Freedom and Democracy

It is a sad day for Switzerland, it is a sadder day for humanity. It is a day when a slight majority – 50.3% – of the 56% who voted on this weekend’s plebiscite approved an initiative that was advertized in the media to deceive. It was designed to stoke existential fears, and add fuel to the virus of xenophobia. That this initiative succeeded to get a thin majority at the polls, comes as a surprise to many, and I hope that it comes at a surprise to those 44% who did not bother to vote. While I claimed that I would not be surprised if this happened, now that it happened, I am indignant and surprised.

The EU is build on four fundamental principles set down in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. This treaty is an 80 page document, the four freedoms are the freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and people, Article 3 (c).

If we are to take the case that these freedoms constitute fundamental rights, and this is a case that can be made. Then the violation of these, when contrary to international law, in that intentional deprivation of these rights constitutes persecution, this could approach a crime against humanity. But, this is a difficult case to make, and I do not wish to go so far right now. 

We may recall that states are free to exercise their territorial sovereignty and deciding matters pertaining to foreigners. This freedom is however is limited by the EU bilateral agreements, but also by anti-descrimination and reunification of families right (remember Gül v Switzerland?) Really, why don’t we have an independent constitutional court? 

Now, this is going to be dizzy to implement! 

It really is no consolation that the virus of xenophobia is spreading through Europe. Some states have better immune systems against this virus, but it is one which we are all being exposed to. It is also not just Europe. I thought that we had done the civil liberties movement, dealt with apartheid, and that we were on the way to live in a truly free world. Think again! 

The erosion of our basic freedoms is not something to be taken lightly. A thin majority of Swiss today voted against one of the four freedoms on which our neighbours on all sides are building the future.

The State of Discord

Do you often wonder what you would do if the world was yours to govern?

The world is yours to govern. If you feel powerless, it is because you have done an uncreative uncommons license deal with your neighbours and signed away not only your obligation but your birth right at self-governance. It’s you and they. They! The damned they are running the world! You let them. 

I have read Betty Medsger’s The Burglary in one fell swoop. Here is an NPR report on it. I just couldn’t put it down. I arrived in the US in 1973. I went to college with Vietnam veterans. One cousin left his life in Vietnam. Did I ever debate the Vietnam war? No. To me there was nothing to debate. For me, the war was wrong. I did not feel the need to debate something about which I had no doubt. After all, I was sixteen, and all the wars I had ever heard of made little sense to me. I avoided politics and thinking about politics until I was living in Germany and well into my thirties. 

The Burglary got my attention, not only because it is a story well told, but because it is a very contemporary story. What the FBI was doing then is not very different from what the NSA is doing now. The technologies have changed, the methods are basically the same. The purpose is still power. Come to think of it, I have no clue how things work in DC, but then Hoover had the goods on about anybody, thus keeping it all secret, was easy. One thing has changed, the man in the White House is no longer white, but he is still a man. Not that women are not capable of playing the same dirty games.

Now I am in Swiss politics, and I have no doubt that the local power game is not different from that played in other parts of the world. Really, I have absolute no doubts. However if you are endowed with ambition about reelection and staying in politics, playing by the rules, and playing fair, may not have much appeal. People who play by the rules, like to play fair, and are pacifists are often called activists. There are a few other typologies of so called non-govermental bodies who will not shy aggression or violence, however aggression and violence are criminal activities. We should distinguish between breaking the law, and criminal activities undertaken by any individual, grouping, entity, private institution or governmental agency. There is a big difference. 

One thing that I discovered in reading this book is that I make a strong distinction between what is the rule of law and what is ethical behaviour. There is much ‘legal’ behaviour under the rule of law that is far from being ethical. In fact, there is much that is possible under the rule of law that is unethical. 

In your eyes Google has gone from doing no evil to being evil, and I wonder who allowed that to happen. Has Google changed? How? Who took those decisions? One day, some bright creature will report on the saga of Google (or any other tech multinational) and how they have interacted with government. I may or may not by then either read the book or be alive. Still, we should not forget that the world is ours to govern.

Self-governance is a concept that we need to think about within our very pluralistic understanding of democratic utopia. While I can see where Russell Brand is coming from, his presupposed admission that he has never voted, points to disenfranchisement. It is not just in the so-called developing countries that people feel disenfranchised, the successful public figures in some of the more affluent parts of the planet, are literally in the same boat. There are two sides to this: the ugly and the beautiful. It is plain ugly to think that so many of us have resigned our fate to those who have no interest in our well-being, and it is so plain beautiful that somehow both the very poor and the very rich do share in lacking a sense disenfranchisement. 

In this light, it is indeed an elixir to read The Burglary and be reminded that there are people capable of taking matters into their own hands and remain true to higher ethical values. 

Quantum Solace or Classical Misery?

I wrote a few paragraphs for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Ich. Heute. 10 vor 8. blog. Given a wide choice of technology relevant topics close to my heart… the choice was difficult. I had to start somewhere. The German version is Ach, analog, digital – Quanten! Blitzkurs für alle Feinde des Digitalen und Technologieverächter.

Battlefields for Words: Is the digital displacing the analogue?

I start the year fighting. I not only contend, but assert that we are fighting all the wrong battles and ignoring the only war worth fighting. I am frankly tired of the persistent residuals of absurd reductionism and ubiquitous oversimplification. We are fighting a technology war, when we should be fighting for dignity. Digital versus analogue is just one of the many battlefields. This war is senseless, the battles are meaningless. Technology is not the enemy. What is technology? What is the enemy? 

My take is that the pervasiveness of technology and the irrelevance of the distinction between digital and analogue have eluded the awareness of many. Be it books, cooking stoves, automobiles, or pharmaceuticals, we live in a world where production cannot divorce itself from its technologies. Still, many think that technology is evil, and others blame all our economic and social woes on digital technology. But let’s think again. 

Technology is the application of knowledge for practical purposes. Technology is alternatively taken for granted, left unexamined, instrumentalised, or simply despised. We assimilate technology very fast. We have forgotten how pervasive technology is. There is only one consequent way to renounce technology, and that is to not ever be born. We have no control on that one. We are doomed or blessed to live with technology. This is our nature. 

We have not thought enough about evolution and the role that technology plays in it. In our compulsive search for sense, we unwittingly have created the very tools for our evolution. But what are these tools? When humanoids predating homo sapiens discovered how to modify the surface of a cave’s rock so as to express, supposedly what was experienced, a technology was invented. Knowledge was applied for a practical purpose.  Today people write blogs to express their passions for cars, cooking, philosophy, slapstick, frugality, fashion and a myriad sundry of assorted topics that make me dizzy, have no interest in, or cannot comprehend. We are still in the business of expressing and sharing. The tools have changed. 

It is starting to dawn on you that perhaps we take in technology like the air we breathe. But like the air we breathe, has technology become polluted with the digital? A reflection on the very distinction between analogue and digital devices, between analogue computing and digital computing, tells you that all is as pristine as ever. Our beloved technology has not become adulterated with the digital. Analogue is about the use of continuous variables. For instance, an Ampère meter to measure current, or thermometer to measure temperature, would have been representative of such devices before the widespread use of digital circuits and computers. Today these analogue devices can be visited in science and technology museums. Other than the old fashioned mercury or alcohol thermometer that you may have laying around the house, these too have gone digital. But the world of analogue variables such as temperature, current, voltage, velocity and pressure to which we relate to on a daily basis, is set by classical mechanics. Classical mechanics is a theory that functions as a model to think about the physical world. While as a model it is correct, it is far from being able to describe the physical world completely. It gives us a tool to work through a set of limited problems. We would not have been able to put a man on the moon, or built a smartphone if we had only classical mechanics to rely on; the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics were also needed. Stated more bluntly, analogue technology represents the best knowledge of the nineteenth century. 

To add insult to injury in keeping things analogue and digital straight, computers come also in three different flavours: classical analogue; classical digital , and quantum. Alan Turing used a classical analogue computer to break the German Enigma code. You and I use classical digital computers in our everyday lives to make a simple phone call. Quantum computers have seen the market in 2011 (D-Wave), and work towards their realization has resulted in the 2012 Nobel Prizes presented to David J Wineland and Serge Haroche. Last year Google launched the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with NASA. However given that  present quantum computers require operating temperatures lower than freezing hell, the pocket version is still not available.

Thus, the pocket variety of computer that we can buy today is the classical digital computer. It deals with discrete quantities – bits are discrete – and these computers deal with continuous quantities by discretizing them (i.e. digital thermometers). It is difficult to think of any computers that do not run on electricity (the abacus is a good example of a mechanical computational device, but isn’t a computer). Now, is electricity analogue or digital? Well, it is both. First electric current is produced by electrons flowing through a conducting medium (usually copper). Electricity is produced by transforming some other form of energy. Remember? We burn fossil fuels or have wind turbines spinning to produce electricity. Surely, somewhere between elementary school and the shopping mall you have learned that electrons themselves are discrete little buggers that can only be fathomed within the world described in the language of quantum mechanics. In this bugger quantum world, electrons are both particle and wave, both discrete and continuous. And there we have it , quantum computing can be both analogue and digital. The take home lesson is that digital and analogue can not be separated. These are not two different worlds, it is one physical reality that can be shaped using different methods, and expressed in the language of different theoretical premises. Our machines employ a plethora of methods and processes, deeply integrated, analogue and digital. It is not simple. 

We are living in a fantasy world of ill suited theories and seek the quick fixes for our ailments armed with nothing but our gullibility that there is one simple single fix for all that ails us. Ailing business will not assure their survival by killing competing emergent technologies or business models (the devils of the digital), but by assimilating and looking at where the real enemy is. What is that real enemy?

Our enemy is ourselves. We are neglecting our dignity. We are not thinking.