Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Fiction, Investment Banking, And The Creation Of Reality

Last month I read this amazing novel called The Mark and the Void, nominally about a French guy who works in an investment bank in Dublin in the wake of the great financial crash of 2008, but really about global capitalism, the Greek economic crisis, the culture of banking, the fictional philosopher François Texier, simulacra, the creation of reality, climate change, art, literature, and love.

There are many varied plots, subplots, and metaplots, but the basic theme is how fucked up modern banking is and how that fucked-upedness affects and even creates our world. In the classic way that the fiction of literature can represent reality more effectively than the truth of something else, the book shows how the finance industry makes the world we are living in. The book is hilarious and you should read the whole thing -- but here are a few examples to whet your appetite.

Claude, the hero, is an analyst for the Bank of Torabundo -- "Torabundo" being a fictional island with longstanding indigenous culture that is now a tax haven. The Bank of Torabundo (BOT) survived the crash of 2008 because it had a cautious and careful CEO. So of course their next step is to fire that guy. How can you have a cautious and careful CEO in the context of modern banking?

To usher in their new era of growth, they install instead Porter Blankly, an aggressive lunatic who sends mass emails like "think counterintuitive" and has already destroyed several other huge banks. When someone naively asks, "Aren't they worried about history repeating itself?" Jurgen confidently replies: "History has already repeated itself with the last crisis. We do not think there will be any more repeating."

But just to make sure that "there is no more repeating," the bank finds they must avoid caution and care at all costs. Blankly's strategy is to acquire other banks, regardless of their status, thus pushing BOT further and further into debt -- so that eventually it can become too big to fall. As the banker Jurgen says: "A sufficiently large bank would create its own reality as opposed to simply reacting to consensus." Sound familiar

There is one softy in the bank, a woman named Ish. Ish studied anthropology in school before becoming a banker, and she knows about Torabundo and the people who live there. She also knows that climate change is likely to destroy the island soon through rising water levels and that the people who live there are going to be wiped out.

She's such a softy that she decides to email Porter Blankly about it directly, hoping to persuade him to take steps or offer aid. This, of course, shows radical misunderstanding of the bank, of her place in it, and really of everything. Or, as her colleague puts it, "We're in the middle of not one but two giant takeovers, and she's writing the CEO letters, like my fucking eight-year-old asking Santa Claus to save the rainforest?"

Ish is clearly going to get fired for sending this absurd email -- until her friend Howie steps in. Howie, who is in charge of the creation of new economic instruments, immediately realizes that they can monetize the whole thing. In fact, they can hedge it so that the island's destruction gives then a direct profit. All they need to do is "monetize failure."

As Howie says, this is basically the concept behind credit-default swaps. At first, they were used to insure loans against defaultin. But then people started using them to bet on other people's loans defaulting. All BOT has to do is create, and then deliberatively target, losing propositions.

With Torabundo, it's easy. You set up a bunch of conventional investment to make people thing it is worth something -- hotels, a golf course (Ish: "A golf course?"). Then you put in your money in ways that create a bet on the failure of the investment. As Howie says, it's the ultimate hedge. If climate change wipes out the island completely -- you win big! And if it doesn't -- well, you still have the hotels and the golf course and all that crap.

As the plot moves along, our hero, who is sort of a cipher, becomes caught up in various things and in particular finds himself becoming more and more enamoured with an artist, Ariadne. Ariadne runs a restaurant, has family in Greece, and often brings leftovers to the diehard protestors who gather near the bank to try to convince the government to take action against the the forces of capitalism that are ruining their society.

Claude is slow to put it all together, but over time he comes to see the connections -- how the bank, through their chains of investment and the incentives those chains create, are causing the world to be a worse place. If you're too big to fail and you've monetize failure -- well, you see the problem. Eventually he comes to believe the bank is responsible for the suffering of Ariadne, and her family, her friends, and many other people, including the poor inhabitants of Torabundo.

At one point, Ariadne tells him with despair that her restaurant is going to have to close. The landlord has raised the rent, astronomically. She can't understand it: "I don' know who does the landlord expect to move in and pay his crazy rent. Or does he jus' want to force us out"?

Claude: "I start to explain the logic of upward-only rent review -- that the value of a building as an asset is based on the rent that could be charged for it, meaning it often makes more sense to keep that rent high and the building unoccupied than to lower the rent and have to mark down its overall ... " Ariadne just stares at him in bewilderment and horror.

When I read that I thought of all the empty storefronts in the poorer cities I've lived in, and how they'd often had thriving business in them, which had suddenly closed, and how often I had wondered to myself, "What the hell happened there"?

And now, maybe I know.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Pernicious Illusion Of User-Generated Neutrality

I feel like this there's this dream in late-capitalist societies that somehow you can write a neutral set of rules for human interaction -- that is, a way of setting up a set of rules or procedures that doesn't rely on contentious and messy stuff like what matters and why, or what is or isn't harmful, or what people do or don't have the right to do.

Of course that isn't true. There's no such thing as a neutral set of rules for human interaction. If you're going to talk about how people should treat one another, you're going to have to base that on all kinds of value-laden beliefs.

But there's this tenacious implicit idea or hope that somehow, if you just wrote the right rules, and got an effective enforcement mechanism, you'd be good to go. On the internet, this often takes the form of letting users determine everything. The dream is we can introduce a ratings system, step back, and let it all sort it self out.

I feel like it's getting more and more difficult to ignore the fact that this dream is an illusion. You can't make things work without some dialogue and agreement about what's important and what's sort of OK and what isn't OK.

It's long been known that the sharing economy has a race problem. But I was reminded of this issue when I read this recent article on "Broadly," about discrimination and the gig economy. It starts with the story of a trans woman, who wants to rent a room on AirBnB. When she informs her potential host she is trans, she is refused because the host doesn't want her son to feel uncomfortable.

The article also has this other story, where a young woman hires a cleaner through a gig economy site. When he shows up, he becomes aggressive and angry and tells her off for how messy her place is. She can't get him to leave, and eventually gives him an extra 40 dollars to go home.

Then there's also discussion of how, when women let out rooms to men, they end up feeling uncomfortable in their homes -- not threatened, just uneasy, because of the way the men take up a lot of space, put their stuff everywhere, and help themselves to the music collection.

The focus of the article is on women, people of color, and others being "safe" in the gig economy, but it also touches briefly on the deeper problem: that having an app "ratings" system -- effectively punishing bad guys -- really just doesn't cut it. Proper resolution of all of these cases requires not "ratings" from customers but rather informed judgment about what is and isn't appropriate in the way we treat one another.

It's complicated. People get to feel comfortable and not threatened. But sometimes -- as in the trans case -- if a person feels unsafe or uncomfortable it's their problem. Other times -- as in the cleaner case -- if a person feels unsafe or uncomfortable it's the other person's problem. Still others -- as in the case of guys "taking up space" -- I'm really not sure whose problem it is.

To say that everyone can rent to whoever they want and that people can go ahead and "rate" one another really doesn't address the relevant difficulties. You actually have to make judgments about what's fair, not fair, OK, not OK. And then you have to have some system for putting those judgments into practice.

It's the same thing for social media. You can't distinguish protected speech from abusive speech without making value judgments about what kinds of things are OK and not OK. For example, did you read about how Facebook banned a plus-sized model who was advertising a thing about positive and healthy body-image? 

Though the reversed the decision later, Facebook banned it for showing "body parts in an undesirable manner."

Explaining their decision, Facebook wrote: "Ads may not depict a state of health or body weight as being perfect or extremely undesirable. Ads like these are not allowed since they make viewers feel bad about themselves. Instead, we recommend using an image of a relevant activity, such as running or riding a bike."

Leaving aside all the other baffling questions this passage raises -- like, you're going to ban all ads that make people feel bad about themselves? WTF? -- obviously it's a value judgment to say that making people feel "bad" is worth banning and it's a value judgment to say when making people feel bad is OK and when it isn't. Anti-smoking campaigns make people feel bad too. So what?

In reversing the decision, Facebook said that the policy was meant to guard against the promotion of anorexia and eating disorders. A worthy goal, but again, not a factual one, not a value-neutral one, and not an obvious one to put into practice -- as the kerfuffle itself shows.

At the end of the Broadly article, an expert on the gig economy is quoted as saying,
"It's not really fashionable to be in favour of bureaucracy and rules, but equal pay for equal work, minimum wage laws, employment standards that limit employers' right to fire at will, and anti-discrimination laws were the results of years of struggle by feminists, unionists, and anti-racism groups," he says. "I don't think they should be thrown away just because a new app has a rating system."
I think this is spot-on. I've never understood the depth of antagonism to bureaucracy. If you're falsely accused, it's bureaucracy that's going to save you. If you want safe drinking water, it's bureaucracy that's there for you. And if you want fairness -- in education, in employment, or even just in your gig economy -- it's bureaucracy that's going to do that for you.

But it's not because they're value-neutral that bureaucracies do this. It's because, at least when they're working well, they encode values that we care about, and they put into place systems for making things happen. Systems that epitomize what tech companies seem to be trying to get away from.

An user-generated ratings system does neither of these things. It just allows everyone to put into concrete practice all the crappy, racist, sexist, transphobic, hate and phobia that they're carrying around. It's not "user-generated neutrality." It's like an amplifier for all of our worst qualities.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Are Internet Trolls Otherwise Ordinary People?

Trolls from a kinder, gentler era.
I used to think that people being horrible assholes on the internet were, generally speaking, people who were horrible assholes off the internet. I thought they were exceptional, unusual -- the kind of people that if you met them in real life you'd be like: "Oh my god, get me away from this person."

But I keep reading stories -- true ones -- where people got to know their trolls, and these stories share feature that is, to me, really disturbing. Namely: that trolls are otherwise ordinary people -- ordinary people who somehow feel entitled to act out wild murderous rage when they feel like it.

The first one that sticks in my mind is from 2012. This guy -- a writer and blogger in Ireland -- started getting relentless messages on Twitter calling him a "dirty fucking Jewish scumbag" and sending images of concentration camps and dismembered bodies. The abuse went on and on, his Facebook account was hacked, violent racist messages, etc etc. Eventually it escalated, with parcels of ashes arriving at his home with notes like "Say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz."

The writer was understandably freaked out. He hired a friend to try to figure out the IP address of his troll, and -- long story short, it ended up being the 17 year old son of an old friend of his. He talks to the friend. They decide to all go out to lunch, and toward the end they show the kid printouts of all the abusive and threatening messages. Kid bursts into tears. Pressed, he says "I don't know. I don't know. I'm sorry. It was like a game thing."

Then in 2014, there was this great piece about the classicist Mary Beard in the New Yorker. The story covers many topics: Beard's scholarly approach, the general misogyny she encounters whenever she does anything, her boundless energy for engaging with, and showing up, people who say hateful and stupid things to and about her on the internet. And there are a lot of hateful and stupid things. This, for example, from a university student: "You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting."

Instead of ignoring the trolls, Beard engages with them. She retweets, calls out, talks to the press. When she retweeted the university student, someone who knew him offered to tell his mom; he later apologized. To the BBC, she said, "I’d take him out for a drink and smack his bottom."

When she was on Question Time, commenters vilified her online, and one posted an image where a woman’s genitals was superimposed over Beard’s face. Later, she posted the image to her blog at the Times Literary Supplement website. The site was overwhelmed with traffic, and the story made international news.

Then, what happened was this: the man who ran the site where the image originally appeared contacted Beard to apologize, via a long and personal letter. He said he never should have done it. He said he was in difficult circumstances: he was married with kids; he wanted to move to Spain; he couldn't understand the bureaucracy. Mary Beard looked up the documents he needed and sent them along. Now, whenever she gets in "internet trouble," he gets in touch with her -- to make sure she is OK.

Understandably, Beard resists the interpretation of these stories as "happy endings" where a wise and maternal woman takes men to task and teaches them a lesson. What the attacks show, she says, is the persistence of misogyny and the way gender hierarchies persist. Still, she finds the outcomes emotionally satisfying. That university student who called her a slut with a disgusting vagina? After he apologized he took her out to lunch, and she's going to write him a letter of reference. After all, when you google his name, calling Beard a "filthy slut" is what comes up, and he is going to need all the help he can get.

The final story is from 2015. Lindy West is a writer who often deals with feminism and body size issues -- and so receives a ton of vitriol, abuse, and threats online. In this essay, she describes how she usually deals -- by deleting, by useless blocking, by trying to ignore. But then eventually, a troll set up something that reached a new level of awfulness, by setting up a Twitter account in the name of West's recently deceased father -- with a photo of him, and a username like "[Lindy's father] Donezo."

West found she couldn't ignore it. She wrote an essay on Jezebel about the issue and mentioned the account. Astonishingly, she then received an email from the troll, apologizing. He said he was wrong and he shouldn't have done it, and that his trolling hadn't been caused by something particular she said. He wrote in part, "I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self."

Later, West invited him to participate in an episode of This American Life, talking about what happened. He said he'd felt fat, unloved, passionless and purposeless." Though he was unable to explain why this made generalized rage at women seem like a good idea, he did say that he had changed. He'd become a teacher, and he took better care of his health. He apologized, again, for the hurt he'd caused: as a teacher, he could now see how hurt and sad his students were when other kids were mean to them.

There's so much to say about these stories -- and I agree with West and Beard when they call attention to the special role that misogyny plays. But among the other things, I'm still just astonished at the way these trolls all seem like ordinary people who got caught up in something even they don't really understand.

It's destabilizing to me to think that otherwise ordinary people who are sad, or bored, or self-hating can get something out of abusing and threatening other people on the internet. At the deepest possible level, I just don't get it. Even a playground bully at least gets status, or attention, or something. But these internet trolls are mostly anonymous. What motivates them to act this way? What positive feeling for them makes them do this?

It's like finding out I live among people of a completely different species.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Medical Metaphors, Mistakes, and Metaphysics

Years ago a friend of mine got a dog -- a tiny puppy. I didn't see my friend for a while, and the next time we got together, the dog had grown enormously: he was now a largish-sized dog. When I commented on this, my friend put his hand down near the dog's neck, and said, "Yeah, isn't it weird to think that all this part" -- from the neck to the tail -- "is made of dog food?"

I think about that story often lately. Because I used to think of my body as a thing that was its own thing and not another thing -- so that what went into it would nourish it, but wouldn't literally constitute it. I had what felt like a commonsensical metaphorical idea that my body was a thing was existing through time in a relatively stable way. So, for example, whatever I might eat or do with my body might cause changes to it over time, but they wouldn't be my body in any literal way. I thought my friend's joke about the dog was just that -- a joke.

But it turns out that this is not really the right way to think about things. For example, think about the human microbiota -- all the bacteria that live in and on a person. Is that part of you or not part of you? If you have the metaphor of bodies as metaphysical discrete objects -- the kinds of things that exist through time with clearish boundaries -- it seems like not part of you. And yet it's as essential to your health as any of your main parts.

And what you eat isn't just incidental to the microbiota. It has an intimate connection, immediately affecting how the microbiota is constituted. The idea of microbiota for me has had immediate practical implications. It used to be that if I would eat junk food, I would have the idea that my body before I ate the junk food and my body after I ate the junk food was basically the same -- except for just having more calories in it. I knew, of course, that eating a lot of junk food was unhealthy, but I pictured that as a causal effect happening over a period of time -- something that came about as the result of habits. I thought that when you get immediately sick from food, it's because a foreign bacteria -- not part of you -- makes its way in.

But that's not really right. The bacteria that live in your digestive system are essential to health in an everyday way, and we now know that in a healthy system, there is a wide range of different bacteria. Eating a typical western diet of processed foods ruins that -- it kills off some beneficial bacteria and feeds some not-so-beneficial ones, and undercuts the variety.

This research is still developing, but it seems like part of it is that what you eat provides nourishment for some bacteria instead of others. So if you eat Doritos, the bacteria that thrive on Doritos will flourish, and if you eat turnips, the bacteria that thrive on turnips will flourish. So it's not really true that your body before you eat the junk food and after is the same. It actually changes as an immediate effect of what you eat. My friend was sort of right: all that part was made of dog food.

Anyone following the health-related news will see why I had the wrong implicit metaphor. The language of modern health advice is generally steeped in the traditional metaphysics of objects. "A calorie is a calorie." Weight loss is "thermodynamics." We think of illness as invading what would otherwise be a conceptually isolated and distinct healthy self.

I realize it is very speculative to suggest that some of the mistakes of modern medicine have to do with mental habits steeped in western logic and metaphysics. But I think there is something to it. We are taught to think in terms of objects that are self-identical -- they are themselves and not another thing. We are encouraged to see divergence from that norm in terms of pathologies like "vagueness" and "ambiguity" instead of that just being the nature of things.

Doesn't it seem like this kind of thinking would make it more challenging to recognize the role of bacteria as occupying this strange zone of not-a-body-part and yet also yes-a-body-part?

Let me emphasize: I understand the phenomenon in question is not inconsistent with object metaphysics. I mean, on some level you can conceptualize the whole shebang in terms of things that affect your body, rather than constituting it, and you can describe what's going on in terms of a list of discrete objects, all of which affect one another in a complex causal chain.

All I'm saying is that when you have the object-vs-not object metaphor deeply structuring how you approach the world, these things might be a bit harder to see. You might leap to thinking that if something isn't part of the body, it's not part of the body, and can't therefore play the same kind of role in the body that an actual body part -- like a stomach or a kidney -- can play. And just like "a calorie is a calorie," or "it's all just thermodynamics," you'd be mistaken.