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The Internet: democracy reset ?

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I open my iPad and click on an app. An unfamiliar screen opens advising me that my privacy is safe due to some new policy or other. I am reassured, apparently, and click to make it go away.

Many have been outraged recently regarding revelations about Cambridge Analytica meddling in the political process of various nations around the world and concerns about the personal profiling undertaken by advertisers on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet. I’m not so much outraged as perplexed.

B14684EC-87D3-44BC-8CF8-BE1DE59A8EB9The objection to personal data harvesting doesn’t seem much of a problem on the individual level, at least in term of commerce. The general idea of surrendering some morsel of personal detail so that advertisers can more readily entice me with products I might actually want to buy isn’t to me objectionable. I have almost never purchased anything anyway, but it’s nice to think that maybe it might display something less loathsome than an ad for a gas-guzzling CRV or endless gambling. Similarly, I’m not too concerned about other people buying too much bullshit on the Internet as a result of being taken in by expert marketing. It would presumably be a problem if whole swathes of the population followed up every ‘penis enlargement’ scam with hard cash, but the prospect of this seems unlikely.

Of course it is in a political context in which data harvesting is most worrying. It does feel extremely wrong when large swathes of the population vote differently in an election on the basis of, apparently, expertly targeted lies. I’m assured by what remains of responsible journalism that the problem is ‘echo-chambers’ inciting ‘political polarisation’, enclaves of the Internet where trolls and fake news paddlers feed off each other, and the likes of xenophobia and anti-vaxxing is rife.

However, as far as I understand it, I’m not sure that much of this has to do with privacy. Those fake news articles are shared on newsfeeds of course, but I was under the impression that users did this voluntarily.

Going further, I can’t help feeling it’s not the targeting that is the problem but the complicity and stupidity of the people who believe the obvious lies. The horror of all this is in human gullibility. Previously, before the advent of the Internet, when news reached us only via newspapers, radio and a handful of free-to-air TV stations, it was easy to believe that crackpot opinion, unsubstantiated claims and racist drivel did not constitute a risk to democracy because the mainstream media acted largely as gatekeepers keeping such material on the margins (with the occasional public scandal being the exception which proves the rule of course). I can only speak for myself, and maybe I was naïve, but this gatekeeping allowed me to believe that if such warped views were somehow broadcast, the populace would see them for what they are, dismissing or repudiating such dangerous, hysterical opinions, so democracy was reasonably secure.

I’m not sure on what basis I assumed the public would be so critical, of course. Good schooling? I doubt it. Our teachers try their best but beyond high school few people have any compulsory need to undertake refresher courses in critical thinking. I think I just assumed a kind of natural human reason would prevail. The recent concern about online security has exposed the naivety of our democratic process, or at least, my understanding of it.

The democratic process (or ‘myth’ if you like) involves a belief that society works best when the excesses of power are tempered by elections conducted every few years in which preferential voting allows a majority of the public to choose their representatives in parliament. This process is said to work most effectively because the public has some kind of say in who their leaders are. Bad leaders, here defined as those which the public don’t like, can be thrown out of office. The crucial belief seems to be that the public are selecting their leaders according to some reasonable understanding of how their leaders will behave in office and, finally, that when their own interests and wellbeing is being served or harmed by such representatives the public – can somehow recognise that…

So the prospect of voting for someone because they spout xenophobic bile or perform as a largely fictional character in an inane reality TV programme shouldn’t be on the cards, or at least, no majority, surely, would select a representative whose credentials were obviously so, to put it mildly, poor. Yet this happened and whether some dodgy analytics continue targeting us or not, apparently we are easily duped, even corrupted.

The shock for me is that I think all this does is reveal how democracy doesn’t work so well after all. I mean if democracy worked well enough without the intensive communication channels of the Internet couldn’t it be said that democracy works best when certain ideas – xenophobia, anti-vaxxing, etc. – are censored? I mean, that is largely what the old pre-Internet media used to do wasn’t it? Which leads to the question: If censorship is necessary, who should have the right to do so? Surely censorship of certain ideas should be antithetical to democracy. The question of who could have the moral authority to censor ideas is moot anyway since the more pertinent question today is: how would you do it?

Censoring the Internet is no easy task. Perhaps the Internet is the monster here. Maybe it’s not so much that the Internet provides “intensive communication channels” as I wrote in the previous paragraph but that it really provides “poor distorting improper communication channels”. The Internet is not a place of deep interpersonal connection – its anonymity is infamous. It is also not a place of complex discussion of ideas – how often have you read *this* far in an article on the Internet? I suggest the communication is distorting because a discussion between two speakers who are forced to use a limited number of words and means would indeed be restricted and therefore distorting. Such communication could be considered improper in that it seems unlikely that such large numbers of humans beings are properly equipped to be in distorted contact with each other and still be coherent. Maybe we are all wasting our time online, hypnotised by the distorting glimpses of coherency – no one can honestly say it doesn’t often feel like it. It is also improper communication insofar as it is unmonitored. Free-to-air TV back in the pre-Internet days couldn’t support “Info Wars” because space was limited so many eyes were always on anything produced. Today, thousands of people can view content made by someone in his own bedroom (or, more likely, concrete bunker) yet it is also true that almost no one knows about it, let alone any kind of authority, malicious or benign. So any old bile can percolate. (Maybe we’re in “Lord of the Flies” territory?)

2BDF2B31-04BE-44CB-B2C4-9DD9DA6B3BE1This sounds like a bad idea for democracy – not to mention justice, truth, honesty, etc., etc. It’s kind of like everyone is involved in highly addictive covert conversations under the bedclothes whispered incoherently in Morse code to a network of several thousand anonymous secret operatives spread out like one of several hundred million clandestine organisations across the globe. This sounds both horrifying (the description also seems to align with terrorism) and too cool to expect anyone to voluntarily stop doing (our “virtual reality” really).

In which case, maybe the Internet isn’t the monster – maybe democracy is just a political system that simply isn’t very well suited to its functioning nearby. Democracy without the semblance of reason certainly is beginning to look more like, if not fascist populism, at least demarchy: government by random allotment. The system certainly seems to have a virus with no obvious cure. However, destablised democracy “infiltrated” by the Internet is all we have at present and is slated to be the next ‘worst system except for all the others’. Instability, insanity, paranoia are, finally, all relative terms. “In my day,” we’ll carp to our great-grand-kids, “we used to just read good honest newspapers, have good honest conversations with humans present in the room in which we actually were physically present also, and all the newfangled time we didn’t elect none of them celebrity fascists – for if you read no Internet, you’ll be told no lies. Now wash your hands, there’s a good girl, dinner’s nearly hydrated.”


Written by tomtomrant

28 April 2018 at 9:51 am

“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe

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I strongly recommend this slim little book – the author reveals overlooked passages from the first European settlers all around Australia, who, despite strong negative bias, can’t help remarking on sophisticated and subtle aboriginal agriculture, housing, villages, food storage practices, land management, and complex social customs even as they then dismiss them as the work of “ignorant savages” and seize their mysteriously well-maintained pastures for destruction under the harsh trampling hooves of introduced sheep and cow species. The revelation for me is that Aboriginal history is really an urgent study of sustainable Australian agrarian economics today. (Reading level is just one step down from easy due to some overuse of passive forms and nominalisations (and lack of humour) – but this is splitting hairs really.)

Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 8:33 pm

The Parthenon: Context and Interpretation

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How does the historical context of the Parthenon influence the way in which we ‘read’ the building and its decorative program?

Our interpretation of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens is coloured by our understanding of the historical context in which it was built. The period in which Pericles was the leading statesman of Athens is characterized as a period of Athenian dominance and prosperity in which the city became practically the seat of an empire, as it led the Delian League of Greek city-states, set up to resist the encroaches of the Persian Empire. While possibly considered little more than a treasury and a home for the statue of Athena Parthenos by the ancient Greeks, we cannot help but interpret the site, probably incorrectly, as a ‘temple’. Undeniably though, it was a monument to Athenian hegemony, articulated through architecture and sculpture which drew upon a blend of mythology, history and politics in its imagery, expressing, among much else, the many successes the Greeks, particularly the Athenians, had over the much more numerous and powerful Persians in various armed conflicts, such as the battles of Marathon and Salamis.

The significance of the Persians wars for Athenians lies in the very large role that Athens played in these precarious victories, at least in the version of events that has come down to us in Herodotus. The victory at Marathon in 490 B.C.E. was largely an Athenian victory. Athens was mostly fending for itself in this battle which marked the first time that a Greek city-state had effectively resisted the Persians. The earlier Persian threat of 492 B.C.E. was met with little resistance from Thrace and Macedon, and in 490, before arriving at Marathon, the Persians burned Naxos and Eretria. Through all of this, Sparta, for example, made promises of assistance to the Athenians, but delivered in only a perfunctory manner. When Persian forces returned in 480 B.C.E., the battles at Thermopylae and Salamis involved the forces of a consortium of allied Greek city-states lead by Athens and Sparta. A similar consortium defeated the Persians again the following year in Plataea and Mycale.

Athenians were in the thick of these wars in a number of ways. Geographically, Athens was centrally located on the Greek mainland and in relation to the islands in the Aegean Sea. Sparta was well defended to the south and inland; Athens did not enjoy such a convenient geographical position and so could not afford the same isolationist attitude as the Spartans. As a result, Athens was involved in these conflicts to a greater degree, reaping the benefits of victory, and paying the price in defeat – Athens was sacked and burned twice during the Persian wars, during which the old temples on the Acropolis were effectively destroyed, along with an earlier Parthenon. The Athenians did not rebuild immediately, not until they had taken a more proactive approach to their defenses. The Persian Wars ultimately brought the disparate city-states of Greece together against the common enemy. Athens was at the head of the Delian League, a confederation of Greek city-states set up in 477 B.C.E. to defend Greece from any future Persian aggression. As the Persian threat receded, the Athenian statesman Cimon began to transform the contributions city-states paid to be part of the League into something resembling tributes paid by subject-states to a dominant empire-state. Cimon began to bully and lay siege to city-states who were not part of the League or wished to leave it. This caused frictions with Sparta, leading to the First Peloponnesian War.

By 446 B.C.E., Athens had formed peace agreements with Sparta and with the Persians yet was still quietly receiving tribute from many city-states. Under Pericles, the Athenians continued centralizing power and dominating both economically and culturally, taking on legal administration, standardizing currency, weights and measures, even making political decisions without directly consulting the city-states involved. This was a period of huge economic growth in Athens as wealth from the city-states flowed into the city. Athens became a cosmopolitan hub for the arts – sculpture, painting, theatre, and philosophy flourished. It was in this context that it was decided to begin rebuilding the monuments on the Acropolis including the new Parthenon in 449 B.C.E.

Importantly, the building we know as the Parthenon was apparently built primarily to house the statue of Athena Parthenos. The name Parthenon simply means ‘unmarried women’s apartments’ (presumably the goddess’s) and may have only referred to part of the building originally. The building receives surprisingly few mentions in the surviving literature, ancient writers instead seeing the statue of Zeus at Olympia as one of the wonders of the ancient world. Also, ancient writers do not refer to it as a ‘temple’; there is little evidence for ritual practice in the building. This is another reason why we tend to interpret the building as having a specifically Athenian ‘nationalistic’ rather than a general religious significance. The building was used as a treasury, a storehouse of much of the wealth of Athens – it became the treasury of the Delian League when this was moved from Delos in 454 B.C.E.

The design of the building resembles temple designs of the past, but is on a monumental scale and has many unique features. One of these is the combination of Doric and Ionic stylistic features. The inner frieze, originally forming an uninterrupted band around the inner building as one continuous figured sculptural work, is a Ionic feature. Given our understanding of the context and purpose of the building, we can interpret this as recognizing a unity if not a dominance over the Ionian Greek city-states which were officially part of the League and empire. The building is also distinctive for not being strictly straight in any of its dimensions – it is subtly curved, supposedly to counter optical illusions which make straight lines appear curved on this scale. We could also interpret this as exhibiting Athenian ingenuity, even crafty duplicity, or as simply another element lending the monument an impressive effect. The profound sense of graceful balance in its measured proportions may also be interpreted as reflecting robust Athenian democracy.

Of course, much of the sculptural decoration has been weathered, defaced or destroyed in the Parthenon’s long history, but ancient and modern historical sources contribute to supply us with a general idea of the scenes depicted on its pediments, metopes, and inner frieze. The west pediment is believed to depict Athena and Poseidon in a gift-giving contest for ownership of Athens. Given the context, we would interpret this as documenting a significant Athenian event; not exactly the founding of Athens but the event that led to its gaining Athena as its goddess. Athena gave the gift of an olive tree whereas Poseidon provided a natural spring which disconcertingly issued forth salt water (since Poseidon was a sea god). Presumably, Athena won the contest because the ancient Athenians were farmers and not seafarers. Poseidon was reportedly furious and so flooded Athens. However, in light of the fifth-century context, we know that Athens had since become a great naval power; its fleet was after all its most powerful force against the Persians and the basis of its continued power in the Delian League. We therefore tend to interpret this pediment as something more like a friendly contest rather than a war between Athena and Poseidon. The Athenians probably chose this myth to include and appease not exclude Poseidon.

The east pediment portrays the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, another scene significant for the goddess’s city. The metopes around the outer building depict scenes of war: we see Greeks versus Amazons, Trojans, and centaurs, and the Olympian gods fighting the giants. We may assume that not only do these scenes symbolize the cultured self-control of the Athenians over primitive, inferior forces, but, given the context, we may note the link with the Persian wars and even the Delian League in relation to the Trojan War, a famous mythological instance of another victorious Greek alliance. The inner Ionian frieze appears to depict the Panathenaic festival in which the Athenians took part in a procession to the Parthenon in order to present the statue of Athena Parthenos with the peplos, a special robe made by the women of Athens. Some scholars have questioned whether this scene actually is a Panathenaea as depictions of non-mythological scenes in friezes is extremely rare, instead suggesting it is a depiction of the sacrifice of Athenian King Erechtheus’s daughter. Either way, this event seems to draw together all the threads of our interpretations from the historical, cultural and political context: the event celebrated the power and glory of Athens. Athenian colonies sent gifts and sacrifices for such a ceremonial procession, reinforcing the nationalism of Athens. It brought together Athenian citizens and, through ritual, linked them to their goddess Athena.

In conclusion, our interpretations of the Parthenon and its decorative program are perhaps not overly specific, the sculptures and friezes do not reference the Persian Wars or the Athenian Empire directly, but what we know of this historical context indeed forces us to posit a general nationalistic program, especially considering the size and location of the Parthenon. We may also garner further interpretive insight by also considering what the Parthenon is not. It is not a monument to a particular king or leader, at least not outwardly. There is no giant statue of Pericles, for instance, even if the sources suggest that he was the main instigator of the building work. Instead we see a respect for the gods, and the impressive artistry of the masons and sculptors of antiquity. We cannot help but interpret this as exhibiting a respect for craft, for the gods, and, in the graceful ease and balance of the monumental architecture, for democracy.

Written by tomtomrant

20 March 2014 at 2:31 pm