Tag: sweden

Brexit and globalisation

March 30th, 2017 — 2:37pm

Two momentous events that took place last year were the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, and the UK’s referendum on EU membership that led to the “Brexit” decision to leave the union. The two are often lumped together and seen as symptoms of a single larger force, which they probably are. But in one respect they are different. The Trump presidency has an expiry date, but it is hard to see how Brexit might be reversed in the foreseeable (or even distant) future.

As a student and then an engineer in London during 2003-2007, one of the first vivid, intense impressions I got was that the UK was a much better integrated society than Sweden. Manifestly, people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds were – it seemed to the 19-year old me – living and working together smoothly on many social levels. During my life in Sweden until then, I had not ever seen immigration working out in this way. It was mostly seen and talked about as a problem that had to be addressed (and on a much smaller scale than what we have now).

This may of course reflect the fact that London has long been, until now, one of the most global cities in the world (Tokyo has nothing on it in this respect, although it has a massive energy and dynamic of a different kind), and the place I came from was rather rural. Countryside Britain was never as well integrated as London. World cities tend to be sharply different from the surroundings that support them. But on balance, the UK came across to me as a successfully global society.

In the years since, Sweden has, it seems to me, successfully integrated a lot of people and there are plenty of success stories. It has become a far more global society than it was in, say, 2003. At the same time, xenophobia has been on the rise, just as it has in the rest of Europe and the US, and now Swedish politics must, lamentably, reckon with a very powerful xenophobic party. Reactive (in the Nietzschean sense) forces are having a heyday. Ressentiment festers.

The global society is probably here to stay. The ways of life and work, the economic entities that now bestride the earth, are all firmly globalised. This is an ongoing process that may not end for some time. (However, this probably will never erase the importance of specific places and communities. To be rooted in something is in fact becoming ever more important.) But globalisation, to use that word, has plainly not brought prosperity to everyone. In fact, many have been torn out of prosperity by economic competition and technological advances. Witness American coal miners voting Trump. In my view, though not everyone will agree, a well-protected middle class is necessary to achieve a stable democratic society. Witness what happens when that protection is too far eroded. Neglecting this – which has been a failure of politics on a broad scale – is playing with fire. General frustration becomes directed at minorities.

Being somewhat confused ourselves, and living with weak or failing, if not xenophobic or corrupt, politicians and governments, we – western/globalised society – may need something that is utterly lacking: new ideology, new thinking, new dreams. Not a wishful return to the 90’s, 70’s or some other imagined lost paradise, but something that we can strive for positively, and in the process perhaps reconfigure our societies, politics and economies. For this to happen, people may need to think more, debate more, read more books, and be more sincere. Sarcasm and general resignation lead nowhere. One needs to look sincerely at one’s own history, inward into the soul, as well as outward.

A successful form of such new politics probably will not involve a departing from the global society. But it may involve a reconfiguration of one’s relationship with it. So as Theresa May’s government proceeds to negotiate the withdrawal of the UK from the EU – which must be a bitter, gruelling task for many of those involved – I hope that what she is initiating is such a reconfiguration. I hope that Britain can draw on its past success as a highly global society and constructively be part of the future of the West.

4 comments » | Life, Philosophy

The coming politicization of mathematics and computer science

October 9th, 2010 — 7:10pm

Increasingly, ordinary people encrypt their internet communications. Some want to share files. Some are worried about the increasing surveillance and threats of surveillance of Internet data that is taking place in many corners of the world. ACTA, Hadopi, data retention would be a few examples. People may simply wish to keep their data private, even in cases when the data is not objectionable. Others, hopefully not so ordinary people, have an acute need to hide from authorities of some form or another, maybe because they actually have a criminal intent, or maybe because they are regime critics in repressive countries. Maybe they are submitting data to sites like Wikileaks.

Various technologies have come out of academic experiments, volunteer work and government sponsored research to assist with encrypted communication. PGP/GnuPG and SSH are classic mainstays. Onion routing, as implemented in the TOR system, is an effective way of concealing the true origin and destination of data being sent around. Darknet systems like the I2P project aim to build a complete infrastructure for an entirely new kind of Internet, piggybacking on the old one but with anonymity and encryption as first class fundamental features.

I think we are only at the start of a coming era of political conflicts centered around communications technology, and that more and more issues will have to be ironed out in the coming years and decades. The stakes are high. On one hand control and political stability, on the other hand individual rights and democratic progress. This is not new. One thing that I think is potentially new and interesting though, is how mathematics and computer science ought to become increasingly sensitive and political in the coming years.

Today disciplines like genetics and stem cell research are considered controversial research areas by some people since they touch on the very foundations of what we think of as life. Weapons research of all kinds is considered controversial for obvious reasons, and the development of a weapon on the scale of nuclear bombs would completely shift the global power structure.  One fundamental building block of communications control is the ability to encrypt and to decrypt. These abilities are ultimately limited by the frontiers of mathematical research. Innovations such as the Skein hash function directly affect the cryptographic power balance.

Most of the popular varieties of encryption in use today can be overcome, given that the adversary has sufficient computing power and time. In addition, human beings often compromise their keys, trust the wrong certificates, or act in ways that diminish the security that has been gained. Encryption is not absolute unless the fact that something has been encrypted has been perfectly hidden. Rather, it is a matter of economics, of making it very cheap to encrypt data,and very expensive for unintended receivers to decrypt it.

It is not possible to freeze encryption at a certain arbitrary level, or to restrict the use of it. Computers are inherently general purpose, and software designed for one purpose can almost always be used for another. If the situation is driven to its extreme, we might identify two possible outcomes: either general purpose computers are forbidden or restricted, or uncontrolled, strongly encrypted communication becomes the norm. Christopher Kullenberg has touched on this topic in Swedish.

Those who would rather not see a society where widespread encryption is commonplace would perhaps still want to have what they see as desirable effects of computerisation. In their ideal world they would pick and choose what people can do with computers, in effect giving a list of permitted and prohibited uses. But this is not how general purpose computers work. They are programmable, and people can construct software that does what they want. If the introduction of non-authorised software somehow is prohibited, and all applications must be checked by some authority, applications can still usually be used for purposes they were not designed for. This generality of purpose simply cannot be removed from computers without making them useless – at least that is how it seems today. It seems that it would take a new fundamental model of computation that selectively prohibits certain uses is needed in order to make this happen. (In order to make sure that this kind of discovery is not put to use by the “other camp”, those of us who believe in an open society should try to find it, or somehow establish the fact that it cannot be constructed.)

Mathematics now stands ever more closely connected with political power. Mathematical advances can almost immediately increase or decrease the resistance to information flow (given that somebody incorporates the advances into usable software). The full consequences of this are something we have yet to see.

6 comments » | Computer science

Rasmus Fleischer’s postdigital manifesto

August 9th, 2010 — 4:30pm

In his highly timely and readable 2009 book “The Postdigital Manifesto”, Swedish writer and historian Rasmus Fleischer discusses the effects of the digital on our relation to music and sets out his vision for how we can make music listening more meaningful. Fleischer is a prolific blogger (almost exclusively in Swedish) at Copyriot, and is probably best known for co-founding the Swedish think tank Piratbyran. As a side project, I am currently in the process of translating this book into English. It will be released in some form when it is done. The original work was released without copyright, so it is quite likely that some kind of PDF will simply be made available for download.

One of the central ideas of the manifesto is that our relation to music is dependent on physical presence and responsibility. Physical presence as opposed to the illusion that distances and places are made irrelevant by the internet and digital communications. Responsibility as opposed to the idea of mindlessly shuffling through a very large or infinite archive of recorded music. One of the ways in which music conveys something is when I choose music to play to somebody else, and I take responsibility for the effects of the music on that person or on a group of people.

Fleischer constructs the idea of a “postdigital situation” and holds it up as a model for how music is to be valued, critiqued, understood, and, essentially, how it is to take place, or come to matter. The postdigital situation is constrained by a physical space where music is being performed and listened to, where responsibility relations exist and evolve, and where bodies are set in motion. The digital world, the internet without boundaries, can be a means of gathering people in such a space and informing it, but it does not replace it. The “postdigital” goes beyond the naive idea of the digital, which ignores places and crowds.

Olle Olsson at SICS has also discussed this book in English. More to come!

3 comments » | Life, Philosophy

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