Author Archives: Richard Slaughter

Five Steps on the Road to Recovery

Part One: The Great Acceleration

Amongst the devastation of Covid-19 and while many people are still fighting for their lives, others are developing proposals for ‘doing things differently’ when the present threat has passed. Issues concerning health, well-being and preparedness for future viral outbreaks are commonly cited. Yet many more will not be taken seriously, let alone implemented. Those in positions of wealth, power and influence are already working to return things to as close to ‘normal’ as possible. They may not entirely succeed but we can be sure that a vast number of well-intentioned proposals for constructive change will simply be forgotten. At the same time, it’s clear that ‘business as usual’ is no more than a convenient fantasy. Continue reading…

New Year’s Eve 2020 Fires at Malua Bay

The following piece by Valerie Braithwaite echoes the theme of the previous News post. It is a moving personal account of the upheaval that occurred in a small coastal town in NSW when confronted with devastating bushfires. It was written immediately afterwards and powerfully conveys something of the trauma and upheaval being experienced in Australia as this unprecedented emergency continues. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Yesterday I was one of the thousands who left the NSW south coast via Bega and Cooma, heading home to Canberra. Like many privileged boomers, as our 30-something children call us, we have retreated to Mosquito Bay to enjoy the climate, marvel at the natural wonder around us, and feel connected to community and place. We have dolphins, stingrays, a sea-eagle, birds of all kinds in our small, over-crowded patch of native trees. No mosquitos, well not too many. The bay takes its name from the little boats that transferred logs from the forest to the ships offshore bound for Sydney. Decades on we have surfboard riders, divers spearfishing, others snorkelling and exploring the wonders below the sea, and the odd swimmer who impresses by going from one side of the bay to the other and back again. Read more…

A Great Reversal?

Bushfires are commonplace in Australia and have been for many years. But they’ve recently reached new levels of intensity. They started early this year and become widespread long before the official ‘fire season’ was supposed to arrive. This time, however, the impacts and implications are no longer confined to the bush. Only last week, after long periods of darkened skies, dozens of smoke alarms in Sydney’s CBD were triggered. Dense smoke from multiple nearby fires set off the very devices intended to keep people safe. But, in this instance, office workers and others were turfed out of their air-conditioned high-rise buildings into far more dangerous levels of toxic smoke outside. Further afield farmers have been struggling with drought for several years. Many are desperate and close to giving up a way of life that had lasted for generations. At the same time, many smaller country towns have run, or are running, out of water. Some are fortunate enough to have supplies brought in via tankers, albeit at enormous cost. Others are simply being evacuated. The levels of suffering and dislocation from drought, fire and record-breaking temperatures are incalculable. Meanwhile the PM who thinks that the ‘firies’ (volunteer fire fighters) are doing just fine, has taken his family overseas for a short, pre-Christmas, holiday. What is going on?

From a foresight perspective this is a classic and yet deeply troubling example of ‘learning by social experience.’ In general, this tends to occur when critical ‘signals of change’ have been missed, mis-interpreted or merely denied. But this is not just about events per se. It has even more to do with worldviews, their associated values and the institutions and practices that became ‘normalised’ during the most abnormal period in human history. It’s now almost five decades since the first Limits to Growth (LtG) report was issued by the Club of Rome back in 1972. It’s common knowledge that the report was pilloried by establishment figures and economists who wanted none of what they insisted were ‘doom and gloom’ predictions. Leaving aside the fact that such descriptors were entirely false it’s worth considering a view of an ‘alternative past.’ That is, one in which the core discipline that helped to order and direct human societies was not that of economics but ecology. The crucial difference between that vanished past and what actually occurred is that economics was about regulating human to human and social to social exchanges in a kind of vacuum whereas ecology considers the interactions between humanity and the wider world of life, energy and matter. We think of that now as ‘the environment’ and ecology has expanded to embrace a still wider view known as Earth System Science (ESS).

But what fires, drought and the deadly acceleration of global heating demonstrate is that economics in its broadest sense is still calling the shots. How otherwise to explain the constant putting-down of ESS in favour of business-as-usual? Two brief examples may be helpful here. One is the failure of the Madrid climate conference to get all parties to agree on radical and necessary action to rein in global heating. The other is the decision of the Saudi ruling class to float part of Amoco, the world’s largest oil company, on the open market. This represents another direct collision between the limited interests of hyper-affluence and the well-being of humanity: future money vs future devastation. Foresight seems to play little or no part in these examples. Or, rather, it is overwhelmed and by the power of embedded economic interests. Don’t Saudis have children too? Works such as James Hanson’s Storms of My Grandchildren (2009) that address these issues very directly and backed up with formidable evidence just don’t cut through.

And that’s partly why ‘learning by experience’ occurs. Besides the need for dealing actively and sympathetically with the human, social and environmental damage, what matters most at this time is what will be learned from this experience and what will be ignored. Disaster can bring hope and recovery in its wake but only if a process of real and relevant learning has ensued. Will the current crisis pass and business-as-usual be re-established? It’s possible – that is until the next one occurs that would likely be heavier, deeper and yet more damaging. Or is it possible to conceive that the age of rampant growth and expansion in this country is finally over? If so, then the present time may come to be known as that of ‘the great reversal.’ A time when worldviews, values and practices at all levels underwent a systemic change so that life could continue, albeit at a slower place and within more limited bounds?

When people start suffering en masse; that is, when the costs of fighting monster blazes, carrying water over long distances or contemplating vast acreages of devastated landscape all come together, even the most hardened cynics are challenged to explain why. It is then that the pull of other ways of thinking and operating can arise. A host of more helpful innovations have available been for a long time. Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics (2017) has been widely praised for the way it re-connects human affairs with the way the planet actually works. Charles Massey’s Call of the Reed Warbler (2017) explores a new paradigm for sustainable agriculture. The New Economic Network Australia(NENA) puts many of different aspects of applied sustainability together through an active network of pioneers and practitioners. All these are helpful but they won’t get far without audacious action on a meaningful scale. A good example of this is Green M.P. Michael Berkman’s recent announcement of a plan to raise $1 billion from fossil fuel companies to fund:

  • 1,400 new paid firefighters
  • An extra $75 million for the volunteer Rural Fire service
  • A permanent aerial firefighting fleet, and
  • 200 new indigenous rangers to help manage country (Berkman, 2019).

One thing is certain: if the most useful and appropriate lessons are not derived from painful social learning experiences they will certainly recur. If there is a key idea from Futures Studies and Applied Foresight it is that you don’t have to experience the full impact of disaster and devastation if you take them, and alternatives to them, seriously. Or as Bertrand de Jouvenel put it over 60 years ago, the failure of foresight involves “falling into the empire of necessity.”

Which is not a great place to be on a rapidly heating planet.


Berkman, M. (2019) Greens M.P. for Maiwar, Brisbane, Newsletter. December 18.

Hansen, J. (2009). Storms of My Grandchildren. New York: Bloomsbury.

Massey, C. (2017) Call of the Reed Warbler. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press.

Meadows, D. (et al) (1972). The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.

New Economic Network Australia.

Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut Economics. London: Random House.


The Great Disconnect

Have you ever felt that at some level you’re ‘out of sync’ with the mainstream? By that I mean you’re aware of the aridity of the political scene, the shrinking of the public sphere to entertainment, consumption and sport, the never-ending din from commercial interests and the way that the central issues facing humankind are constantly evaded and denied. If so then you may also have felt some degree of perplexity about why so many people and organisations, so much money and talent remain devoted to denying the reality of the global emergency, the huge question mark over humanity’s entire future. In that case, and should you feel the need for nourishment and inspiration, you may like to consider Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory. Read more…

Clarity v Denial in Difficult Times

I’ve recently been clearing out old files and discarding redundant material. Our recycling bin has seldom been so full of old paper. Yet I’ve also rediscovered valuable items that had fallen out of sight. They include letters from old colleagues and friends, short items I’d written for now-forgotten publications and the occasional gem of an article. Among the latter was a piece written by Ted Trainer in 2007. I’d never met him but was aware that he and I were distant colleagues working toward broadly similar ends. Like myself, he’d found what one interviewer called ‘a home of sorts’ in academia. One thing I believe we both understood was that underlying the deceptively smooth surface of everyday life was a chasm of uncertainty and hazard that was routinely ignored by most people, media and mainstream institutions.

While I’d built a career (of sorts) as a Futurist / foresight practitioner, Trainer had focused more on alternative ways of living and the quest for sustainability. The article I rediscovered was published in Arena Magazine under the heading ‘Greenhouse: Refusing to grasp its significance’. Reading it again some 12 years later was like looking right into a time capsule. But in this case one that hardly differed at all from the present. In fact what was striking was how current and up-to-date his reasoning and conclusions were. Here are some of the key points he made in that article about defining ‘the problem’:

The recent surge of interest in greenhouse and energy problems provides a powerful illustration of the capacity humans have to ignore what they do not want to recognise.

(If it is accepted that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere need to be limited to around 400-450 ppm then) our fossil fuel budget would be around 3 per cent of the present per capita average. In other words we would have to almost entirely cease our use of fossil fuels within a few decades.

(There is, however) no possibility of getting the emissions down to the necessary levels without extreme system change away from any kind of consumer society.

(The futility of economic growth shows up in the multiples necessary to sustain it. So) how can you make sustainable a society in which the volume of production and consumption and the GDP must increase at 3 per cent per annum forever? (To imagine this continuing to 2050 means that) Australia would be churning out four times as much each year as it does now…but on 5% of the present fossil energy use… Such multiples totally rule out any faith that technical advance will eliminate the problems while we all go on merrily pursuing affluence and growth. The point is that a consumer capitalist society cannot be made sustainable. 

What, then, is the answer? The point is that there isn’t one… Yet there is a highly workable and attractive way out, well described as ‘the simpler way.’

The rest of the article describes some of the aspects of that ‘simpler way’ that, in essence, have been broadly understood for many years but which remain ‘news’ for the vast majority who’ve still never encountered them – at least not in any detail. Instead, huge efforts continue to be exerted each day by the usual interests (social, economic, political) to actively persuade currently affluent populations that present ways of life still make sense and, despite a few problems here and there, are sustainable. We have known for some time that this is a deception perpetuated on a compliant, dependent population on a truly vast scale. But the science, as they say, is well and truly ‘in’. We know what is happening and we know why. Over the last century, and particularly over the decades since WWII, humanity has been on the receiving end of a growing crescendo of what foresight practitioners refer to as ‘signals’ from the global system. These unambiguously show exactly how that system is being destabilised by ever more disruptive human activity. The changes may not be obvious as first since natural systems tend to be resilient – but only up to a point. When they begin to shift under constant and continuing pressure they respond – glacially at first, but then with unstoppable momentum and overwhelming force. Having ignored the early signs that all was not well, this is where humanity stands at the present time, confronted by multiple crises across many domains. Even seasoned observers are beginning to wonder if it is already too late to prevent some sort of gigantic civilisational collapse.

In this context most people seem to prefer recourse to common strategies of psychological comfort – distraction, avoidance, denial – rather than face up to the fact that the underpinnings of human civilisation are shifting beneath them and, in some cases, disappearing altogether. Trainer and myself are two among many workers who’ve attempted to draw attention to the actual human predicament and engage with others in seeking viable ways forward. This is not particularly easy since, by definition, such work tends to confine one to working ‘at the edges’ rather than in the mainstream where, in any balanced view, we should be welcomed and hence able to be far more active and effective. We are sometimes tolerated by mainstream organisations but seldom encouraged. Behind our personal stories, however, a vast and diffuse symbolic battle going on about what can be considered ‘right’ or ‘legitimate’ during this time of upheaval and hazard. The politics of the day are widely regarded as disappointing. They can barely acknowledge anything much about the broad process of global deterioration we have caused and are living through. They seem fixated on present business in a here-and-now environment in which the future effectively vanishes from view. So what can be done?

One way to frame our collective dilemma is as a choice between clarity and denial. I’d argue that while seeking the former certainly requires time, effort and a certain amount of dedication, the pay-offs are bountiful. At the very least you can say ‘goodbye’ to depression and actually get on with something useful. The big weakness of denial is that it solves nothing and merely defers what is feared or avoided to a later date – by which time one’s autonomy of action and response will have been significantly degraded. Don’t we all know this? A stitch in time saves nine; forewarned is forearmed etc? Of course we do. But we’re so practiced at allowing ourselves to be reassured and persuaded that it’s OK to avoid reality, ‘it’s not our problem’, ‘she’ll be right’. Except we can’t in the end avoid reality, it is our problem and, no, she won’t be alright unless we learn to respond more fully to the challenges ahead.

This is not the place to set out even a fraction of the strategies and creative options available within a realistic and informed forward view. But I will mention just one. What if we acknowledged that social collapse has happened before and could very easily happen again – but this time on a global scale? One consequence could be that we’d stop being scared stiff about ‘the problem’ and shift our attention toward strategies of conscious descent. Descent, that is, from the peak of over-growth and environmental decline. What I will do, however, is draw attention to several sources that provide multiple insights into what can be done, how and by whom.

Alexander, S. & Gleeson, B. 2019, Degrowth in the Suburbs. Singapore, Palgrave.

Re-imagines the suburbs in a post-growth future. Considers issues such as an energy descent future, ‘unlearning abundance’ and ‘prosperity’ under energy and resource constrained conditions. This is an original and inspiring work, hence highly recommended.

Gidley, J.M. 2017, The Future: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, OUP.

Exactly what the title says. Provides a lucid account of the grounding of ‘the future’ in history and an excellent overview of how the field developed in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Provides a useful and succinct summary of different approaches to futures and futures work. Concludes with an outline of ‘grand global challenges’ and list of resources.

Slaughter, R. 2015, Beyond the global emergency: Integral futures and the search for clarity. World Future Review 7, 2-3, 239-252

Argues against technology-led views of futures as espoused by, e.g. Silicon Valley, in favour of a more balanced assessment of interior and exterior factors. Suggests how Integral methods can open up new or renewed strategies that can be seen as ‘proto-solutions’ to pressing global issues.

Slaughter, R. 2014, The denial of limits and interior aspects of descent, Foresight 16, 6, 527-549.

Examines denialism in the context of the much-abused Limits to Growth study. Uses Integral criteria to characterise aspects of ‘the denial machine’ and addresses some of the under-appreciated interior aspects of descent (as opposed to collapse).

Trainer, T. 2007, Greenhouse: Refusing to grasp its significance, Arena Magazine, December-January 2007-8, 13-15.

On re-reading Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders

Of all the ideas put forward by Karl Marx one that has always resonated with me is his view that people are ‘authors’ of their society yet have forgotten their authorship. In one sense this is unexceptional. Not everyone has the time, opportunity or breadth of mind to appreciate the social construction of reality, the uses of legitimation and the many ways that powerful interests favour themselves above others. On the other hand there’s something increasingly bizarre about the way that entire populations in the rich West have been sold a notion of ‘the good life’ based on a 20th century invention known as affluent consumerism. For if one thing has become clear it’s the undeniable fact that this way of life has been on a collision course with planetary systems for some time. As Sam Alexander puts it:

Capitalism wants or needs what it cannot have: that is, limitless growth on a finite planet. This ecological predicament is the defining contradiction of capitalism in the 21st century, insofar as growth is now causing the problems that growth was supposed to be solving (Alexander, 2018).

While browsing recently in a small bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland, I came across a Penguin paperback of Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders, first published in 1956. It’s perhaps 50 years since I first read it but it left a strong impression. It’s almost certainly one of the underlying reasons I’ve never accepted full-on commercial advertising as anything other than what Donella Meadows called ‘an unwanted tax on humanity’. (She also said that ‘you only have to spend millions on promoting something if its worth is in doubt.’) Continue reading…

A Story to Inspire the World

The rescue of twelve boys and their football coach from deep within a flooded cave in Thailand provided welcome relief from the usual run of distressing news. On this occasion almost everything went right. The one exception was the death of a courageous Thai soldier who ran out of oxygen while distributing air tanks along the submerged rescue route. The remainder of the story ran as an unfolding series of near-miraculous achievements.

For a while the boys were merely lost their nearby cycles providing mute evidence of the fact. No one knew where they were or even if they were still alive. Everything that happened from that point on could easily have gone the other way. A multiple tragedy was always the most likely outcome. The first miracle occurred when two British divers penetrated deep into the flooded cave system and found the boys on a slanting muddy platform a long way from the entrance. Joy at the discovery, however, soon turned to anxiety. How could a dozen inexperienced youngsters make it back out through these dangerously flooded caverns, past deep sumps and restricted spaces that were challenging even for the experts?

The international news media were soon camped right at the site and eagerly reported every scrap of information. But the real ‘action’ remained hidden. The crux of the whole operation was the way that the Thai authorities and teams of divers from around the world came together and worked as a skilful and efficient team. The full story is yet to be written. What is clear, however, is that this level of cooperation occurred under extreme conditions. Since the Monsoon rains had already started time pressures were intense and always going to raise the stakes.

While pumps were installed to reduce the water levels in parts of the system, divers distributed air tanks, supplies and hope to the boys. An Australian doctor from Adelaide monitored their condition and three Thai Navy Seals made the courageous decision to stay with them. With further heavy rain expected it was decided that the boys would be extracted at the earliest possible time. At this point it was unclear to outsiders how this might be achieved. But it was later revealed that the divers had been practicing their technique in nearby pools. It turned out that the boys were carefully sedated, fitted with a facemask and connected to an air supply. Each was carefully placed in a light ‘package’ with an experienced diver in front and behind. This difficult and very dangerous procedure was repeated thirteen times, in groups of four, four and five. Somehow the divers managed to manoeuvre each child (plus coach) through the dark underwater environment without a hitch. As each group emerged those nearby shook their heads in stunned amazement. Onlookers sighed in relief and many of the boys’ parents shed tears of joy. When the last ones, including doctor and Seals emerged, the news broke and a heartfelt wave of euphoria swept around the world.

Some have suggested that the rescue of the Thai football team is already yesterday’s news and so will quickly fade and be forgotten. But I disagree. I like to think that this event is perhaps no less significant than others that ripple through the years and, for good or ill, become part of the shared human story. Within the US, for example, September 11, 2001, will always be remembered as a day of infamy when a determined and merciless foe not only levelled two iconic buildings killing many innocent people in the process, but also punctured for ever the notion of that country as either innocent or untouchable. If that terrible event reminds us of the costs of hegemony, the ultimate futility of vast military power, the penalties of weak political decisions, why should a different truth not be found here in this coming together of members of the very same species to value and preserve life? Is it so hard to believe that beneath all exterior differences we are simply one vast and diverse family? That everyone in that family matters? That one life is as valuable and as unique as any other?

For a brief time Thailand as a nation became something much more than an exotic holiday destination. As the world watched and waited only the heartless could fail to respond to the determination of the rescuers, the deeply felt and shifting emotions of the parents. They could have been, and for a moment perhaps were, any and all of us. As for the youngsters themselves, and those who supported them though those literally dark and dangerous days, how did they get through it if not by drawing on their own sources of compassion and fortitude and those that that permeate Thai culture? Seldom have Buddhist practices seemed more helpful and life sustaining. Where else might a football coach be capable of helping his charges practice the mindfulness needed to endure such appalling conditions? Finally we should recognise the way that the boys apologised to their parents for having deceived them about their plans for that afternoon. Here, as in other aspects of the case, we seen how an underlying respect for all involved prepared the space for reconciliation and healing.

This is not to suggest that Thailand lacks the usual faults and failings common to our species. But on this occasion the country, the people, the international team of divers and helpers all came together to achieve something extraordinary. So the story is worthy of being remembered and emulated. It provides a reference point and a reminder that humanity can indeed act together for the common good. There are many people around the world who are also lost in the darkness of despair and privation. They need us to remember this and to act accordingly.

What Joy Lofthouse and Other Women Did in the 1940s

Most people will recall having one of those brief moments from time to time when an unexpected insight suddenly appears and the world changes. It happened recently when I read an obituary for Joy Lofthouse who’d passed away in the UK at age 94. Back in 1943, when she was working as a 20-year-old bank cashier, she’d responded to an advertisement in the Aeroplane magazine. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was looking for women to train for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Despite fierce competition her application was successful and she went on to become one of 164 female pilots during the Second World War who undertook the vital task of ferrying military planes around the UK from one air base to another. Here’s a direct quote from the piece:

Alongside workaday aircraft she also flew more spectacular machines. There were Hawker Tempest Vs, North American Mustangs and Supermarine Spitfires, all 400mph fighters. She flew a total of 18 types of aircraft – relying on a map and the view out of the cockpit for navigation – and the Spitfire was her enduring favourite. (Fountain, 2017).

All well and good you might say. But take a moment to reflect on those words in the last sentence: ‘relying on a map and a view out of the cockpit for navigation.’ Several thoughts arise: at 400mph? How did she get away with it? Would it be acceptable practice now? More significant, how many people these days would be capable of routinely performing similar feats of navigation and endurance? True, a few highly accomplished pilots might perhaps do so under ideal flying conditions. Yet it’s clear most people would be completely out of their depth. Why?

One answer can be found in a spate of reports during mid-2017 about a significant number of hapless motorists in New South Wales who believed they were headed for a beauty spot in the Blue Mountains but found themselves in a dead end lane a long way from their intended destination. Pictures appeared in local papers of stranded motorists standing around looking lost. One of the inhabitants was moved to put up a sign saying ‘this is not the Blue Mountains’! Following this train of thought leads to many similar stories where travellers have lost their bearings and landed up in embarrassing places such as lakes and rivers. Nearly everyone who has used a GPS device for navigation will have experienced some form of cognitive dissonance when the real world and an electronic simulacrum fail to match up – which they often do. What then?

Well, a certain amount of common sense is useful. If there’s a canal or a wall ahead when the GPS says it’s a road you’d be well advised to stop. But beyond any variety of common sense there’s a larger issue concerning awareness. Obviously the latter takes many forms but in this context the issue is about spatial awareness – how one’s immediate location relates to wider spaces, structures and landforms. The broad set of skills that allow us to know and appreciate our location in space is part of our human inheritance from the earliest times. But they are fading under early 21st Century conditions because machines are now taking over many of these tasks. The point is that the rise of portable devices such as GPS navigators and mobile phones means that the skills and capacities they are replacing are declining through lack of use. How many people actually remember phone numbers these days? If this remains a strong trend then many people risk becoming pale reflections of their forebears who honed their navigation skills through constant application over millennia. Which would leave humans that much weaker and under-equipped for the rigours that most certainly lie ahead.

So it’s not surprising that people are waking up to the fact that active steps are needed to rein in technical excesses. A short article for the Age David Brooks outlines a rationale supported by what he calls the ‘three main critiques of big tech.’

  1. It is destroying the young. Social media promises an end to loneliness but actually produces an increase in solitude and an intense awareness of social exclusion. Texting and other technologies give you more control over your social interactions but also lead to thinner interactions and less real engagement with the world.
  2. It is causing this addiction on purpose, to make money. Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with “hijacking techniques” that lure us in and create “compulsion loops.”… News feeds are structured as “bottomless bowls” so that one page view leads down to another and another and so on forever.
  3. Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are near monopolies that use their market power to invade the private lives of their users and impose unfair conditions on content creators and smaller competitors (Brooks, 2017).

So if we want to get beyond the present ‘wild IT’ or ‘anything goes’ phase we collectively need to decide on how and where to set limits. In Brooks’ view, online is a place for human contact but not intimacy. Online is a place for information but not reflection. … Online is a place for exploration but discourages cohesion. It grabs control of your attention and scatters it across a vast range of diverting things. (Brooks, 2017)

By contrast he suggests that ‘we are happiest when we have brought our lives to a point, when we have focused attention and will on one thing, wholeheartedly with all our might.’ So rather than accept the current myth that high tech offers us ‘the best’ in life we could take it down a notch or two. Perhaps it merely provides what he calls ‘efficiency devices.’ The point is not to eliminate high tech but to reduce its current over-dominance, to decide where it fits best in the wider frame of human life and culture. Active engagement with the world involves getting offline and putting away the both the GPS and the mobile phone.

If Joy Lofthouse could do without them while flying powerful fighting machines through the English weather at all times of the year during wartime, we can certainly do so ourselves. Perhaps more motorists would then rediscover how to find the Blue Mountains by using their own in-built navigation system.

Brooks, D. (2017). How evil is tech? Age, November 29.

Fountain, N. (2017). Joy Lofthouse (Obituary). Guardian, December 3.

The Internet and Human Agency

Many people seem to think that tackling the big issues of the IT revolution is a demanding occupation requiring considerable expertise. While there’s some truth in this view, it does not mean that individuals are helpless – far from it. Throughout history oppressive systems of any kind survived only because large numbers of people provided passive assent. In the case of the current Internet the vast majority may well continue to hand over their rights, and subject themselves to pervasive surveillance, in return for what they perceive as ‘free’ services for some time. The counter meme that ‘if something is free you are the product’ has yet to achieve broad acknowledgement, but this could change. It’s worth remembering that the use of ‘suboptimal’ Internet enabled services was never presented as a truly free choice in the first place. It came bundled with skilfully hidden costs and penalties some of which are only now becoming clear.

The long term impacts of high end design, coupled with pervasive and psychologically seductive merchandising, suggests that the choices people make as consumers are, in fact, not really free at all (Dennis, 2017). This is not a new idea. It’s been understood at least since Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders (Packard, 1957). But pervasive advertising arguably works like social acid by penetrating the body politic and quietly dissolving human options and capabilities by artifice and design. It’s another profoundly ambiguous ‘gift’ from the US that has exploited human cupidity and weakness for at least a century. For it to become the core business model of the current Internet is both a heavy burden on the rest of the world and a reflection of the continuing moral decline of the US (Zuboff, 2015; Greste, 2017).

At the micro or personal scale, however, there are ways to escape the consumer trap, some of which are quite straightforward. For example, one might begin to experience sense of discomfort or betrayal about being ‘constructed’ by powerful corporations as merely a passive consumer. From here it is but a short step to contesting reductive conceptions of what it means to be human. Viewing people in such ways certainly vitiates human respect and undermines human autonomy. Six decades ago Packard believed it unethical and his assertion has not been disproved by anyone since. A related strategy views language as a medium of great symbolic power. To develop relevant concepts and language around what the Internet is, what it does – and especially its personal and social costs – helps to sustain the understanding, the symbolic capacity, of anyone interested in solutions. Becoming aware of how Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest have grown rich by collecting and selling every piece of information that they can scrape from our on-line activities supports processes of reflection that can readily tend toward refusal. Refusal, that is, to use this service in this form from this particular source. So, while the US government, in its currently divided and intellectually parlous state, remains diverted by other concerns, this is by no means the end of the story. We propose that individuals can enact their own versions of anti-trust regulation simply by withdrawing assent from organisations that exploit them.

Smart phones with their multitude of apps, many of which routinely scan, monitor and send streams of personal data to remote agencies, are a major and continuing concern. Adults, can, if they wish, take control over these devices and apps to some extent. In the US legislation exists to protect children but its effectiveness is debatable. For example, in July 2017 the Centre for Digital Democracy (CDD) filed a class action against the Disney Corporation accusing it of subjecting children to commercial exploitation. Apps for nearly 50 Disney media productions designed for young children were said to include embedded trackers that extracted personal data and sent it for analysis by corporate interests. According to the director of the CDD ‘these are heavy-duty technologies, industrial-strength data and analytic companies whose role is to track and monetise individuals’ (Fung & Shaman, 2017). Respect for childhood and children per se is clearly among the many casualties of the present media landscape.

Currently it is impossible for anyone to shield themselves entirely from scanning, tracking, the expropriation of personal data and related abuses. Such practices remain too embedded, too profitable and effective (for a few) to be replaced overnight. Meanwhile options are available to concerned individuals wishing to reduce their overall exposure. Various ‘how-to’ accounts exist, some of which are up-dated over time. One example from mid-2017 was an article written by Darien Graham-Smith in the Observer. He sets out some of the ways that personal interactions with Internet media can be modified through careful use of privacy-related menus. He also recommends moving to non-invasive web browsers that do not track searches (Graham-Smith, 2017)

Strategies such as these may appear insignificant when set against the many broader, macro-level changes that are needed. But if or when enough people start taking them, the climate of opinion could change rapidly. As more people realise that a social licence to operate as they please was, in fact, neither sought by, nor ever granted to the oligarchs, the latter appear certain to find themselves increasingly under siege (Solon & Siddiqui, 2017).


Fung, B. & Shaman, H. (2017). These Disney apps may be spying on your children, Age, August 9.

Dennis, R. (2017). Curing Affluenza. Melbourne: Black Inc.

Graham-Smith. D. (2017). How to escape the online spies. Observer, May 14.

Greste, P. (2017). The decline of America’s moral authority: losing the Trump card. The Saturday Paper, April 1.

Packard, V. (1957). The Hidden Persuaders. London: Longmans, Green.

Solon, O. & Siddiqui, S. (2017). With friends like these… Guardian, September 3.

Zuboff, S. (2015). Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects for an information civilisation, Journal of Information Technology, 30, 75-89.


Time to Disrupt the Disruptors

Scanning the macro environment for signals of change can be a daunting experience. But when links that imply a particular pattern keep getting stronger, or more frequently expressed, you know that something is happening that may require closer attention. Over the last few years, for example, evidence that the digital revolution has been compromised has been turning up with increasing frequency. It’s not merely wandered off-course, so to speak, but been actively hijacked by a handful of companies. They are not using it for the betterment of humankind, they are using it in pursuit of historically unprecedented levels of wealth and power. The evidence has been visible for at least a decade, if not longer. It was there, for example, when James Moroney, publisher of the Dallas Morning News informed Congress that in order for Amazon to publish a digital version of the paper on its Kindle device it ‘demanded 70 percent of the subscription revenues, leaving him with 30 percent to cover the cost of creating 100 percent of the content’ (Taplin, 2017, p. 84). A few years later, in 2014, The Observer published an editorial declaring that ‘Tech innovators need to be held to account.’ It opened with these words: ‘If politicians can be drunk on power, the equivalent for the technology industry is being drunk on your own disruption, when your confidence in knowing better than established industries, regulators and even governments risks tipping into hubris’ (Observer, 2014). Three years on and that ‘risk’ is no longer in doubt – it is reality.

Carol Cadwalladr is one of a small number of journalists that have been paying close attention and has provided detailed accounts of the growing misuse of high tech in social and political contexts. Writing post-Brexit, and in the context of the US election, she declared that:

We have fetishised “disruption”. Governments have stood by and watched it take down all industries in its path – the market must do what the market must do. Only now, the wave is breaking on its shore. Because what the last week of this presidential campaign has shown us is that technology has disrupted, is disrupting, is threatening to upturn the democratic process itself (Cadwalladr, 2016).

Many people may be surprised or shocked to discover that mass personality profiling, once an innocent tool for deepening self-knowledge, had been ‘weaponised’ and transformed into an insidious form of ‘psych ops.’ In the UK and the US it became a tool of mass manipulation and used, among other things, to undermine the election process. Again, however, the writer’s warning of possible threats may be understated. The ruthless uses of IT and other advanced technologies to effectively undermine and destroy earlier ways of life are well established. Consequently, the threats they pose are no longer abstract – they are right out in the open. Harris, for example, sees how governance itself is being undermined. Here is how he describes this process:

Increasingly, the orthodoxies of government and politics are so marginal to the way advanced economies work that if politicians fail to keep up, they simply get pushed aside. Obviously, the corporations concerned are global. The amazing interactions many of them facilitate between people are now direct – with no role for any intermediate organisations, whether traditional retailers or the regulatory state. The result is a kind of anarchy, overseen by unaccountable monarchs: we engage with each other via eBay, Facebook and the rest, while the turbo-philanthropy of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates superficially fills the moral vacuum that would once have pointed to oversight and regulation by the state (Harris, 2016).

Multiple examples of these processes emerge daily but the key point is this. The ability of governments to moderate, regulate or rein in the unchecked dynamism of high-tech innovation has failed at the very time when quality oversight and effective regulation for the public good has become more essential than ever before. There are many reasons for this decline in capability, some of which are not primarily technical (such as changes in values, social mores and cultural practices). In this context it’s impossible to avoid the central role played by the ascendancy of neo-Liberal ideology, particularly in the US. The latter is, of course, the home of Silicon Valley where high-tech ‘entrepreneurial exceptionalism’ grew from benign beginnings into its present virulent and ultimately destructive form. The world we now live in is, to a remarkable extent, an artifact of neo-Liberalism. Unfortunately, however, the latter is self-perpetuating, resistant to any significant reform and extremely well funded. A publisher’s overview of Jane Myer’s book Dark Money contains the following passage:

A network of exceedingly wealthy people with extreme libertarian views bankrolled a systematic, step-by-step plan to fundamentally alter the American political system.  The network has brought together some of the richest people on the planet. Their core beliefs—that taxes are a form of tyranny; that government oversight of business is an assault on freedom—are sincerely held. But these beliefs also advance their personal and corporate interests: Many of their companies have run afoul of federal pollution, worker safety, securities, and tax laws (Mayer 2016).

Some idea of the scale of the resources involved is provided by Charles Kaiser’s review of this work. He writes:

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) was one of dozens of the new think tanks bankrolled by hundreds of millions from the Kochs and their allies. Sold to the public as quasi-scholarly organizations, their real function was to legitimize the right to pollute for oil, gas and coal companies, and to argue for ever-more tax cuts for the people who created them. Richard Scaife, an heir to the Mellon fortune, gave $23m over 23 years to the Heritage Foundation, after having been the largest single donor to AEI. Next, the right turned its sights on American campuses. John M Olin founded the Olin Foundation, and spent nearly $200m promoting “free-market ideology and other conservative ideas on the country’s campuses”. It bankrolled a whole new approach to jurisprudence called “law and economics”, Mayer writes, giving $10m to Harvard, $7m to Yale and Chicago, and over $2m to Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown and the University of Virginia. … Between 2005 and 2008, the Kochs alone spent nearly $25m on organizations fighting climate reform. One study by a Drexel University professor found 140 conservative foundations had spent $558m over seven years for the same purpose (Kaiser, 2017).

Finally Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things (Taplin, 2017) provides a valuable insider’s account of how the Internet, initially government funded and intended for wide public use, was taken over by the Internet oligarchs. Of particular interest in his account is the history – especially the legislative changes that were enabled that provided legal support for the rapid growth and development of Internet monopolies. This included watering down previous anti-trust legislation that prohibited the growth of such monopolies. In other words, weak and compliant governance allowed the upstarts (increasingly powerful corporations) to ignore previous limits and swell to their present excessive size regardless of the wider costs. Now the US and the rest of the world are beginning to experience some of the costs of this course of action. Naked self-interest, if left unchecked, becomes pathological. Far from this being a mere rhetorical flourish Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Maths Destruction shows in some detail how the misuse of big data, algorithms, profiling and predatory marketing has exploited the least well-off social groups. What she describes is a commercial culture that devours its own while pretending to serve them. Which pretty much describes where we are today.

Yet as if growing inequality, mass unemployment, the decimation of entire industries and ways of life were not enough there are other emerging issues that are equally deserving of our attention. One of these has already attracted comment from high-profile individuals such as Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking. Both have warned of the possible dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) and the very real possibility that it may represent an existential threat to humanity. Fresh impetus to this debate was provided recently when Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk clashed over the same issue. While Musk echoed previously expressed concerns, Zuckerberg would have none of it. For him such talk was ‘negative’ and ‘irresponsible.’ He’s dead against any ‘call for a slowdown in progress’ with AI (Frier, 2017). So it fell to director James Cameron, director of Terminator 2 and other movie blockbusters, to inject some reality into the proceedings by reminding everyone of the mammoth in the room. Namely that it’s ‘market forces (that) have put us into runaway climate change, and the sixth mass extinction.’ He then added that ‘we don’t seem to have any great skill at not experimenting on ourselves in completely unprecedented ways’ (Maddox, 2017, emphasis added).

What’s fascinating here is that it falls to a movie director to generate publicity around what, in competent government contexts, would surely be a matter of primary interest to public authorities. Which also raises the question: who gave permission for the disruptors of Silicon Valley – or anywhere else – to carry out these ‘unprecedented’ experiments? Reinventing the world – whether by innovation or disruption or both, is not a trivial matter. Nor is creating quite new hazards that threaten the viability of humanity and its world. So how is it that these powerful entities continue to operate openly and with confidence without limit or sanction, lacking anything remotely like a social licence? The development of AI could be seen as the test case that decides the matter for once and for all. Here is Taplin again speaking of the way that the benign legacy of an Internet pioneer was turned toward darker ends. He writes: ‘What is so important about Engelbart’s legacy is that he saw the computer as primarily a tool to augment – not replace – human capability. In our current era, by contrast, much of the financing flowing out of Silicon Valley is aimed at building machines that can replace humans’ (Taplin, 2017, p. 55).

It’s not necessary to jump directly to dismal SF-type speculations about how advanced AI could take over the world and either destroy humanity or render it redundant (which is not to say that such outcomes are impossible). A much more immediate threat springs from the fact that a variety of agencies are also looking to AI for military and ‘security’ purposes. The development of robot soldiers, for example, has been under way in the West for some years. Then there’s this summary of Chinese intent from Paul Mozur in Shanghai:

China’s ambitions with AI range from the anodyne to the dystopian, according to the new plan. It calls for support for everything from agriculture and medicine to manufacturing. Yet it also calls for the technology to work in concert with homeland security and surveillance efforts. China wants to integrate AI into guided missiles, use it to track people on closed-circuit cameras, censor the Internet and even predict crimes (Mozur, 2017).

This may not seem like a particularly major departure from what is already happening elsewhere. But there is a significant difference in that China is already a totalitarian society ruled by an inflexible party machine that makes no pretense of having any interest in human rights or other democratic norms. Although in the West the US has long been hamstrung by dysfunctional governments, all passively beholden to the giants of Silicon Valley, at least it still has a constitution that protects certain core rights (such as free speech). Despite systematic predation (including copyright theft and monopoly power) by what some refer to as ‘Goobook’ the US still has the remnants of a free press and many diverse groupings and interests that will never accept authoritarian rule. Furthermore, the European Economic Community (EEC) has already shown that it is willing and able to take on the Internet oligarchs and force them to change their behaviour in regard to tax and individual human rights. So in the west there’s a prospect of reining in at least some of the excesses.

But China is a very different story. It’s already had a Dystopian ‘grid system’ of systematic surveillance operating in Beijing since 2007. Aspects of this oppressive new system were summarised in a 2013 Human Rights Report. For example:

The new grid system divides the neighborhoods and communities into smaller units, each with a team of at least five administrative and security staff. In some Chinese cities the new grid units are as small as 5 or 10 households, each with a “grid captain” and a delegated system of collective responsibility … Grid management is specifically intended to facilitate information-gathering by enabling disparate sources into a single, accessible and digitized system for use by officials. … In Tibet the Party Secretary told officials that ‘we must implement the urban grid management system. The key elements are focusing on … really implementing grid management in all cities and towns, putting a dragnet into place to maintain stability. … By 2012 the pilot system was in ‘full swing’ (as it had stored) nearly 10,000 basic data’ (and collected) hundreds of pieces of information about conditions of the people (Human Rights Watch, 2013).

By 2015 this vast project was ready to be rolled out to enable the full-on mass surveillance of China’s 1.5 billion citizens. One report noted that:

It envisages a national population database linking people’s compulsory identity cards with their credit histories, travel records, hotel registrations and social security details. Police and state security agencies will have access to every aspect of a person’s life at the click of a keyboard and everyone will be issued with a single ‘all-in-one’ identity card (Sheridan, 2015).

The race to create artificial intelligence (whatever that turns out to mean in practice) is being pursued primarily in Silicon Valley and China. But none of the key players appear willing to pull back and rigorously assess the risks or seek guidance from wider constituencies. To ‘follow the technology wherever it leads’ is merely technological determinism writ large. It’s a strange and perverse notion upon which to base decisions, let alone to gamble with the future of humanity. Yet it’s rare for any government to show a real and sustained interest in effective responses (by, for example, developing and applying high quality oversight or strategic / social foresight). Leaving the high-tech disruptors to their own devices, so to speak, simply means that the human enterprise is placed in ever-greater peril.

Yet it’s unhelpful to be intimidated by money, power and technical prowess. Rebecca Solnit’s work on hope provides one of many ways of responding (others are among the subjects of later posts). Her characterisation of what she calls the ‘sleeping giant’ provides a useful illustration. She writes:

The sleeping giant is one name for the public; when it wakes up, when we wake up, we are no longer only the public: we are civil society, the superpower whose nonviolent means are sometimes, for a shining moment, more powerful than violence, more powerful than regimes and armies. We write history with our feet and with our presence and our collective voice and vision. And yet, and of course, everything in the mainstream media suggests that popular resistance is ridiculous, pointless, or criminal, unless it is far away, was long ago, or, ideally, both. These are the forces that prefer the giant stays asleep. Together we are very powerful, and we have a seldom-told, seldom-remembered history of victories and transformations that can give us confidence that, yes, we can change the world because we have many times before. … The past is set in daylight, and it can become a torch we can carry into the night that is the future (Solnit, 2016, p. xxiii).

So there it is. If there’s a consistent theme it’s that power in the wrong hands creates many more problems than it solves. So it’s time to take back power from remote entities and organisations. It’s time to own our power and give only such of it as we judge necessary to structures of governance that meet our real needs and those of our times. Finally, it’s time to disrupt the disruptors. They’ve had their moment in the sun. It’s time for them to stand aside so that a different world can emerge.

Notes and references

Cadwalladr, C. Once upon a time, tech was cool and shiny. But now it’s disrupting all 
before it – even democracy 
is in its sights. Observer 6th November 2016

Editorial, Tech innovators need to be held to account, Observer 22nd June 2014.

Frier, S., Musk, Zuckerberg trade barbs over killer robots, Age 27th July 2017.

Harris, J. The modernisers have been crushed, leaving no vision, Guardian 21st October 2016.

Human Rights Watch, China: Alarming New Surveillance, Security in Tibet. Restrictions Tightened on Tibetans Despite Lack of Threat.

Kaiser, C. Dark Money review: Nazi oil, the Koch brothers and a right wing revolution. Guardian 17th January 2016

Maddox, G. James Cameron: Terminator 2 predictions are happening, Age 27th April 2017.

Mayer, J. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, New York, Doubleday, 2016.

Mozur, P. China’s sights on being AI leader, Age 23rd July, 2017.

O’Neil, C. Weapons of Math Destruction, Penguin, London, 2017.

Sheridan, M. Beijing to throw blanket of surveillance over 1.3 billion subjects. Australian, April 20th, 2015, p. 10.

Solnit, R. Hope in the Dark. London, Canongate, 2016.

Taplin, J. Move Fast and Break Things, Little, Brown & Co., New York, 2017.