El delirio de Turing I

paz-soldan_delirio-de-turingA tale of cyberspace, crypto-security and hacktivism set in Bolivia? At first glance, the idea is counter-intuitive. The country is by some measures the poorest in South America (with a per-capita GDP of only just over $8,000) and is more often associated with ancient indigenous cultures than with contemporary hyper-modernity. Yet Information Technology and the Internet, and everything that comes with them, are part and parcel of globalization, which by definition breaks down oppositions between First and Third Worlds, Centre and Periphery. Your cellphone battery may well contain lithium from the salt flats of Uyuni. Global forces shape La Paz or Santa Cruz as much as they do New York or Montreal.

Of course, in some ways there is nothing new about this. Even the most remote Andean villages have long been part of global circuits. If now it is lithium that makes the world go round, once it was silver from the mines of Potosí. So there are continuities as well as changes in this latest phase of globalization, and Edmundo Paz Soldán’s novel El delirio de Turing is as interested in the ways in which new technologies ultimately confirm old patterns as he is in the new dimensions of politics and protest that open up when power and resistance are as palpable online as on the streets.

The “Turing” of the book’s title is on the one hand a reference to Alan Turing, the celebrated British mathematician and early pioneer (and theorist) of computing who was also associated with the World War Two efforts at Bletchley Park to crack the code of the Nazi Enigma Machine. On the other hand, however, it is the codename given to one Miguel Sáenz, who is in charge of the Archive at the Bolivian state’s shadowy department dedicated to electronic surveillance and counter-terrorism nicknamed the “Black Chamber.” And just as Sáenz (bespectacled civil servant) becomes Turing (“implacable tracker of coded messages” [13]), as he crosses the portal to his top-secret job deep in the security state, so Paz Soldán is interested in the ways in which we can become other on the Internet: shaking off our humdrum everyday identities to become anonymous or to take on new roles and act out forbidden fantasies.

Most everyone in the Bolivia that the novel depicts (which is only slightly displaced from the Bolivia we know) has an account with a virtual environment known as “el Playground,” which is some kind of “Second Life.” Here, you can take on an avatar and meet, socialize, flirt and fight with others who are also acting out their dreams from their keyboards or touchscreens. The only thing you can not do, at the risk of summoning up the Playground’s own (virtual) security forces, is acknowledge the “merely” digital nature of the environment, or make reference to the so-called “real” world. The condition of entry, in other words, is that you must act online as though the fiction were both real and fully sufficient.

Yet Paz Soldán is equally interested in the extent to which we can never fully shake off our terrestrial histories and identities. That, after all, is in large part the mission of a crypto-analyst such as Sáenz/Turing: to locate and decipher the digital fingerprints on any disruption in the online system and track them back to real-world individuals who could then (if the state deems it necessary) be arrested and disciplined. But Sáenz/Turing is just as vulnerable as anybody else: he cannot fully leave his domestic preoccupations (a wife and daughter from whom he is increasingly distant) at the door to the Black Chamber. What is more, the plot gets going as somebody seems to have accessed his otherwise secure email to send him an all-too-easily decipherable coded message: “Murderer, You Have Blood On Your Hands.”

And by halfway through the novel, we are beginning to have an inkling of what this missive may mean, as we hear the testimony of Sáenz’s wife to an investigative Judge who seems to have the current regime in his sights: for all that Sáenz/Turing sees his work as an intellectual exercise, an interesting game, he may well be complicit in disappearances and tortures, the very visceral and corporeal consequences of his playing with bits and bytes. However much the online world offers liberation and reinvention, and however much contemporary globalization introduces new opportunities and political paradigms, behind everything lurks state violence and a tendency towards totalitarianism.

Meltdown at Wikipedia?

Knifed-Wikipedia-Logo

Things do not look good at the online encyclopedia. I addressed some of the relevant issues, at a very broad level, in a paper I gave at Wikimania in July. But things have gone very badly wrong very fast in the past ten days or so.

Rather than go into details myself, I’ll just link to a blog post by long-term Wikimedian Liam Wyatt: “Strategy and Controversy”. As he puts it, “there is a battle going on at the top for its soul.”

For more, see for instance Pete Forsyth’s blog and his posts “Wikimedia Foundation Ousts Community-Elected Trustee” and “Grants and Transparency: Wikimedia Foundation Should Follow Standards it Sets”. Or look at two stories from the Wikipedia Signpost (the site’s own internal newspaper): “WMF Board Dismisses Community-Elected Trustee” and (especially) “The WMF’s Age of Discontent”.

Then if you really want to go down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia politics, check out the wikimedia-l mailing list for December (start here or here and follow the threads) and for January (start here, here, and perhaps above all here). Then look at Jimmy Wales’s talk page on Wikipedia (this is how it looks right now), this article on one of the new WMF Board members, or this talk page on Wikimedia’s “meta” wiki, about the “WMF Transparency Gap.”

I said back in July that the WMF (an educational charity, after all) “now finds itself in an climate dominated by for-profit corporations that claim to be able to offer the same or similar services as it provides, but more efficiently and effectively. It doesn’t know whether to remodel itself along the lines of these commercial competitors or keep closer to its historic roots.” The conflict between these two tendencies is today well and truly out in the open. The only question is whether the battle has already been lost.

Update: The best and most accessible summary of things to date comes from William Beutler’s post, “The Crisis at New Montgomery Street”.

Higher Education, Technology, and the Corporate University

Saskatchewan

A few pointers to some more or less recent articles on contemporary higher education:

  • The bottom line of the neoliberal assault on the universities is the increasing power of management and the undermining of faculty self-governance. The real story behind MOOCs may be the ways in which they assist management restructuring efforts of core university practices, under the smiley-faced banner of “open access” and assisted in some cases by their “superstar”, camera-ready professors. Meanwhile, all those adjunct faculty are far more subject to managerial control and regulation than are tenured professors. Aside from their low cost, that is one of the principal reasons why they are so attractive to university managers. (Tarak Barkawi, “The Neoliberal Assault on Academia”. Al Jazeera America. April 25, 2013.)
  • Prioritizing is what you get when you hire administrators who can’t distinguish a university from a Walmart. Each department is to be evaluated as a profit centre. The knowledge factory that the university is currently running under the rubric of basic research will remain untouched (and probably augmented), for there is no aspect of its present operations that can be so easily and so profitably commercialized. Generally, however, the priority that each department receives will depend upon the revenues it can generate from research grants and from selling classes to its customers. The insistence on evidence-based evaluation is critical, lest some of the woolly-headed intellectuals retained to do the teaching should have derived some values through reading something other than the Globe and Mail Report on Business. (Jay Cowsill, “There’s a New Sheriff in Town: Cracking the Whip at the University of Saskatchewan”. October 10, 2013.)
  • The problem is not that the Open Movement is wrong. The problem is that the need for reform goes far deeper than simply making papers and data available under CC-By or CC-Zero. Exploitative publishing regimes are symptomatic of larger problems in the distribution of wealth and power. The concentration of wealth that warps so much of our political and economic life will inevitably warp the Open Movement toward unintended and unwanted outcomes. (Eric Kanza, “It’s the Neoliberalism, Stupid: Why Instrumentalist Arguments for Open Access, Open Data, and Open Science are not Enough”. The Impact Blog. LSE. January 27, 2014.)
  • I can’t express adequately just how pissed off I am about MOOCs – not the concept, but all the hubris and nonsense that’s been talked and written about them. At a personal level, it was as if 45 years of work was for nothing. All the research and study I and many others had done on what makes for successful learning online were totally ignored, with truly disastrous consequences in terms of effective learning for the vast majority of participants who took MOOCs from the Ivy League universities. Having ignored online learning for nearly 20 years, Stanford, MIT and Harvard had to re-invent online learning in their own image to maintain their perceived superiority in all things higher educational. And the media fell for it, hook, line and sinker. (Tony Bates, “Time to Retire from Online Learning?” April 15, 2014.)
  • The threat that plans like TransformUS holds are both serious and ubiquitous. As it goes, the TransformUS brand is so deeply ironic that it offers an indication of what lies ahead. TransformUS is, at once, an incantation for complacency, as though self-transformation is impossible or inefficient (i.e. Please, Transform US!), and an unacknowledged reference to the transformations that helped to engineer America’s system of higher education. Indeed, TransformUS intones the rise of the market as a transformative agent, and the University as a key site in the manufacture of consent and consumption. (Eric Newstadt, “Why Buckingham’s Tenure is Small Stakes in a Big Game”. Impact Ethics. May 16, 2014.)
  • Arts Squared: A Virtual Square for the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta.
  • A technology that allows for limitless reproduction of knowledge resources, instantaneous global sharing and cooperation, and all the powerful benefits of digital manipulation, recombination, and computation must be a “bag of gold”36 for scholarship and for learning. It is well within the power of educators to play a decisive role in the battle for the future of the web. Doing so will require the courage to buck prevailing trends. It will require an at-times inconvenient commitment to the fundamental principles of openness, ownership, and participation. It will require hard work, creativity, and a spirit of fun. It will require reclaiming innovation. Our choice. (Jim Groom and Brian Lamb, “Reclaiming Innovation”. Educause Review 49.3. May/June 2014.)
  • “I wouldn’t buy a used car from a university president,” said Vedder. “They’ll say, ‘We’re making moves to cut costs,’ and mention something about energy-efficient lightbulbs, and ignore the new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost they just hired.” (Jon Marcus, “New Analysis Shows Problematic Boom In Higher Ed Administrators”. The Huffington Post. June 2, 2014.)
  • “brain-scrambling technical synaesthesia”

    William Burroughs

    The Wednesday quotation, part XX: Gary Indiana’s fantastic take on the relevance of William Burroughs, and the irrelevance of most contemporary US fiction, in the London Review of Books:

    The radically anti-authoritarian, left-libertarian notions he espoused probably look like irresponsible nihilism (or “antinomian morality,” in Schjeldahl’s solecism) to many of those ensconced at their computer screens during most of their waking life, or bedazzled by mobiles and ubiquitous electronic signage in a society overloaded with information yet drained of authentic experience. It now seems almost logical that the insight Burroughs offers into the brain-scrambling technical synaesthesia spreading everywhere would be precisely what brands him a crackpot, rather than the silly religions and fatuous disciplines he so often became fascinated by. Still, I feel it’s necessary to say how stupid this inverted logic is.

    [. . .]

    Yet it’s a fact that Burroughs, one of the very few American novelists of the last fifty years who actually mattes, has had a negligible influence on “mainstream” American literature, while his effect on popular culture has been incalculable. It may be comforting to some arbiters of aesthetic fashion to write Burroughs off as a perennial enthusiasms of “the young,” but they might consider that several generations of these young have since occupied key positions in film, TV, the recording business and advertising, to cite only four sectors of the consciousness industry that seem far more familiar with our internal wiring than the current literary world, which becomes ever more parochial and conservative as its importance in the culture shrinks.

    (“Predatory Sex Aliens” London Review of Books 36.9 [8 May 2014]: 26)

    Foe

    J M Coetzee, FoeAs part of the Arts One Digital initiative (which I’ve mentioned before, we’re recording various lectures delivered as part of UBC’s “Arts One” program. You can see for instance my lecture on J M Coetzee’s Foe here, in various formats. The project is going from strength to strength, and I’m confident we’ll be able to ramp it up still further next year. We continue trying new things, and this afternoon my colleague Kevin McNeilly and I hope to record a podcast discussion on Foe and Eliot’s The Waste Land.

    In the meantime, you may want to check out something I wrote a couple of years ago, on Foe as an “unwriting” of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

    memetic

    The Wednesday quotation, part XVIII: More on TED, from a quite damning review of Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna, Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization:

    I take no pleasure in declaring what has been obvious for some time: that TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.

    Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

    [. . .]

    Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED’s techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer. This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED’s preferred redeemers. In TED world, tech entrepreneurs are in the business of solving the world’s most pressing problems. This is what makes TED stand out from other globalist shindigs, and makes its intellectual performances increasingly irrelevant to genuine thought and serious action. (Evgeny Morozov, “The Naked and the TED “. The New Republic [August 2, 2012].)

    blasé

    Occasionally, I admit, I get a little blasé about the open web and open education.

    For instance, when I started using blogs in the classroom, it seemed like a big deal. Both the technicalities and the idea itself were fraught with worry. Now (thanks in large part to the work of Brian Lamb and his team), blog aggregation seems a cinch.

    Students are increasingly comfortable with the technology. And they are pretty happy about opening and maintaining an online reading journal, and commenting on the entries made by their classmates. These days it all works fairly seamlessly, and seems hardly to be a matter for further comment. In just about every class I teach, blogs are required, and that’s that.

    The same is gradually becoming true with asking students to contribute to Wikipedia. Thanks in part to the fact that I have returning students who have already worked with Wikipedia in my classes, as well as thanks to the fact that I’ve done it before and I have a fair idea of how things will turn out, getting students to contribute to the encyclopedia isn’t quite as fraught with anxiety and excitement as it was the first semester I tried it. Then, we were really flying by the seat of our pants. Now, it’s more or less (not yet completely) simply another component of the course. Look, for instance, are the posts for a recent class on magical realism.

    But occasionally I’m reminded that it is indeed a big deal.

    The other day, in Barcelona, while preparing for my informal presentation on “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem” for the Drumbeat festival, I thought I’d have a look at the page hits for the article on Mario Vargas Llosa, an article that my students completely rewrote and brought to featured article status.

    It was one of the successes of that project (though again, after we got a first featured article, the other ones didn’t seem quite so special any more). And I figured that it had probably got quite a few page views in the past month or so, given that Vargas Llosa had recently been awarded the Nobel prize.

    I remember clearly the day I first found out that you could see page view statistics for Wikipedia articles. I came into class and asked the students if they had any idea how many people were reading their work. Instead of the usual assignment of an exam or term paper read by exactly one person, their professor, they were now writing for a real public.

    They were shocked to find out (for example), that the Gabriel García Márquez article that they were rewriting was read by something like 1,500 people a day: 62,000 a month, or close to three-quarters of a million people a year. That really gave them a sense that what they were doing mattered in some way.

    Back in 2008, the Vargas Llosa article was getting close to 500 hits a day: over 11,000 a month or around 140,000 a year. Not shabby, and several orders of magnitude more of a readership than any academic article will ever get; better indeed than most best-selling novelists.

    In September of this year, the statistics were broadly similar: page views per day ranged from 288 to 674, mostly a little under 500. In October, things changed.

    On October 7th, the day the Nobel prize was announced, 116,700 people viewed the page. 116,700 people read my students’ work. this was the first point of reference for the public looking to find out more about the new laureate. And presumably the knock-on audience was much greater still, as the article will no doubt have been also the first point of call for journalists, news organizations, and others looking quickly to find out and broadcast information about the winner.

    It’s marvelous that the article was (and remains) a featured article, which had gone through the most rigorous hoops Wikipedia provides to ascertain that it is well-sourced, reliable, well-written, and comprehensive. This is what my students wrote, after 1,225 revisions over the semester.

    And 116,700 read it.

    The next day, the number of readers went down: to a mere 60,000. And now the readership has settled at a mere 2,500 or so a day: a little shy of a million a year. Reading my students’ work.

    I should be less blasé about this.