and CHT give me hope that we (or they, if you see yourself as a passive bystander) might positively shift the role and impact of technology in human life.

In Part two, I will explore the deeper origins of the human relationship with technology, and how that might inform our way forward.


The Rhetoric of Love

February 28, 2017

The rhetoric of love is as hurtful as the rhetoric of hate.  Trump populism, for example, uses the rhetoric of fear and hate, targeting women and people of color.  But the empty positive, loving rhetoric on the part of a pro-establishment “progressive” liberal left does at least as much harm.

Domestic violence abusers and stalkers regularly use the phrase, “I love you” to both justify and distract from actions and impact that embody considerable hatred of themselves and others.  It is designed to break consent.  If we agree to do something, and then I use that agreement to do something else entirely, it breaks consent.  Usually, the break in consent exists strategically to extract something from or otherwise exploit another party against their will.  Malicious lawyers use this “bait and switch” tactic all the time, by getting people to “agree” to things entirely different than what they believed they were agreeing to.

If you ask me to do the dishes before you get home, and I say, “Sure thing.”  That’s a positive, affirmative response.  Then I think about doing the dishes.  Then I talk about doing the dishes.  Maybe I even study the issue with diligent rigor.  When I use an affirmational, positive and loving response as a strategy to shut you up so you stop asking me to do things, then I am exploiting and breaking consent using the “bait and switch” rhetoric of love. That amounts to a lie that I told you.  Moreso than this, it amounts to an act of manipulation and abuse.  In exploiting language and trust, I cause harm to our ability to communicate and relate to one another and our relationship.  It is a form of social control — controlling violence, and results in alienation, trauma and suspicion.

Rhetoric of the Political Establishment Left

The establishment left — which includes many self-styled liberals and progressives — often uses the rhetoric of love to protect rather than improve the status quo.  For example, as Ellen Mavrich points out, many self-styled leftists and progressives hide their passive conservatism or even active animosity toward contemporary social justice movements using the rhetoric of love.  We use the rhetoric of social justice to support the status quo, deny contemporary issues, or even criticize and undermine liberatory struggles. Mavrich acknowledges that progressives “love to emphasize [their] radical past”, and challenges us if we “pretend to be a community leading the future while we actually slink around the sidelines hiding from the bully, [then] we need to stop aligning ourselves with the truly brave people who came before. That is also an injustice.”(1)

More locally, we have cities that adopt “progressive” stances that have no real-world impact, such as “sustainability commissions,” that have no authority nor scope of work beyond doing unnecessary “research” and creating non-binding “recommendations” for decision-makers to ignore even as they trumpet their “green credentials” in reference to such commissions.  We have politicians who express empty “concern” for an issue or feigned “outrage” over systematic police brutality, but who do little or no crusading to back up their words.

The report, “City Rights in an Era of Preemption,” says 24 states have preempted local minimum wage increases; 17 have stopped paid sick or family leave; three have voided anti-discrimination protections for LGBT individuals; three have stopped laws aimed at home sharing (like AirBnB that has tightened affordable housing options); 37 have blocked local regulation of ride sharing (that compete with the more heavily licensed taxis); 17 have blocked municipal broadband (challenging telecom monopolies); and 42 have limited local taxation and spending.

http://www.alternet.org/activism/other-right-wing-tidal-wave-sweeping-america-federal-and-state-preemption-local-progressive

The result?  Pre-emption crushes social innovation. “Progressive change” gets funneled into increasingly-narrow and tightly-choreographed, heavily-scripted and regulated pro-establishment lobby theater.  Such change strategies take it as a given that they must “collaborate” with and accept institutions and interests of dominant culture at the table and take into account or even give them precedent and priority, rendering results meaningless and empty — change in name only (CHINO, if that).

Meanwhile, the participating activists have spent countless (often-unpaid) hours of labor to help make this happen, becoming, in effect, willing corporate slaves or stool-pigeons who drain precious resources from, marginalize and hide more effectual organizing strategies designed to circumvent, short-circuit or call-out this process.  Such establishment leftism does immense harm toward actual liberatory struggle, and it will continue either until the establishment crumbles or someone disrupts it.   For this reason, the pro-establishment left may constitute a higher strategic priority for direct action work than the corporate or other authoritarian institutions of dominant culture they claim to oppose, precisely because they so-effectively “run interference” as a vanguard of pro-establishment defense processes.

A Way Out and Forward

It often takes considerable courage — especially in this brave new world — to enact love beyond disposable and disingenuous rhetoric.  In contrast, using the rhetoric of love as a strategy to avoid enacting love is an act of cowardice and manipulation.  Many of us are so deeply programmed this way by our enculturation that we can’t even tell the difference in our own or others’ actions.  Whenever and wherever we can, we must stand firm to enact and embody love in spite of considerable opposition from the fear and hatred of others.  Unfortunately, it often means taking a path of more resistance.  It means holding ourselves and others accountable whenever our rhetoric diverges from our embodied actions.  This must occur not only on individual and relational levels, but institutional levels.

On deeply personal level, we can feel overwhelmed as soon as we engage in an accountability process that exposes empty rhetoric we or others around us use.  It means slowing down, scaling back and getting a more solid personal and relational foundation beneath us.  It means not promising things we can’t deliver, no matter how “well-intentioned.”  It means having a clear and honest understanding of our capacities, and holding others to account for their promises.  It can mean shifting allegiances away from behaviors, attitudes and institutions that remain unwilling or unable to remain accountable, or even actively oppose or undermine accountability itself.  Only then do we know what we actually have to work with, and only then can we plan and execute effective, sustained social change strategies that move beyond personal and relational work to target society’s institutions.

A Community Bill of Rights is one important tool among many for us to use in such processes of accountability and integrity, by helping us recognize and hold both individuals and institutions to locally-enforceable, legally-binding account when their rhetoric and “intentions” diverge from their behavior and impact.  Moreso than this, Community Bills of Rights are useful tools to help the intention and rhetoric of love re-engage with our behavior and impact, in three important ways:
1.  They allow us (we, the people) to enforce already-recognized rights locally when non-local (e.g., state or federal) institutions that supposedly recognized those rights refuse to enforce them (passive violations), or even actively violate them.
2. They allow us to recognize and elevate previously-unrecognized rights fundamental to the health, safety and welfare of natural and human communities, such as the Rights of Nature, or the right of every person to a safe shelter, or a life free from relationship violence.(2)  It allows us to bring our actions and impact closer to our intentions and rhetoric without asking distant and unaccountable authority figures for permission.
3. Community Bills of Rights allow us to address several outstanding issues of fundamental rights violations.  In a single Bill of Rights we can address workers’ and immigrants’ rights, the Rights of Nature, women’s right to body sovereignty, and other important issues of fundamental integrity.  By addressing many different issues on a single structural platform, we can create greater solidarity by building broad coalitions of support for the Community Bill of Rights.  People of privilege can use their privilege to truly listen to and address the needs of the community and lead for progressive change, which in turn creates greater community.

Footnote
(1)http://oberlinreview.org/12315/opinions/oberlin-must-stand-by-community-bill-of-rights/
(2)This was a right that existed briefly on the federal level, but was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in the early 2000’s.  It depends on the Federal government’s authority to enforce such rights through the Commerce Clause, which treats everyone and everything in the world as a dollar value and ironically also allows the government considerable control over human behavior.  Regardless, if the powers that be can’t slap a dollar sign on it, they can’t enforce it.  This is how they enforce the EPA and civil rights laws:  by converting humans and nature into corporate profit and loss figures.  Is that right?  Read more: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1FsgPwZQtlIQDnOCDoMhZiBW1598ccSOYEELwlkHwp7M/pub#h.k8ugw2yjpmty


Trump, social institutions and the bystander effect

February 26, 2017

This is a strategic framework for surviving or even progressing in the midst of repressive political regimes, focusing on bystander organizing.

Overview

My partner is currently helping someone apply for US citizenship.  I can imagine that process feels pretty harrowing normally, let alone in today’s climate, with a xenophobic predator in chief at the figurative head of the government.  Trump has already threatened to pull federal funding from cities who act as sanctuaries for the people he intends to persecute.

Our society has a lot of active xenophobes and misogynists.  Such people worked hard to elect someone like Trump in the first place.  They have already started acting more boldly.  A lot of xenophobes and misogynists work in public and private institutions, which magnifies their potential destructive influence.  They may start to feel empowered with a mandate from above in what people perceive as the “highest political office of the nation” (more accurately it is a symbolic position that has as much power as we delegate to or allow it).  The xenophobes and misogynists are coming out of the woodwork.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s a form of social and cultural honesty manifesting itself.  We know who — and what — we are working with.  They don’t have to hide.  They don’t police themselves and hide behind political correctness, because the social norms have changed.  We know how bad things truly are, and how much work we have to do to create a democratic culture of love, courage and respect.

However, the shift in the balance of power also means that many otherwise-non-misogynist and non-xenophobic people will start to silence themselves and passively “go along” with whatever tendencies emerge.  As the xenophobes and misogynists emerge and many other, competing value systems go into hiding, a progressive institution can seem to shift rather abruptly to a regressive and repressive institution, seemingly-overnight.  This happens first through a collective change in social affect, where xenophobia and misogyny become dominant norms.  Shifts in norms then create a silence amongst a passive majority, or even draw them into compliance as they seek to maintain social harmony.   Then actual shifts in policies, rules and directives occur, further marginalizing and mitigating the remaining people who refuse to remain silent.

This shift can do lots of damage.  We can prevent that damage.

Bystander Organizing

The remaining people who refuse to remain silent have the simple, albeit very difficult, task to slow, stop and even reverse these institutional shifts through strategic action.  Whether and how such people act in this shifting climate will determine in large part the extent and quality of the damage that the xenophobes and misogynists are able to do with their growing institutional power.  Strategically, we can act to limit the damage, viewing this as a “temporary shift in climate” while ignoring its roots in our culture. We can call this the “Tough out the four years” strategy.  It is a strategy that both assumes and facilitates failure.  More fundamentally, we can work to awaken and activate bystanders from their state of passive silence and compliance.  The more proactive we are with this, the easier our task of limiting damage and holding a line against authoritarian regression will become.  The longer we wait, the harder the task will become, up to the point of becoming impossible.

Bystander activation itself becomes much more effective through a strategic process of triage.  We can call strategically-focused bystander activation “bystander organizing.”  We target and activate those most sensitive and courageous first (before we get bound, gagged and dragged off to the gallows), and then use our growing numbers to increasingly activate others in turn and normalize a culture, first of resistance, and then prevention.  When bystander activation and organizing occurs promptly, an institution can effectively hold a line against social regression, or even continue progress making — even leaps and bounds of progress (albeit in the midst of a lot more conflict) — during an authoritarian regime.

Isolated institutions, when transparent and public about their activation, can in turn inspire and agitate others, transforming pockets of resistance to a unified solidarity network.  So anyone in a position of public or private institutional influence can use their institutional power responsibly, act strategically.  We have work to do to make this land more just, more free, more inclusive.  We have people (such as xenophobes and misogynists) to identify and hold to account, including, but not anywhere-near limited to, the new predator-in-chief.  Including friends, family and coworkers.  Our bosses and employees.  Trump emerged from US mainstream culture.  Until we change the culture, the threat he symbolizes will remain:  his supporters, those who comply, and those who consider him an alien rather than emergent threat.

Indicators of Institutional Shifts

Indicators of shifts in institutional culture include both informal and formal factors, such as memos, new “policies,” personnel behavior, and enforcement of accountability for professional, ethical behavior, and institutional mission or focus.  Examples of shifts in sexism include increased harassment of women, male coworkers or employees behaving in oppositional or defiant ways to female coworkers or bosses (which can include more gender-based “jokes” about female authority), and bosses silencing or exploiting female employees.  Gender minorities may also receive similar treatment.  Similarly racist or classist behaviors may start to occur.

The adoption of discriminatory policies (let alone behaviors and attitudes), even when technically-illegal or unconstitutional, may appear (or actually) have the support of the President of the US.  Such policies can focus inward, on the management of the institution itself (e.g., stripping female employees of paid maternity leave, or claiming to “recognize white genocide” or “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism” as a real issue requiring affirmative action or equal opportunity or “increased accountability”).  Likewise, such policies can project outward, toward the people whom the institution should ostensibly serve (such as in the administration of health care or insurance, or work training and placement programs, or with immigrants applying for US citizenship).

Initial shifts can occur more subtly, with a “testing of the waters,” occurring through increased frequency of racially- or sexually-charged “joking,” a vanguard of indicator and agent of shifting cultural norms.  These initial shifts can easily and disable any extant accountability structures, policies or processes that were probably overwhelmed and under-responsive to begin with.  Those who have already faced such challenges in their work life may notice an increase in both frequency or intensity of behavior or other indicators of a cultural shift into line with the repressive regime.  Regardless of the level of formality, these shifts occur due to a perceived (and often real) sense of support or even mandate from those higher in the social hierarchy, and a perceived lack of consequences for abandoning what was previously the politically-correct behavior.  In fact, such people are simply adopting (sometimes passively, sometimes willingly and actively) the new politically-correct behavior, which happens to include misogyny and xenophobia.

The fact of the matter is, though, that enough caring people exist, generally-speaking, in every institution for that institution to hold a line against slipping toward repressive culture or policy.  What matters is whether we act strategically in a manner to amplify our impact and influence.


Why the Salem Food Co-op failed

February 24, 2017

Ten Lessons from a founding member (steering committee and founding board member 2010 – 2014)

INTRODUCTION
This piece results from reflection on several factors that ultimately contributed to the demise of the Salem Food Co-op (SFC) project. I wrote it first and foremost for myself, to help articulate and clarify my pathway forward. I share it in hopes that it will help others in their community development work, by aiding in the identification and avoidance of red flags to fight self-sabotaging project failure and individuals’ unwitting participation in such self-sabotaging processes, ultimately to better respect and render effective time and energy spent toward building a better community.

10 RED FLAGS

1) First, the food co-op started with limited outreach to white godless middle class liberals. Note that I don’t use the phrase “white godless middle class liberals” as a pejorative. Rather, it is only a very limited demographic group (one that includes me). We might more accurately substitute “secular” for “godless,” as, the initial outreach did not include churches, nor did it include minority or marginalized populations and related local organizations (SKCE, NAACP, SLF, etc).

Such a narrow initial frame for the project compounded later problems. Project leaders assumed that whoever showed up as a result was “the community” and thus (yet again) erased people of color, ESL speakers, and others from the possibility of engagement and participation unless it was completely on the terms of the narrow white, middle class godless liberal frame. I fit that same narrow demographic group (which is probably why I became a founding member), and even I found the space to be unnecessarily conservative and restrictive — to the point of being claustrophobic, with constant subtle and passive-aggressive social norming to separate outliers from the “in-group.”

See Julie Guthman’s “Unbearable Whiteness of the Alternative Food Movement” for more on this topic. De facto discrimination and segregation can look more like passivity than active prejudice. For example, by putting all outreach materials in English only, by reaching out to primarily-white institutions and groups, this projects a coded message to community members who don’t fit that demographic that, “this is another white people project.” It also projects a coded message to white supremacist community members and institutions that the status quo supports their prejudice, which intensifies racism, etc in the community as a result.

2) Second, the core founding group (which later became part of the steering committee and the founding board) started and stuck with a very narrow, naive and inflexible idea of what a food co-op was. They were stuck in the romanticization of the food cooperative movement of the 70s, and wanted to transplant that through time and space into the contemporary Salem economy. They did not do research into the full breadth of cooperative possibilities, and thus could not imagine — let alone communicate — anything beyond, “I want a member-owned version of LifeSource” [the local privately-owned friendly, well-staffed and well-managed “natural foods” store] to the community, which sounded redundant to most folks. LifeSource already effectively fills that economic niche, and does a solid job at it.

In contrast, the founding group did not care to learn what other problems, needs and thus opportunities existed in the community around food issues. They did group work to move the project forward, but their participation in part served to retain control of this narrow vision and prevent broadening of possibilities. Some even said they would leave if the group even considered other possibilities than what they wanted (a brick and mortar granola store). The presence of such manipulative and threatening behavior in the early group formation itself is a huge red flag that I ignored — especially because many of these people stayed on-board!

3) Third, the board did not listen to or follow the advice of experts — such as the Food Cooperative Development Initiative and the NW Cooperative Development Center and local seasoned business owners and the local SBDC. The few cooperative projects that withstand the test of time treat the strategic planning, research and outreach process seriously, whereas key members of the SFC board just dismissed the process as redundant or even threatening to their vision. They payed lip-service to these fantastic (and freely-available) expert resources, but did not actually want to follow through with the planning process, for example, treating the business planning process as a mere “formality.” As a steering committee and board, we did not take the time to understand what the actual community (and all its participants) really wanted or needed, and where, when and how a co-op project might meet those needs, let alone whether it could at all. Other participants did not seem able to see through their narrow blinders in interpreting the information offered (so everything became about building a “brick and mortar” store).

Starting a co-op is a lot like building an intentional community, and it takes a lot of time and energy building and solidifying the (often-invisible) foundations for success. Most successful co-ops (and intentional communities) don’t start operations until several (often 5-7) years of intensive development and planning work, which includes lots of research and evolution and even complete reboots and changes in direction.

4) Fourth, we prematurely started and expanded operations (vs intensive planning and development, which the above factors short-circuited). Unwilling to give the development process the time, energy and respect it deserved, the founding members jumped at the opportunity to just “start doing it,” nevermind that we did not yet have a clear vision of what “it” meant, and that most of Salem did not share the specific implementation of the larger vision that certain members of the board insisted on. This lead to SFC naively taking over a private bulk food buying club (a very different operation than — albeit potentially part of — a cooperative effort), whose founding leaders wanted to step back. Seeing this only as an opportunity (rather than a more complex situation that included significant threats to the project), we just “started doing it” without having a clear understanding of what it is we were doing, or how we were doing it, or what the risks were. The project soon found itself in a vicious operational cycle of paying off its increasing liabilities via operations that reaffirmed the existence of those liabilities. Planning and development work all but stalled.

5) Fifth, we imposed ourselves on the community. Unwilling and unable to research and understand the full scope and potential of this project, we tried to shoehorn a narrow and exclusive vision into the Salem economy, ignoring available economic niches while trying to establish ourselves in highly competitive, well-developed ones. When we took over the buying club, we destroyed it. The buying club emerged to fill a need. Rather than letting it continue or fade on its own terms, we tried to co-opt its membership for our purposes. The SFC board forced the change from a buying club to a co-op, raised the prices, made the process more complicated, and then said it was all “for the best” without even first developing a relationship with the club’s members. It resembled a hostile takeover. Lo and behold, member participation dropped off sharply in a few buying cycles, leaving SFC with a bad public reputation (from people who might otherwise have been our core supporters and membership, no less!) and an operational burden. Such tactics only work with virtual monopolies — and besides, is that really what SFC was going for?

6) Sixth, we exploited participants. By prematurely jumping into operations, we struggled to perform even basic operational tasks. Management each order cycle was a frantic, stressful mess. There weren’t enough volunteers to help, in part because of an over-reliance on volunteers. Board members vetoed any serious consideration of hiring paid staff (at any level), even when we finally had the budget for it. Similarly, board members mired in endless operational obligations every order cycle began questioning the motives and commitment of the few board members trying to stay focused on overall project management, planning, research and development in order to pressure them to “help out more,” as if the development even of operational policies and procedures and critical path planning wasn’t “helping out.” This created more internal board tension. We misused the resources available to us, then ironically wondered why we didn’t have “enough.” The project started to become a black hole for time and energy. Overwhelmed board members began co-opting the time of friends and family.  Cue the burnout!

7) Seventh, we got sucked into pettiness. Rather than fostering partnerships and mutual development with other local and artisan food projects, we saw other local markets and producers as competitors for the same small demographic group of people who buy their food from local producers and markets (or even a small subsection of that demographic group). The local and artisan food movements compete mostly against the industrial food system. Through our passive contribution to and participation in petty infighting instead of active leadership, we undermined our ability to compete and intensified the competition over a small sliver of the overall potential market. This is another reason why SFC struggled financially, and the stress and desperation of the volunteers began to show. In the end, the food co-op even placed blame on the community with a backhanded comment about them not “embracing this opportunity.”

8) Eighth, the board participated in chauvinistic magical thinking. We believed for the most part that if we just started offering a few local products from local farmers and mostly bulk options (creating a market penetration redundant to LifeSource and existing farmer’s markets) that people would just “flock” to the co-op and ask to become members. We thought that the co-op would boom without years of careful planning and outreach and niche research and strategy. Without a carefully-crafted vision that was well-communicated to — let alone shared by — the community. We just assumed that the vision was shared, the need for it “obvious,” and ultimately that the community wanted or needed whatever SFC felt they wanted or needed. We did not even listen to ourselves when “the brick and mortar board members” said they really just wanted “a community space” — something very different than a food co-op (although some overlap can exist). We had no concern for developing management and operating policies and practices and procedures, expecting those to “just arise” out of the process. We also thought that a new software system or website would solve many of these problems and more.

9) Ninth, the project evolved from being passively classist and racist into being actively-discriminatory. Several people who became central founding members of the board even openly expressed insecure animosity toward religion and churches at board meetings, as if open animosity toward and exclusion of religious participation was necessary to maintain the co-op project as a secular space. They even did this when new potential board members showed up, as if to “vet” such potential members. The fundamental fear and insecurity behind such practices also led toward a patronizing and negative attitude toward the Salem community they ostensibly sought to serve.  I believe that much of this happened because those of us who disagreed nonetheless chose to remain silent while others publicly spouted strong negative opinions.

10) Tenth, we did not accept accountability or feedback. We failed to recognize all the myriad red flags and question whether we were doing anything wrong, or whether we had gotten our priorities mixed up. Desperate and disorganized operational concerns for current order cycles pervaded and co-opted board planning and retreat spaces, increasing internal tension. When the project inevitably shattered and broke, the remaining members were so burnt out that we could not even consider a reboot or a change in strategy or direction. We lacked flexibility and adaptability in pursing the vision and mission we claimed to represent. Whatever we did was “right” and “correct” and if it didn’t work, then it wasn’t because we did things wrong or poorly, but because “Salem didn’t step up to this opportunity.” We blamed others for our mistakes — even, ironically, the very people we claimed to be “serving,” e.g., for not “buying enough.”

This isn’t to say that the board did everything wrong, or that there weren’t other external mitigating factors. There were. But those factors always exist — the difference between success and failure falls with whether and how people acknowledge and address those factors, or whether they ignore or dismiss them. Although we can never guarantee success, we can guarantee failure by sabotaging ourselves (regardless of the reason or motives for doing so). While the above list is not exhaustive, it does unfortunately comprise a solid recipe for failure.

CONCLUSION
I had a lot of hope for this project, which is why I began participation early in the steering committee and became a founding board member. Participation in this project ultimate became very stressful and time consuming, which I shrugged off as an inherent aspect of project work. But I refused to ignore many red flags, perhaps due to the sunk cost fallacy (I’ve already committed countless hours, I can’t back out now!). The other red flags I only addressed as isolated issues rather than seeing them as part of a larger pattern of attitudes and behaviors sabotaging the integrity of the project. It’s always difficult to evaluate such circumstances when you are immersed in them, especially when you really want things to go well and you’ve already invested hundreds and hundreds of hours.

Ultimately, I learned a lot from my participation. In addition to the lessons above, I conducted a lot of research, and developed considerable expertise on cooperative structures (even compiling a resource used by NWCDC). Still, I wish I had the clarity of mind to step back earlier than I did. My sin was not in failing to see red flags, but failing to connect them together. My own wishful thinking kept me captive to the belief that I could make a difference if I just tried harder, put in a few more hours, etc. Instead, my continued participation only further enabled the pathological process and delayed the inevitable demise of the project.

Cooperatives are interesting structures. They aim for the best, but can ironically bring out the worst. I still believe they have a lot of potential for community building and economic empowerment, but only in recognizing and addressing two large challenges of our society:

  1. The fact that our legal and economic and cultural systems often exhibit open hostility toward — let alone near-complete lack of support for — such projects, and
  2. We all bring baggage into cooperative project spaces — both individual and institutional (e.g., colonizing processes and participation in imperialist structures of the larger society).

If the participants can’t acknowledge and deal with that baggage, then it sabotages the project, which can even provide a platform for and amplify the impact of pathological process and behavior. This baggage looks like both structural and internalized oppression: classism, racism, sexism, dogma (including secular dogma!), etc. In the very least, such baggage, left unaddressed, impedes our ability to overcome or navigate the first challenge (lack of support from a hostile establishment). If this becomes people’s experience with cooperatives, then they might actually start seeing cooperatives as a “bad thing,” which is unfair both to the cooperative movement and to them inasmuch as cooperatives, when well-executed, can be fantastic forces of community building and economic empowerment.

I’m not the only one soured on cooperatives.  Austrian agroforestry expert Sepp Holzer wonders out loud of farmers emprisoned in cooperative contracts that hold the market hostage, force financial losses, and prevent both farm and market innovation and evolution in his book, Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture:

How long will it take for farmers to free themselves of the shackles of cooperatives and make their way to independence?

Cooperatives are not inherently good or revolutionary, but are socioeconomic tools.  Like any tool they can be used to exploit others.  Or, ideally, we can use them to create the beautiful human economy of the sort that luminaries such as EF Schumacher envisioned.

I still think there’s room (even need and demand) for an entire network of cooperatives in the Salem economy that truly help people meet currently-unmet or poorly-met needs: childcare, urban food production, affordable housing, food distribution (esp. to food deserts), time banking. But such projects need to start with a fundamentally-different ethic than the status quo: open-minded, inclusive, exploratory, responsive, accountable. Until then I have promised myself the integrity to abstain from participation in projects that exhibit any (especially several) of the above red flags, because doing so ultimately wastes time and energy, enables more oppressive pathology, and harms the participants and the larger community.


Community Liberation and Defense

November 15, 2016

aka, a strategic context for community rights in anti-militia planning
aka, the militia movement as a public health crisis of male-pattern violence

OUTLINE

  1. Militia overview
  2. Public Health Overview: Trauma and Crisis
  3. The role of the government
  4. Crisis Intervention
  5. Risk Reduction
  6. Primary Prevention

This essay looks at the militia movement as a public health rather than legal crisis, and similarly adopts the public health model of primary, secondary and tertiary prevention (also called prevention, risk reduction and crisis intervention, respectively) to help understand and prioritize intervention strategies for application in the appropriate context.  Community Rights work is an important component of long-term, primary prevention efforts, but must occur alongside secondary and tertiary efforts or else it will tend to falter needlessly.  The purpose of anti-militia planning is to identify both the core problems contributing to militia movements’ targeting of communities, as well as comprehensive short-, medium- and long-range remedies.  Lastly, the planning process will explore and pursue strategies for implementation of such remedies in solidarity with those most negatively impacted by the militia movement and federal interventionism.

Militia overview

Despite the well-meaning intentions of many of the rank and file among them, militia movements consist of armed groups of primarily-white men with roots in white supremacy and ties to corporate interests who use fear, intimidation and force (including the threat of force) to infiltrate and co-opt communities as part of an aggressive doomsday settler-homesteader mentality.  The aggressive approach leverages the “bystander effect” to create a sense of isolation among people who do not necessarily agree with their ideology to maintain silence and passive compliance.  Over time, the community begins to accept and identify with the militia, in a process mirroring Stockholm Syndrome.  Militias combine these negative tactics alongside aid tactics, such as emergency preparedness training, that address real material needs of the community.  In this sense, militias exploit longstanding community vulnerabilities stemming from intersecting class, race and gender oppression in order to impose themselves on said communities.  The combination of aid framed by brutality has a longstanding history of use by right-wing groups throughout world history in order to gain a foothold within a population (including, more recently, by Islamic extremists, but also Christians and other world religions, political movements and, perhaps most notably, nation-states including the US).

Public Health Overview:  Trauma and Crisis

Many communities remain mired in crisis.  In these frequent and common cases, people trying to offer long-term solutions targeting the corporate basis of exploitation meet considerable resistance.  Militia invasion of communities can resemble a large-scale domestic violence situation in its complexity, intractability and trauma.  Effective, longstanding and resilient results and evaluation and triage of liberation strategies requires a coordinated responses among all tertiary (crisis response), secondary (risk management) and primary (proactive) prevention strategies in order to acheive .

To ground the discussion further, prematurely proactive discussions of corporatocracy often create an unappealing abstract sort of disconnect for many communities mired in crisis of a current militia invasion (especially one involving a federal response) or do not yet feel (or acknowledge) the public health threats and trace the ultimate agents pulling strings to extract profit from them at their expense.  Such communities tend to exist and self-locate on a day-to-day, sometimes even hour-to-hour basis of survival, and cannot begin to fathom let alone pursue a fifteen or twenty year campaign to seize democratic control of their health, safety and welfare and that of the natural communities within their jurisdiction.  Nevertheless, it remains a goal for more fundamental work to move communities toward a level of readiness where they can consider, plan and sustain such a campaign, if they so choose.

The work begins with tertiary prevention, consisting of crisis intervention and abatement.  This is tricky work, as it requires supporting a community and its ability to survive through and respond to a crisis without enabling, escalating or prolonging the crisis itself.  Once a crisis can be abated to give a community some space, or in communities not currently experiencing crisis, it makes sense to move toward secondary prevention to build the community’s “immune system,” decreasing its vulnerability to corporatocratic or militia targeting and attack in the first place.  This work involves empowering communities to effectively identify and respond to such threats, and is equally tricky in that much internalized oppression creates a bait-and-switch where community members misidentify and blame symptoms of the problem for the problem itself.  In such cases, classism, racism (including anti-immigration) and sexism (including homophobia) rear their ugly heads.  Militias and corporations jump on these as opportunities to “divide and conquer,” even deliberately confusing the promotion of internal conflict with “community self-defense,” whereas actual effective community self-defense involves developing the capacity for and then building solidarity with and between the marginal populations that such invaders so often exploit for political and economic gain.  When solidarity proliferates, such populations “disappear into” the community and no longer become marginal, which eliminates some of the most significant community vulnerabilities and also helps identify the actual threats among the people and institutions who seek to break solidarity (or who do so as a matter of course as they seek to extract value).  Solidarity also helps identify and address outstanding economic and ecological vulnerabilities by eliminating the complication of socially-constructed internal weaknesses, allowing focus on external and imposed threatening forces, institutions and processes.

Only when crisis abates and solidarity proliferates within a community can a community begin to consider primary prevention, which includes proactive campaigns to claim democratic control over the health, safety and welfare of both human and non-human communities within a given jurisdiction, and place decision-making power in the hands of those ultimately affected the most (esp. in material as well as economic terms) by such decisions.  It involves giving everyone — including non-human entities — a political and legal voice, especially with equal say to “not in my back yard,” (NIMBY).  Once everyone has equal access to NIMBY, then only fair decisions can occur, focusing the remaining concern on effective implementation.  Such proactivity often occurs only when communities bump up against external, imposed political and legal institutions and processes that either directly threaten their health, safety and welfare or limit their ability to defend themselves or pursue their best interests.  Many communities mired in crisis have yet to get to this point where they “meet” and acknowledge and confront the powerful interests at the root of many of the crises they face.  Crisis abatement and risk reduction can help communities shift focus to longer-term risk management and prevention work, but so can crisis escalation.  As a result, some heavily-exploited communities may make some of the longer-term work a higher priority.  It is important to support that work with decolonization and other capacity building work in order to maximize its sustainability and chance for success.

The role of the government

Thus far, communities have depended heavily on the federal government for support in fighting militia infiltration.  This can be problematic on many levels.  First, it makes communities a continuous battleground between militia and federal law enforcement, which plays into the militia strategy to provoke and escalate conflict, intensify anti-federal sentiment and create martyrs of federal violence to recruit more people into the militia movements.  In addition to strategic folly, the siting of this conflict within communities has a disempowering and traumatic effect on the community that long outlasts the end of the conflict itself, as any inhabitant of a warzone can attest.  Third, dependence on federal intervention does nothing to resolve the underlying problems that militias target for exploitation, such as poverty, food insecurity, housing costs, infrastructure, and other material needs; class oppression (esp. few living wage jobs) and longstanding racism and sexism.

Resolving these long-term issues is far outside the scope of the intervening federal agencies, barring some sort of coordinated interagency homeland security plan that includes long-term community economic development and empowerment work, but more likely would manifest as temporary or permanent philanthropic dependency or corporate trojan horse.  At best, government intervention is like playing a game of whack-a-mole.  More often, it’s like spraying poisons over a land to control a pest problem:  as long as the niche the pest exploits remains open, and the pest has no predators or competitors, it will continue to proliferate, requiring more spraying and resulting in toxification of the landscape.  We can say the same for frequent and prolonged federal intervention.  The authoritarian remedy can negatively impact communities far beyond ground zero.

Fourth, authoritarian interventionism supports the continuing militarization of domestic police forces — the increasing technical capacity for excessive use of force against peaceful populations, nonviolent civil disobedience activists, and activists targeting property and infrastructure of the elite and their exploitative institutions.  Likewise, it lays the foundation for justifying the actual use of such excessive force by leveraging the “climate of instability” that militias create or intensify as a need for excessive authoritarian measures, and by equating nonviolent movements who challenge the federal regime with militias, even though the former do not use the latter’s tactics of intimidation and fear to terrorize populations into isolated passivity.  Militias and government repression feed off each-other.

Crisis Intervention

Many of the tactics of brutality fit well within familiar parameters of male-pattern violence:  domination, bullying, stalking, harassment, threats, sexual violence, coercion, appeals to authority.  Militias recruit from the ranks of white working men frustrated with the economic climate and the erosion of gender and racial privilege, who feel their place in the world is threatened, tend to overcompensate and as such are ready, willing and able to lash out in order to reassert white male privilege in the social hierarchy to make up for intensifying class oppression.  They often target and “make examples of” women and gender and other minorities as a “defense” tactic, especially those seen as leaders of an opposition.  This has a circular logic to it, as the opposition includes anyone who resists or stands up to their bullying and coercion, including countering sacred myths of white male supremacy, e.g., that “white men built the modern world.”

Effective counters to militia infiltration must disrupt their use of the bystander effect by connecting and activating bystanders in the short term to create a strong voice of accountability and moral contrast.  A small part of this short-term approach may include defensive countermeasures, which in turn include armed self-defense as a backup to nonviolent self-defense tactics, such as de-escalation or redirection, among others.  Physical self-defense remains an important last resort tactic when attempts to de-escalate aggression fail to stop an attack.

Outside support can be critical to jumpstart this process in a given community subject to militia pressure and control, so long as the “outsiders” don’t mimic militial co-optation of communities as an ideological battleground for their own agendas.  Many left-wing responses to right-wing presence often provide a “kinder, gentler” form of coercion rather than a fundamental contrast.  Survivors of domestic or intimate partner violence have encountered a similar situation when they meet an advocate who thinks they “know better” than (and thus try to make decisions for and impose upon) the survivor.  While the decisions may appear different and “more progressive” in substance, the power dynamic of domination and control remain eerily familiar.  Instead, it is important to embrace an empowerment model for community liberation from militia control, which may also mean supporting communities in making their own decisions that the outsiders don’t necessarily agree with in order to build a more fundamental relationship of trust and solidarity.  In this way, radicalized left-wing outsiders often provide solidarity and support for conservative members of communities under siege by militias, even through they may vote very differently.

Risk Reduction

In the medium term, communities need additional options for enhancing their material welfare and meeting basic needs that have no transactional conditions attached to them (e.g., “we’ll help feed you, but in return you need to attend religious service or read our pamphlet, or otherwise join or aid our cause”), as such conditions replicate the militia behavior in question.  Alternatives for material welfare may range from substantive similarity to radically-different in form from militial aid, especially where militia aid depends upon or is mediated by corporate profit or consumer activity (e.g., expensive and often ineffective consumerist “turnkey” solutions).  Appropriate technologies factor largely into counter-aid strategies, as do mutual-aid networks within and between communities.  Included in this medium-term approach is a strategic need to disrupt the corporate funding and support that militias receive, to disrupt their capacity to leverage aid as a compliance and coercion tactic, e.g., providing effective aid options without the attached burden of coercion.

In the long term, anti-militia efforts must address the intersecting race, class and gender oppressions that create the conditions that make communities vulnerable to militia/corporate infiltration and exploitation in the first place.  Ideally, the short-term strategies of bystander activation, empowerment toward trust and solidarity, and alternative aid provision will build a foundational capacity that better allows communities and their members to address difficult questions about their place and role in the existing economic order of society that leaves them both dependent on and vulnerable to division and exploitation.  Only through an intact social fabric — network of strong, mutually-supportive and empowering relationships — can a community begin to address such fundamental issues and increase its resilience.  This means decolonization work, identifying and eliminating internalized oppressions that leave a community divided, and also enhance social capacity to rebuild the social fabric of horizontal relationships.

Such relationships themselves remain possible only with immense human development work to increase the social capacity of community members.  In the context of patriarchy, men remain particularly vulnerable to stunted development of social “soft skills” whereas patriarchies tend to target women for stunted development of technical “hard skills,” creating an artificial bifurcation of capacities and gendered co-dependence on a centralized authority figure to connect and mediate.  In the history of urbanization, the rural survival need for horizontal interdependence has provided a buffer effect for rural communities (simply put, men learn how to “get along” with others out of necessity, and women learn to use hammers out of necessity, etc), whereas urban populations historically consist of ex-rural populations ironically moving out of survival necessity to the city after elements of urban economic and political institutions (e.g., bankers, corporations, etc) have laid waste to the rural land and community, rendering them increasingly susceptible to social atrophy, gendered bifurcation and dependence on centralized institutions.  As elements of urbanization and centralized institutions infiltrate rural communities and interject themselves amongst horizontal social ties, or as rural communities grow in scale and complexity, they begin exhibiting this gender bifurcation again.  Men remain particularly susceptible to antisocial behavior as a byproduct of how patriarchies define the narrow range of masculinity and “masculine behavior.”

Making balanced human development a goal will ultimately lay the foundation for solidarity between diverse autonomous liberatory struggles against centralized authorities and other arbitrary, persistent and imposed social hierarchies.  Men in particular who refuse to do “soft skills” social capacity work (however it manifests) quickly become liabilities rather than assets to liberatory struggle and form the core population that militias target to join their ranks.  Men may dismiss the importance of such work without seeing how it impacts race and (especially, for white men) class struggles.  Even if they do acknowledge it, most won’t engage in the difficult (and often painful and embarassing) personal work until strong peer networks and social norms are already in place. This requires organizers to identify and activate “organic leaders” within the community to break the status quo and build critical mass toward that end.  As the oldest and perhaps most deeply-internalized and ubiquitous oppression, people often dismiss, minimize, marginalize or abandon gender justice.  Rather than fight this tendency, it may be easier to “connect the dots” inevitably back to gender justice, for example, by using more accessible and acceptable economic and racial justice struggles as an entrypoint.  “So we agree we need to do the class work, but we can’t do that without the race work, and here’s why.  And we can’t do either of those without the gender work, and here’s why…”

Primary Prevention

This last strategy focuses on the external threats to community security, such as economic exploitation, political manipulation, legal impositions, environmental destruction, outsider intervention whose interests do not align in solidarity with the welfare of the community or land (e.g., absentee landlords and speculators).

Corporate profiteers use militias and the individual men therein as pawns in furthering the agenda of the merger of state and corporate interests to further accumulate and secure wealth and power into the hands of a ruling elite.  Militias are in one respect unofficial corporate armies who exploit oppressions and their attached identities to ensure people remain divided, in fear of and in conflict with one-another rather than united in their mutual interests.  Neutralizing militias also strengthens the community against corporate control and exploitation.  The final strategy of a counter-militia campaign will target the corporate roots of the US political and legal system — such as the US Commerce Clause, corporate personhood, Dylan’s rule, and pre-emption — that enable corporate rule through a top-down legal hierarchy and effectively neutralize or eliminate the legal capacities of people to protect themselves and their inherent rights from harms incurred in the unaccountable pursuit of corporate profit.  Such harms leave communities further susceptible to militia infiltration and subsequent corporate exploitation and control, producing a positive feedback loop.  This long-range work must occur alongside the short and moderate-term work, otherwise it will struggle unnecessarily not only against internalized oppressions but also the people’s own priorities and interests.

Additionally, if specific threats can be identified, work may target that threat (e.g., a corporate bottling facility or a pipeline).  The community rights framework provides an organizing context with room for both direct action against specific threats as well as a larger vision of freedom from harm and exploitation, and democratic control over community health, safety and welfare, and even combines these two sometimes-conflicting activities.  It can be a useful tool for organizing communities toward a constructive vision of collective liberation and solidarity that does not include scapegoating and other forms of horizontal violence that so often occur in oppressive “remedies” (e.g., “deport the Mexicans”), in part because the fundamental remedy includes recognizing the inherent worth and autonomy of everyone — including the non-human landscape.  But this can be very difficult for people to grasp unless they are in dire need of a remedy and have tried everything else to no avail (CELDF works with many of these communities), or they have gone through many of the crisis intervention and risk reduction activities mentioned above.

The militia movements are highly coordinated and organized and often well-funded, with some wealthy, powerful and influential sponsors. While effective resistance needn’t mimic or match the organizing tactics and strategies or structures of militia groups and movements, it does need to coordinate across various time and spatial scales.  In other words, resistance to militias needs to provide a means for ongoing coordination between communities and allow for both proactive and reactive measures across short, medium and long time frames.

To learn more about the militia movement in Oregon, visit http://www.rop.org/up-in-arms
To learn more about community rights, visit http://celdf.org

In our society, statistically-speaking, guns don’t kill people.  Men kill people.  #malepatternviolence

I am not in any way affiliated with CELDF or ROP.  I appreciate the work they do.


Civilization or “human nature?”

November 13, 2016

View at Medium.com

This article contains interesting political analysis that I don’t disagree with. The way this article is framed, however, makes it complete bullshit, and it’s a shame that it’s getting shared widely like an expert opinion. Social darwinism and aside, it’s also a great example of the narcissistic chauvinism inherent in the historiography of civil society:

“So zooming out, we humans have a habit of going into phases of mass destruction, generally self imposed to some extent or another. This handy list shows all the wars over time.”

Nope, it only goes back to 1200 BC, well within the scope of colonizing, bloody, brutal exploitative civil society, which is the same failed model of human culture that modern civil societies use. This article says nothing about human nature, but chauvinistically projects one specific, bloody human culture that tends toward exploitation, belligerence and ecological collapse upon all humanity and human cultures. Civil society says very little about humanity as a “species” through time and space (and very little of that is anything good).

Let’s go back 6,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 years (still a blink of the eye), or look at contemporary cultures who do not base themselves on the insane model of annual agriculture and patriarchy, and compare notes. Anthropologists also describe this divide as “desert” and “forest” cultures. Toby Hemenway makes this point in his summary analysis “How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth but not Civilization” (lecture given at Duke University Nicholas School of Environment): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nLKHYHmPbo.  The Alice Walker poem “Democratic Womanism” makes the same point: we have been mired in patriarchy and civilization for thousands of years, and have been working as long to evolve past it, with increasing sophistication and effectiveness (even as civilization spreads its tendrils to threaten every corner of the planet).

In general, Toby Hemenway’s work on the problem of civilization provide a much better “birds’ eye” zoomed out perspective on the problem than the article that prompted this post, which talks about civilization as if it’s the only form of human social structure that has ever existed or will ever exist. In addition to the above lecture, you can listen to Toby’s talk on Liberation Permaculture (http://www.permaculturevoices.com/liberation-permaculture-with-toby-hemenway-pvp100) for a bit more of a constructive, actionable (vs critical and disempowering) analysis.

Maybe a Trump presidency isn’t that bad.  If it took a Trump presidency to slap all these comfortably numb white and/or male and/or middle class folks awake, activate them and leave them without much of an excuse to fall asleep again, then maybe some net good can come out of all of this compared to a Sanders or Clinton presidency.  It won’t be pretty.  Already kids are getting attacked at their school simply for having Spanish-sounding names and darker skin, and male supremacists are calling for death squads and concentration camps.  If you aren’t satisfied with Trump, then the best way to protest his presidency is to get active and involved with the working class, gender and race struggles within your community, in solidarity with those who have struggled long before Trump ever got elected.  And start building a different system.  Starting with you and your relationships.