The solutionist impulse and digital theology

My review of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here, published in The National

In her celebrated January 2010 statement on “internet freedom”, Hillary Clinton chided countries such as China, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Egypt for placing restrictions on internet access. The then-US secretary of state affirmed her government’s conviction that “the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become”, because “access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship”.

Not long after, the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks obtained a trove of information revealing US military and diplomatic conduct in Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the world. Information flowed freely. But the US government appeared somewhat less convinced of its capacity for strengthening society. Access to WikiLeaks was restricted in many government agencies; Amazon, MasterCard, Visa and PayPal were persuaded to withdraw their services; and students and government employees were discouraged from sharing Wikileaks information on pain of jeopardising career prospects.

Internet freedom, it turned out, was not a sacrosanct principle. It failed to resist the intrusion of profane political concerns. As an analytical category independent of political and social constraints, the internet produced stirring rhetoric, but shorn of its obfuscating theology, it proved subject to the imperatives of power as much in the United States as in Uzbekistan.

This disconnect between the reality of the internet – the physical infrastructure, with its platforms, protocols and utilities; its promises, perils and limitations – and the idea of “the internet” – as a fixed, coherent and unproblematic phenomenon that is open, public and collaborative – enables two dangerous tendencies that are the subject of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist.

The first he calls “solutionism” – a preoccupation with spectacular and narrow solutions to complex social and political problems. The second is “internet-centrism” – a conviction that “the internet” heralds a revolutionary era, a time of profound change in which old truths have become obsolete.

You can read the rest here.

Al-Biruni on India

M. Shahid Alam

Painting - Ajanta Caves

Speak the truth,
even if it were against yourselves.

Quran (4:134)

It was my master, Abu Sahl, who led me on to it.
“Write what you know about the Hindus,” he said,
“There are people who want to converse with them,
To understand their religion, science and literature.
We only have hear-say, a farrago of materials never
Sifted for accuracy. Give us facts with analysis.”

And so I put my heart to it, starting with Sanskrit.
This wasn’t an easy undertaking, without grammar
And dictionaries. I traveled through their country
Quite a bit, talking to learned Brahmans, and spared
Neither trouble nor money collecting manuscripts.
Often I invited their scholars from far-away places–
Kashmir and Kashi–to come and work with me
In Ghazni. I have endeavored in writing this book
Not to be polemical. I intend this account of India
To be nothing but a simple historic record of facts,
At once comprehensive and objective. I present
To you the theories of the Hindus, exactly as they
See them, supporting my explanations of them
With ample quotations. If any of this strikes you
As heathenish, then try to understand that such
Are the beliefs of the Hindus, and they themselves
Are best able to defend it. This book should suffice
Anyone who wants to understand the Hindus,
And discuss with them their myths, metaphysics,
And mathematics; their astronomy, arithmetic,
And astrology; their codes, customs, and conceits
On the very basis of their own civilization.

First published in Swan, 2004

–M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Write to him at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

Pakistan’s ‘Oral’ Society

Public library of Hulwan, Baghdad

M. Shahid Alam

(Note: This essay was written nearly twenty years back, in April 1991. A great many changes have come to Pakistan since then, but I am afraid that the observations I had made then about ‘orality’ of Pakistani discourse still hold true. Pakistan’s best young minds do not go where their hearts and their talents lead them. Instead, overwhelmingly, they still pursue job security. Sadly, education – even for the brightest – is still mostly vocational education. With the introduction of multiple private cable channels, however, orality has entered a new age. The oral discourse, previously confined to drawing rooms and campuses, is now led by ‘talking heads’ in television studios. Is this discourse now more solidly rooted than before in the written word, in history and the social and natural sciences? I doubt it: and why should it? Pakistan’s brown Sahibs continue to drag the country deeper into dependency; they work overtime to trap Pakistanis in the most superficial consumerism, without the capital, technology and skills that support this malaise in developed Western societies. In other words, Pakistan is still caught in the disease that Jalal Al-i Ahmad had described in his book, Gharbzadagi Occidentotis: A Plague from the West.)

I first became aware of differences between ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ societies when I returned to Pakistan in 1979 – after an absence of some five years in the United States and Canada – to take up a fellowship at the Applied Economics Research Center, affiliated to the University of Karachi.

Continue reading “Pakistan’s ‘Oral’ Society”

Michael Mann on the Incoherent Empire

I am reading Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power at the moment, and I find many of his ideas, and his sociological approach to world history most stimulating. I think his IEMP Model — society as a series of overlapping and intersecting power networks with a focus on the logistics of Ideological, Economic, Military and Political power — is by far the best approach to the study of social power. However, I was underwhelmed by his own (in my view defective) application of the theory in his Incoherent Empire. This interview is old, but his observations on history and society remain relevant nevertheless. (thanks Dave)

UC Berkeley’s Harry Kreisler welcomes UCLA sociologist Michael Mann for a conversation on how comparative historical sociology can help in our understanding of U.S. foreign policy. Series: “Conversations with History”

C. Wright Mills Reconsidered

C. Wright Mills
C. Wright Mills

C. S. Soong’s Against the Grain is always thought provoking. Also check out this article on Mills’s enduring influence, and this obituary by Ralph Miliband from the New Left Review‘s May 1962 issue. (thanks Carlos)

Download program audio (mp3, 48.6 Mbytes)

C. Wright Mills liked to think big. His analyses of power elites, white collar workplaces, the Cuban Revolution, and potential sources of radical social transformation were influential with thinkers, activists, and concerned citizens in many parts of the globe. Daniel Geary describes Mills’s ideas and their impact on a number of social movements, especially the New Left.

Authority And The Individual

bertrandrussellAuthority and the Individual is a Reith lecture given by Bertrand Russell in 1948.  The text of this lecture happens to be a favourite book of mine and I was glad that the BBC put the original audio online (even if it’s only the first two parts of the series).  In his own words “The fundamental problem I propose to consider in these lectures is this: how can we combine that degree of individual initiative which is necessary for progress with the degree of social cohesion that is necessary for survival?”

Authority and the Individual (56:37): MP3

Which is more important, freedom or order? In Authority and the Individual, the first of the BBC’s famous Reith lectures, Russell tackles what is still one of the most hotly debated issues of the twentieth century: the conflict between law, order and authority and the rights of each individual man and woman.

Architecture of Occupation

Back in 2004 when I was living in Dubai, I would often escape the soul-destroying tedium of the place by taking long walks along the highway or the beach with a podcast of something intellectually stimulating. Bob McChesney’s Media Matters would always have excellent guests and stimulating discussions. That is how I got an idea for my PhD. More recently I discovered Against the Grain whose host C. S. Soong is a highly erudite and perceptive interviewer, and he always has the kind of guests you wouldn’t find anywhere else, with a focus on sociological, geographical and philosophical issues.

Download program audio (mp3, 47.64 Mbytes)

What can an architect tell us about Israel’s mechanisms of control over, and transformation of, the Occupied Territories? In what ways are the territories an Israeli laboratory, and how might pointing to Israel’s conduct as illegal be ineffective? Eyal Weizman contends that there is an architecture to the occupation that must be examined and condemned.