Saturday, April 5, 2014

The new Captain America movie is an allegory for our time.

I saw the new Captain America movie with my daughter last night. I liked it much more than I expected, in part because it explores themes that are currently in the headlines, and in my social media feed. I had feared the movie would be an exercise in jingoistic flag-waving as the super-human embodiment of American values and virtues battles evil alien forces. Instead, it is a thoughtful exploration of the eternal questions of liberty versus security, trust versus suspicion, and obedience versus resistance. Also, Scarlett Johanssen gets lots of screen time. (Caution: moderate spoilers ahead.) The movie centers on a plan to impose peace and order on the world through an algorithm that analyzes a person's propensity to cause problems for society, or for the government, by processing the entirety of the world's digital traffic, public and private. Those people are then killed using a new technology that there is no need to reveal here. It is calculated that by eliminating just 20 million people, life for the remaining 7 billion will be orderly and peaceful. The phrase "final solution" might come to mind.

Meanwhile, in the headlines, we read the ongoing revelations from Edward Snowden's whistleblowing of the NSA, the utilization of the IRS to target politically unfavored groups for "special scrutiny", the latest Supreme Court decision (McCutcheon v FEC) overturning the aggregate limits on contributions to multiple campaigns, and most recently, the forcing out of Mozilla's CEO.

Brendan Eich, the Mozilla co-founder, and inventor of Javascript, was forced out of his recent CEO appointment because of a $1,000 contribution he made on behalf of California's 2008 Proposition 8, opposing same-sex marriage. As far as we know, Mr. Eich did not say or do anything in any of his roles at Mozilla, including CEO, that could be construed as anti-gay. He affirmed his support of Mozilla's very liberal health benefits for same-sex partners, and expressed no interest in treating LGBT people any differently with respect to hiring, promotions, or benefits. Outside of this one campaign donation in 2008, he seemed the very model of a modern liberal CEO.

(Ironically, in 2008, presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama, gave far more support to California's Proposition 8 than did Mr. Eich, directly by making his opposition to same-sex marriage part of his presidential campaign, and indirectly by organizing a very effective get-out-the-vote campaign in communities that were far more hostile to gay marriage than was the average Californian. I have yet to see an organized campaign from the opponents of Proposition 8 to hound him out of office for it.)

Furthermore, Proposition 8 was dead, and rightfully so. After winning in California's election booths in 2008 by 52% to 48%, the law was ruled unconstitutional in a California court in 2010, and the United States Supreme Court chose to let that ruling stand in 2013. Nevertheless, somebody saw fit to comb the records of that now dead campaign, discover Brendan Eich's contribution there, and target him to be purged. In light of this, the campaign to oust Eich seems much more like a vindictive exercise of power than a defense of civil rights too long denied.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one of the villians attempts to stop Natasha Romanov by asking her if she is prepared to have her dark past exposed on the Internet.

This new algorithm for analyzing the digital record, using it to identify "problem people", and targeting them to be purged from their jobs, their careers, their schools, or their homes, should have us all concerned. You will increasingly be judged by your life's worst moments, or the moments that can be cast in the most negative light. Everyone is now subject to career-ending character assassination at all times. Even if the accusations are false, it does not matter. Mark Twain's lie that once got halfway around the world while the truth was pulling on its shoes, now goes around the world thousands of times, spawns memes, reaction vlog videos, and outraged articles in the Huffington Post, in the same time.

At the same time that our lives are increasingly exposed to digital inspection, the explosion of the regulatory state means that we are all guilty of some violation, or as Harvey Silverglate writes, we commit on average "Three Felonies a Day." The job of law enforcement is less one of bringing justice to those who break the law, and more one of selecting whom to prosecute. Those with unpopular opinions, or unpopular occupations, of course. The prosecutions that will get you elected mayor, or governor. Right, Mr. Guliani? Right, Mr. Spitzer?

In reference to the Mozilla affair, a friend of mine who immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union recently observed, "There is no freedom of speech, except for those with nothing to lose." If that is true, then free, democratic society is doomed. It is the precise opposite of the principle of "skin in the game," advocated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb as a guiding ethical heuristic to reduce catastrophic outcomes. If the only voices we empower are the ones who pay no price for being wrong, we are sure to go wrong very quickly.

What will life be like under this new constant threat of being purged? Should we accept it as the new normal? Will there be a mechanism to purchase indulgences that protect you from being targeted? Can the American values that worked in the pre-digital age survive Total Information Awareness?

A free, tolerant, pluralistic, democratic republic can only survive if we can live and work side-by-side with people who have very different ideas than we do about how to live. Live and let live is the rule of a civil society. People who fancy themselves as champions of "diversity" might imagine that a generalization of draconian campus speech codes to society at large will promote harmony. However, it is becoming more plain that what it promotes is witch hunts.

Our culture is changing. People have so much choice in their sources of information, entertainment, and recreation that they consciously or unconsciously silo themselves in comfortable echo chambers of like-minded people. It does not help that the recent economic downturn also makes people feel squeezed and insecure. Opinions are hardened and people more socially retrenched. Decreasingly able or willing to engage with challenging views, we become more tribal. Our gang signs are the things we "like", the words we use.

In this new culture, the first approach to disagreement is to silence the opposing view. Social media facilitates this, while at the same time being a gain medium for comforting lies and half-truths that are shared at internet speed, and that serve to further polarize opinion. Why try to understand why someone seems to harbor such horrible opinions when it is easier to "unfriend" them?

It will take an ever-increasing amount of effort to find and engage people of divergent views with humility and respect, but it might be the most import social activity there is. Charles Murray, in "Coming Apart", has written eloquently about how small minority of people who make the major political, economic, and cultural decisions in our society are becoming more and more isolated from the vast majority of people who have to live with the consequence of those decisions. They have less and less "skin in the game". This is a trend that can only end in catastrophe.

The theme of the Avengers movies is that each super hero has their own special abilities, but also bears the physical and psychological scars of their past. None of us are perfect, and all of us are a little broken. The guy that invented Javascript also voted against marriage equality. If we judge each other by our worst moments, we will never get the good stuff.