rooting around for grubs in diverse soils

What if? Football minus sportswashing

“Khaldoon said he would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years.” The football association, according to the email, now had the possibility “to avoid the destruction of their rules and organization.” Der Spiegel

If professional football is now a deep cesspit of global corruption, then the English Premier League (EPL) is its surface scum. The game has never been innocent but, as with everything, it is a fundamentally question of scale. Football clubs are now opportunities for billionaires guilty of despicable sins to cover their reputations in a veneer of pseudo-philanthropy, a practice now branded ‘sportswashing’.

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Race and the European Union: Can the subaltern speak?

They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

At the end of a podcast interview with author Rafia Zakaria, the presenter said the European Commission had been asked how many members of the current college of commissioners were persons of colour. The reply was that the question could not be answered because the EU did not collect such statistics. Anyone who capable of a cursory search on the Internet can quickly discover for themselves the answer to this clearly rhetorical question: it is zero. The answer remains zero if you consider the whole group of the most senior office holders in the EU – the presidents of the European Council, Parliament, European Court of Justice, European Central Bank and so on. It is zero not just now but in the entire history of the European project since its foundation under the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

On the question of gender balance, the EU machine is now comfortable with targets for senior positions, and Commission President von der Leyen made sure 50% of her college were women. All male panels at Brussels conferences are out of fashion. But when it comes to questions of race and ethnicity the EU machine is impervious. This matters because human rights in the EU are not evenly enjoyed and respected, especially for those on the margins, like dark-skinned migrants and refugees. A workshop hosted in April by the European Network Against Racism concluded that there was a ‘lack of serious political commitment around the implementation of anti-racism policies, including with the reluctance to collect equality data disaggregated by race.’ If, among the cadre of decision-makers in the EU there is not one single person of colour (i.e. someone who self-identifies as non-white, or is racialised), then how can they be expected to empathise with or uphold the rights of the people most likely to suffer violations of their fundamental rights.

A recent major citizen consultation , ‘the Conference on the Future of Europe’, provides a salutary illustration. This was conducted by the European Parliament, an institution in which an estimated 3% of its Members were people of colour, or 24 out of 751, until the number fell by a further 6 when the UK left the bloc. The final report describes the methodology for the exercise as follows:

Particular attention was paid to ensuring balanced groups of experts in terms of gender and geographical diversity and balanced inputs from each of them, via extensive briefings providing citizens with facts and/or the state of play of the debate while avoiding sharing personal opinions….  European Union citizens were randomly selected (random telephone calling was the main method used by 27 national polling institutes coordinated by an external service provider), with the aim of setting up ‘Panels’ which were representative of the EU’s diversity on the basis of five criteria: gender, age, geographic origin (nationality as well as urban/rural), socio-economic background and level of education.

Across the report’s 350 pages, the terms race, racialisation, or people of colour do not appear at all. ‘Ethnicity’ occurs once – in the context of family rights. It includes a ‘key message’ that is remarkable mainly for what it does not say: ‘In the future, Europeans, across Member States and regions, should no longer face discrimination due to their age, residency, nationality, gender, religion, or political preference’. It is as if we have been immersed into a post-racist virtual reality. 

White people in the institutions tend to respond to such criticism with an insistence on how the EU is actually really diverse because it is a project uniting all the different nationalities of its Member States who are treated equally by law. The protests following murder of George Floyd in May 2020 briefly spilled over into the EU and forced a degree of introspection among policymakers, but their reaction was largely superficial and tended to dismiss the episode as symptomatic of a peculiarly American malaise. The European commissioner for equality announced: “Black Europeans are European citizens and should be treated equally and fairly, free from all manifestations of racism, xenophobia and intolerance.” It was an echo of a familiar right-wing trope that attempts to assimilate by denying difference, experience and agency. (Paul Gilroy dissected this in his 1987 book Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack, in particular by citing a party political ad in late 1970s which displayed a young black man in a suit with the slogan ‘Labour say he’s black, Tories say he’s British.’)

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A more substantive response was hinted at by the Commission in its 2020 EU Action Plan Against Racism which acknowledged the existence of ‘structural racism’ and conceded – for the first time for any EU body – that the Commission itself ‘as an employer, has to lead by example. To be a modern organisation, the Commission needs a workforce which is representative of our society as a whole,’ and it promised ‘actions… in a forthcoming HR strategy’. This HR strategy was published in April this year and it underook to develop ‘Actions … to better attract, support and include staff with an ethnic minority background. To monitor progress, the Commission will carry out regular diversity and inclusion surveys and review the actions accordingly.’ It further undertook to ‘Ensure full gender equality at all levels of Commission management by 2024″’, but was again silent on both race and racialisation.

Meanwhile, the leader of one EU member state, Victor Orban, is now openly articulating an agenda for European racial purity, and the official EU response is limited to worthless platitudes.  Orban only said the quiet parts out loud.  There is always an othering.  The EU recognises the need for gender equality, and prizes cultural diversity, whatever that might mean, but human rights are degraded when they are treated as abstractions. The reality is that rights are fragile and their infringements are unevenly felt. Conferences addressing human rights like privacy and freedom of expression rarely invite people of colour onto their panels and keynote lecterns. Where EU institutions employ people of colour, they tend to have more precarious contracts compare to jobs-for-life officials.  In the Ukraine crisis, reports of discrimination experienced by people of colour fleeing to the borders in the early weeks of the invasion were offically dismissed, even as they were corroborated by the Fundamental Rights Agency. “Whenever Ukrainian border guards saw my face they stopped me while waving the Ukrainian women forward,“ said Bwalya Sørensen of BLM Danmark, who visited the border in the spring. She had a similar experience in a hotel accomodating refugees in Krakow. The ‘anti-woke’ narrative is being coordinated across the Atlantic. EU politicians are generally at ease with slamming overt racism, but few if any engage with its systemic nature. Michaela Moua, the Commission’s excellent anti-racism coordinator, seems alone in carrying forward the message of the action plan.

Gayatri Spivak, the title of whose seminal essay I have plagiarised for this article, critiqued French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault for their complicity in the silencing of the colonial subject, in the erasure of the ‘signifier’, the presumption that the subaltern are transparent and can – must – be represented (vertreten) because they are (as Marx wrote of the small-holding peasants in mid-19th century France) incapable of representing themselves. The subaltern, Spivak concludes, cannot speak.

It is not, therefore, a question of a right to speak, which in a profoundly unequal society is a meaningless abstraction, but rather a question of creating the possibility for them to do so. The imperative is not only one of social justice but also geopolitics. The EU’s institutionalised colour blindness may help explain why much of the rest of the world has shrugged its shoulders when white Europeans appeal for support against Russian violence and cruelty. Where is the ruling class of the EU when the rights of people who do not look like them are violated?

Inching towards counting how many staff identify as non-white is helpful but no game-changer. This is not a scientific exercise. Around 10% of the population of Europe are people of colour; there are around 60 senior officials: so go figure. A bold, precipitate political manouevre is called for, akin to von der Leyen’s decision to insist on a gender-balanced college of Commissioners. ‘If, in the context of colonial production’, wrote Spivak, ‘the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow’. It should not be too much to ask that, when the EU’s next cycle begins with parliamentary elections and a new Commission in 2024, at least 10% of its nominations and appointments to high office should be of people of colour.

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Whose privacy?

Jaap-Henk Hoepman’s Privacy Is Hard and Seven Other Myths: Achieving Privacy through Careful Design is a compact and attractively designed book that aims to do two things: scotch a handful of myths about privacy, and make a positive case for how digital technology can protect it.  For the author, digital technologies appear like the reprogrammable T-800, able to pivots from menace to humanity in the first Terminator film to being its (not quite) saviour in the second.

The myths are plentiful, and Hoepman’s selection is as interesting as what does not make the final cut, such as the myth of the privacy paradox. Privacy has been commodified: the cost of a ‘data privacy solution’ starts from $50 a month for some cookie pop-ups to few hundred dollars a month if you want seamlessly to ‘gain user consent’. The fact that there is competition over who cares the most about your privacy would suggest we have come some way since Zuckerberg pronounced its death as a ‘social norm’, but the notion still has widespread currency.  Another myth is that data are somehow abstract weightless, invisible and odourless elements stored in a non-physical cloud. Data means computing power which relies on extracted materials from the earth for building the hardware and generating the electricity, and human labour usually poorly remunerated early in the supply chain. Still another myth is that privacy violations are only committed by other people. This is the essential logic of the marketing message accompanying Google’s Sandbox, Facebook’s exclusion of third parties from its APIs, and Apple’s App Tracking Transparency. In none of these initiatives, as far as I can tell, were there any undertakings by these gigantic companies in question to reveal or improve their own data practices.    

Meanwhile, Privacy is Hard hints at a number of underlying questions.

First world problems

First, whose privacy? Today’s digitalised society of course affects the rights to privacy and data protection, but it does so unevenly. This unevenness is a function of the vast and growing inequalities within and between societies.  The Global South is unfortunately often absent from these discussions, which is inexcusable given the growing body of scholarship now available –  Achille Mbembe or Nanjala Nyabola to cite just two – plus the empirical analyses contained in the UNCTAD Digital Economy Reports of recent years. They reveal populations of poorer countries being farmed for their data by Chinese and US tech companies in exchange for connectivity, electronic IDs and various other gadgets and services. Migrants are the objects of tracking and biometrics technology and will become more so our environment deteriorates and geopolitics become increasingly volatile in the coming decades.  Children – according to a Human Rights Watch report – last week that almost all EdTech products risked or infringed on children’s rights.  Amazon warehouse workers and Uber drivers, long been treated as a slaves to the algorithm, but as a result of the pandemic the market for workplace surveillance is now pumped on steroids. Workers have little choice but to acquiesce if they want to keep their jobs.

Yet privacy is alive and well and always will be for the powerful. Despite congressional majorities and state attorneys-generals efforts – still no one can get at Donald Trump’s tax returns. Mark Zuckerberg would not tell Congress what hotel he is staying in, although his social media empire is built on the collection of such trivial data concerning everyone else. Independent audit and transparency are always resisted by the powerful, with a plethora of tolls like NDAs, non-compete clauses and trade secrets wielded by smart lawyers ready to intimidate and exhaust any potential challengers, such that the mere threat of litigation is enough to chill most of them into silent. 

Hoepman’s proposition about using tech to enhance privacy may well be valid for those of us who are familiar with VPNs, encrypted messaging apps etc. However, it is not fair to place the onus on everyone to be become so tech savvy. The very act of collecting and using data is an indication of power. Kate Crawford has been concerned specifically about AI, but her call to reason is equally apt for any processing of data, especially at scale, given the computing power, human resources and other administrative and legal apparatus that are required.

‘Datasets [in AI] are never raw materials to feed algorithms: they are inherently political interventions. The entire practice of harvesting data, categorizing and labelling, it, and then using it to train systems is a form of politics.’

Hoepman recognises the inherent risk in the assumption of a rational consumer in a reality of power imbalances. In the concentrated markets of the digital economy, where the dominant business model is tracking and profiling, how can there be genuine choice? If there is no choice, how can there be freely-given consent, the only valid form of consent under the GDPR?  This is where the legal regimes of privacy and competition intersect, yet regulators still have not managed to converge on a solution.

Wizards of Oz

Second, what actually motivates all this rampant data harvesting? The book selects a random Android mobile app, the ‘Brightest Flash LED’, which hoovers up all manner of data utterly irrelevant to the functioning of a torch – location, address book and microphone recordings – as an example of the indispensable, privacy-invasive business models. What is not clear is why configure such an app to collect so much personal data in the first place. Typically these data get funnelled to Google and Facebook. Is their end goal really manipulating our brains to buy more stuff? (Or as the EU AI Act authors put it, to ‘deploy subliminal techniques beyond a person’s consciousness in order to materially distort a person’s behaviour in a manner that causes or is likely to cause that person or another person physical or psychological harm’.)  Privacy is Hard cites Carole Cadwalladr’s contention that the abuses of Cambridge Analytica tipped the 2016 referendum towards Brexit and, of course, I would like this to be true. Unfortunately, this is an easy answer to a complex question, which runs the risk of doing the free marketing of the surveillance capitalists.

Hoepman asserts early in the book that Google, Facebook “and the like … know everything we share on their platform…”  Do they really, or have they just managed to get advertisers to believe them?  The author later reflects that thinking about surveillance not enough and that ‘perhaps we need to shift our attention and focus on the underlying capitalist premise instead’ (including a reference to Morosov’s stunning dissection of Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism), but here the thought is left tantalisingly hanging in the air. (In fact, there is no need to assume this is a typically capitalist malaise; a digitalised feudal system would be driven by the same dynamics of power.)  He also recognises that Google and Facebook are basically advertising companies. Facebook monopolises (for now) the inventory for social media eyeballs with its various other tracking techniques so ubiquitous so you cannot escape them whether or not you are a subscriber to one of their services.  Google has by far the biggest search engine and is powerful on both the demand and supply side of the adtech ecosystem.  These companies certainly, therefore, want your data. The question, left unexplored, is whether they are monetising the actual data or rather the belief in their claim that their data gives them unrivalled powers of predicting future behaviour on the basis of past behaviour. Such claims cannot be verified because there is no transparency about what the companies really do with the data.  We all see ‘personalised ads’ for the same things we have only just purchased. Now internal documents obtained by Motherboard suggest that Facebook themselves do not know what data they have or what happens to them.  Most data is just not used at all; most companies do not have the imagination or computing power to get value from it.  Surveillance capitalism might more accurately be described as industrial-scale data hoarding: hoarding that requires the burning of fossil fuels. In such a scenario, the Emperor has no clothes, and it is all one massive scam.  

The simulacra of privacy

Furthermore, for all the discussion of using tech to hide your data, it would be a shame to reduce all digital relationships to zero trust by default. This would not reflect how we are in real life. Hoepman indeed cites Helen Nissenbaum’s work on the contextual nature of privacy. If you are in a relationship of trust and respect then you have few qualms about exposing yourself; otherwise, there are gradations in the privacy human dignity demands.  These norms have been unsettled by the growing interpolation of technology, and the relatively few entities in control of that technology, into social and economic life, such that you have no choice but to expose yourself to those entities, even though you do not trust them. Can any systems redesign be expected address this? I am not sure. Hoepman concludes that privacy could be restored if we could ‘redo the plumbing’. Perhaps we should focus on repairing socio-economic ties and diminishing the depredations of gigantic faceless intermediaries. 

And yet, the Privacy is Hard is timelier than its author could have anticipated. It treats privacy as more or less coterminous with the processing of personal data, which is not a problem for most people except the most unreconstructed European legal geek. But here are infringements of privacy that make data protection violations look trivial. In the US, there are now well-founded fears of a real-life spillover when the Supreme Court as expected overturns Roe v Wade, which rests on a putative but contested right to privacy. Red States are lining up to criminalise not just abortion, but also contraception and abortion support. So all of the personal data harvested by platforms, apps and websites will become susceptible to disclosure to law enforcement, including data concerning women worried about what to do about pregnancy or fertility.

The market for privacy as commodity may have come to resemble Baudrillard’s simulacrum, a representation that bears ‘no relation to any reality whatsoever’. But the privacy-protecting tech solutions Hoepman promotes, like encryption and for minimising data retention, could well suddenly become essential rather than nice-to-haves. Market-driven and voluntary privacy-by-design could become the only safeguard in the United States against the intrusion of the state into a person’s most intimate sphere – if only everyone were able to avail themselves of it .

Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet: Caedmon’s Hymn

As the frontiers of the Roman Empire receded towards the East, tribes crossed the North Sea to colonise southern and eastern parts of Britannia. Germanic antecedents to their language are almost lost to history. Roman Christianity however brought writing, and the Anglo-Saxons were among the earliest Germanic tribes to convert. Their own language is thus preserved in 3037 texts, dated to between 600 and 1150, containing around three million words, the equivalent of 30 medium-sized novels. Of this, 5% per cent, 30 000 lines, is poetry.

Old English poetry followed a rubric whereby its lines divided into two parts separated by a pause or caesura, and relied on the mnemonics of alliteration and metaphor rather than rhyme and simile. Its metre strongly suggests a musical accompaniment, likely the sort played by the harp found among the hoard in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Reading it you are peering into a lost pagan culture, revolving around its revered war lords dispensing treasure in mead halls after raids and battles, surrounded by barren expanses of fen and moor, refuges from crashing waves and frozen seas, from the vultures pulling the flesh from the carcasses of the fallen beyond. It is a tradition to which the Norman Conquest of 1066 put paid.

Among the oldest of these 30 000 lines are the nine that make up Caedmon’s Hymn, whose unusually copious preservation in 17 separate manuscripts is thanks to the admiration of the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (AD 731). According to Bede, Caedmon was an unschooled herder of cows – the clumsy clodhopper reimagined by the 20th century poet Denise Levertov – on the land of the monastery at Streoneshalh (Whitby) under the rule of Abbess Hild. An old man (which at the time could have meant no more than 40 years old), he would rise and return to his beasts to avoid his turn at singing as the harp circulated towards him during feasting (convivio in Bede’s original Latin, on beorscipe (‘beer drinking’) in the later Old English translation), until he was suddenly and miraculously imbued with the ability to compose skilful verse.

Here is its likely original transcription, added as a gloss to Bede’s History just after his death, in the Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon.

Nu scylan hergan            hefaenricaes uard 

metudaes maecti             end his modgidanc

uerc uuldurfadur,            sue he uundra gihuaes,

eci dryctin,                       or astelidae.

He aerist scop                  aelda barnum

heben til hrofe,                haleg scepen;

tha middengeard             moncynnaes uard,

eci dryctin,                        aefter tiadae,

firum foldu,                      frea allmectig.

This little poem coincided with the peak of the Christianising influences on the Anglo-Saxons. The people clearly warmed more immediately to the Old Testament God of Hosts than to the New Testament message of the suffering Messiah. Accordingly, the hymn consists in large part of the various names of God in apposition like in an Old Testament Psalm or the messianic prophesy of Isaiah, with lots of alliteration and a couple of the compounds or ‘kennings’ so abundant in the tradition: hefaenrīcaes Uard (heavenly ward or lord), metudæs maecti (mighty ‘measurer’ i.e. God), Uuldurfadur (glory father), ēci dryctin (eternal lord), hāleg scepen (holy creator), moncynnæs Uard (mankind’s ward), Frēa allmectig (Lord Almighty). It follows a largely trochaic metre, which means its skips along, hovering a bit over the multiple stresses and ‘u’ sounds in the third line, and the ‘double lift’ of ‘moncynnes uuard’.

Unlike the other surviving ‘elegiac’ poems, such as Beowulf, the Wanderer and the Seafarer, Caedmon’s Hymn is exclusively concerned with the eternal (ece) rather than the transitory (laene). It lacks their racy kennings, melancholy and melodrama. I think of it like Paul McCartney’s Blackbird, whose pared-back simple lyrics run to around the same length and is also accompanied by a single acoustic instrument, eschewing the genre-bending audacity of their most creative period. It goes nowhere; it just dwells in the presence of a new God, the new commander of the people’s allegiance. With each half verse comes the strum of the harp. The mead hall and revelry remain, but the eternal God has taken the place of the powerful but transitory treasure-giving lord, in whose lap the retainers were wont to nestle: Now ought we to praise our lord and creator, the poem goes, who made heaven for our roof, and middle earth as our dwelling place, and that is enough for now. The new-fangled heavenly kingdom has supplanted the earthly one.

Bede’s History includes an account of the fatalistic reflections of a pagan counsellor to Edwin, King of Northumbria and great-uncle to Abbess Hild, while they cogitated on whether to embrace the new faith.  

It seems to me thus, dearest king, that this present life of men on earth, in comparison to the time that is unknown to us, [is] as if you were sitting at your dinner tables with your noblemen, warmed in the hall, and it rained and it snowed and it hailed and one sparrow came from outside and quickly flew through the hall and it came in through one door and went out through the other. Lo! During the time that he was inside, he was not touched by the storm of the winter. But that is the blink of an eye and the least amount of time, but he immediately comes from winter into winter again. So then this life of men appears for a short amount of time; what came before or what follows after, we do not know. Therefore, if this new lore brings anything more certain and more wise, it is worthy of that that we follow it.

The inspired herdsman sings in hopeful counterpoint to this ancient bleakness.  

Six Virtues of the Data Act, or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the Data Act

Yet another proposal for an EU digital ‘act’ has just landed and, having worked on it for a year, I cannot be expected to be impartial. So before the world’s brains fully digest its contents, here are seven reasons to believe the Data Act is a Good Thing.

  1. It empowers consumers – The Data Act builds on right to data portability under Art 20 GDPR, which, for all its innovativeness, is full of caveats. Note that the Data Act is about economic rights rather than fundamental rights. You have to be an owner of a connected product to have, under the Data Act, the undisputed right to access data your product generated. But it gives you the right to access and have transferred data from your product, whether it’s personal or not, whatever the legal basis, and it doesn’t depend on the access being ‘technically feasible’ (recital 68 , GDPR). And if, for whatever reason, you can’t port your IoT data under the Data Act, your GDPR Article 20 rights cannot be affected. Safeguards for consumers in the Data Act, like the provisions against profiling and use of dark patterns, are tough and go beyond the basic requirements of the GDPR.
  2. It empowers SMEs– small and micro companies are exempt from the new obligations, but they do get the access to data from connected products to innovate and compete which they have long campaigned for. Equally, while the Data Act opens up access to IoT data, it keeps the door shut to big data aggregators – the ‘gatekeepers’ of the Digital Markets Act. Given their ‘unrivalled ability to acquire data’ (recital 36) – they have no need of further encouragement.
  3. It supports the European Green Deal – connected products have a huge and growing environmental footprint. Making the data available to competing repair and maintenance service providers is essential to reduce waste and for the circularity of products and materials. In this way, the Data Act is of a piece with the forthcoming Digital Product Passport / Sustainable Product Initiative which is close to being unveiled. Also, public bodies combating and trying to adapt to environmental degradation and climate change have not been able to get data they need to prevent and respond to emergencies. The Data Act provides a mechanism for this. It’s a rare act that directly supports both legs of the much vaunted twin green-digital transition.
  4. It puts data to work for all of society, not just the biggest companies. Democratic public bodies accessing data from large companies. Public sector access to private data is going to be hotly debated and for good reason. While there are means for data to be moved lawfully from government to business, there isn’t when most data is controlled by a handful of private tech companies. Hence, the call for a lawful and proportionate means in a democracy for data to be accessible in the public interest. The ‘B2G’ section of the Data Act is therefore carefully tied to public emergencies and exceptional needs, with strict safeguards and data minimisation provisions. It also provides for these bodies to give access to genuine (ie not-for-profit or public interest) scientific research. And again, small and medium are exempt from these data sharing obligations.
  5. It lets you switch between cloud services. Access to data processing infrastructure is essential for all companies to digitise. But businesses typically get locked into cloud services, and only discover hidden charges when they try to get out. The Data Act envisages – among other things – the phasing out of charges, like with roaming in telecoms in the past.
  6. Minimum red-tape – coherent enforcement. Last, Data Act doesn’t impose yet another regulatory body, but it requires the relevant ones – including data protection authorities – to cooperate. If you have a complaint, it’s not on you as a consumer or SME to know which authority you should go to – the agencies have to work together to deal with your problem. This directly responds to the call from, notably, the European Data Protection Supervisor (e.g. here, and here) for ‘institutionalised and structured’ cooperation in the digital economy.

So there you have it: fight me.

Scale and conspiracy

In 1995 Will Self published a short story about the fantastic morphine-induced hallucinations of a divorcee living beside a model village who loses his sense of proportion. As his reverie descends through 50 pages the notion of scale itself fragments and dissolves into a morass of homonyms – the scales on a reptile, the scale at the bottom of a kettle, the scales formed by the constellation Libra, and so on.

A pathological lack of scale afflicts political discourse regarding COVID-19 and many other areas. Western democracies can’t decide whether to stick or twist, with opinions hardening around either imposing harsh and punitive lockdown measures and fines on the non vaccinated, or lifting all restrictions and be done with it.

There should be space for personal accountability as well as social solidarity. But the social order depends on consent and taxation. Consent cannot easily be coaxed out of the angry and defiant to get themselves vaccinated and wear a mask occasionally. Who then should bear the burden of equipping the health services unable to sustain the COVID sick, overwhelmingly those unvaccinated, while those in need of more routine medical care are made to wait and suffer?

Now as a sign of the poverty of political groupthink, a novel form of liberal authoritarianism is emerging which penalises the unvaccinated, whether in the form of compulsory vaccination or fines or denial of welfare for dissenters.

Not enough attention is applied to the question of who is behind the explosion of conspiracy theories that people absorb and espouse as the new anti-gospel? Who is mobilising the 10s of 1000s of people to congregate and protest, providing cover to violent neo-fascist and anarchist cells, in Brussels and elsewhere? No doubt dark money, shady billionaires and hostile third countries are involved somewhere, though there is a risk of falling into the trap of conspiracy theorising about who is responsible for conspiracy theories.

What is indisputable is the spread of bullshit and the mobilisation on the streets are only possible because of the way a handful of platforms, more than anything Facebook and YouTube, choose to run their business. Equally indisputable is that these platforms rake in billions of advertising dollars through the engagement that compelling antivax content drives, amplified and recommended by their algorithms.

We need a sense of scale. The social bond frays and is need of repair and maintenance. But the penalty should not be paid by the shy dad at the school bus stop or the midfield enforcer in the football team or the wacko family of evangelicals who now share a belief that Bill Gates invented the vaccine to control humanity. However loony or selfish or annoying I might think they are, their impact on their respective social microclimates is negligible. They are entitled to their own views, and no civilised democracy should even contemplate forcing a needle into their arms against their will. Their defiance in the face of conventional wisdom will be to their cost anyway – when they find it harder to travel or enter premises because the owners and operators of those spaces insist on a vaccine passport.

So leave the little people – that’s most of the population – their trinkets of eccentricity. A sense of scale dictates that the tab should be paid by those who promulgate and profit from this junk, because it serves their agendas. A windfall tax on Facebook, Google and the handful of wealthy donors to antivax campaigns to fund health and social care systems.

This will not happen, because those are the people in positions of wealth and power who can always resist such visibility and accountability. But justice lies closer to such a solution than to blanket sanctions against the 10-20% of the population for whom antivax nostrums are now core to their own sense of identity and autonomy.

Online advertising: Try being relevant without stalking everyone

“I know 97% of my programmatic ad budget is wasted, I just don’t know which 97%” is the genius alternative headline of Bob Hoffman’s new year blogpost, which somehow manages to be at once compelling and flippant. While he doesn’t mention the Digital Services Act, Hoffman provides essential background reading as we enter the business end of the EU co-legislators negotiations.

Whether the DSA should regulate or ban outright ‘targeted ads’ has become the battleground of the imagination. The online ad ‘duopoly’ Google and Facebook and their overt and covert proxies have been avidly setting up a stage for discussion convenient for their own agendas, that is – the threat to “targeting” with “relevant ads” rather than the threat to all of us of ubiquitous tracking.

Who could have predicted such a GDPR-style full-court press of EU lawmakers?

All this astroturfing is ill-served by revelations in recent days. First, according to a YouGov survey commissioned by Amnesty Tech the vast majority of the SMEs – on whose behalf big tech pretend to plead – oppose tracking-based advertising but cannot avoid it because it is the only model on offer in a concentrated ecosystem dominated by two or three gigantic platform intermediaries.  Second, unsealed evidence in a lawsuit brought by US state attorneys-general alleges Google have been systematically spiking their ad exchange to deceive and rip off both advertisers and publishers, while at the same time colluding with Facebook to give them lower prices for in–app impressions in those ad auctions.

Does the adtech ecosystem have to be like this? Is the surveillance that fires a $64.8 billion industry really worth the cost to the privacy of billions of individuals, even assuming that it’s legal? Who are the real winners and losers from Hoffman’s Programmatic Poop Funnel? How sustainable can it be for 23% of the 160 million tonnes CO2e emitted by online advertising is ‘invalid traffic’

A nine-month study launched by the Commission on these and other questions has just got now underway. The question is not targeting or personalisation or relevant ads versus irrelevant ads. The question is what alternatives there are to advertising based on tracking aka surveillance, aka stalking, which are sustainable, respectful and beneficial to the publishers and advertisers who are actually offering valuable content and products for society.


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Too near the ancient troughs of blood

Innocence is no earthly weapon.

Geoffrey Hill, Ovid in the Third Reich  

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum possesses a photograph of a line of Helferinnen, racially pure auxiliaries made available for the delectation of SS guards in search of a mate. A genial SS officer offers them punnets of blueberries while a man plays an accordion. They are clearly all having a nice time. Originally bearing the caption ‘Hier gibt es Blaubeeren’, the photo was taken on 22 July 1944 , days before the Soviet army arrived. It was unearthed in 2007 as part of an album affectionately assembled by Obersturmführer Karl Höcker, adjutant to the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Richard Baer. 

Hier gibt es Blaubeeren disturbs the viewer by offering a glimpse into the humanity of people taking a break from mass murder. It was this uncanny (unheimlich) ordinariness that informs the subtitle of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her account of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann provoked a furore over her alleged sympathy for the accused, her condemnation of Jewish leaders for their alleged cooperation with the Nazis, and her apparently racist disdain for non-German Jews. Such distractions aside*, her reflections on totalitarianism and the Holocaust have compelling contemporary relevance.

One target of criticism was Arendt’s refusal to see Eichmann as a monster. In his introduction to the 2006 edition of the book, Amos Elon suggests that Hitler like other tyrants put in the dock would himself have cut a similarly pathetic figure. She instead referred to him as unheimlich, a moral and intellectual void; not stupid, but containing an absence where you might expect empathy and remorse (Gedankenlosigkeit) – ‘his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view’. He was in fact ‘normal’, like most Germans remained normal throughout the Nazi period. The epistemic absurdity of the trial, for Arendt, was the attempt to prove Eichmann abnormal. A trial cheapens justice by shackling it to politically opportunistic theatre, when its purpose should be ‘to render justice, and nothing else; even the noblest of ulterior purpose [at Nuremberg] – “the making of a record of the Hitler regime which would withstand the test of history”… can only detract from the law’s main business: to weigh the charges brought against the accused, to render judgment, and to mete out due punishment.’

Justice after the Shoah was only ever meted out selectively. Plenty of men who profited from Hitler’s regime managed to outlast it: not only fugitives like Eichmann in Argentina and other safe havens; many seamlessly blended into Adenauer’s government, such as Hans Globke, author of the Nuremberg Antisemitic Race Laws, or continued to prosper in commerce, such as Kurt Becher who had haggled with Hungarian companies to ‘buy’ rich Jews, pack them off out of Europe and sequester their businesses, before Himmler put him in charge of the concentration camps. Worse, Europe proved incapable of bloodlessly expatiating its guilt over centuries of anti-Semitic edicts, pogroms and expulsions. ‘The Palestinians bore no responsibility for the collapse of civilization in Europe,’ Elon writes, ‘but ended up being punished for it.’ Arendt saw the Palestinians as the appointed sacrifice to absolve white people for their sins against the Jews.

It is a wonder (at least, to me) that the wicked bother at all passing laws to legitimise their work. But that is what they typically do, and the Holocaust took place within a legal order. The Final Solution was an order from the Fuhrer, passed by word of mouth of an inner circle of Nazis without being issued formally in writing, and implemented through a ‘shower of regulations and directives, all drafted by expert lawyer and legal advisers, not by mere administrators’. Implementation passed under cover of bureaucratic euphemism: concentration was administration, extermination was a question of economy or even mercy, the gas chambers themselves were, according to Servatius, Eichmann’s counsel, ‘a matter of killing, and killing, too, is a medical matter’. The task of functionaries like Eichmann was to ‘calculate the absorptive capacity’ of the installations for killing Jews rounded up at the rear of the advancing German army as it headed east into Russia. This Sachlichkeit as opposed to romantic emotionalism of horned-helmet nationalism was for Eichmann’s class a source of pride; it was not German pedantry but an effective legitimation of horror. Jurists at Nuremberg and Jerusalem performed mental acrobatics on when one should disobey a manifestly criminal legal order to kill innocent people just because they happen to be Jews. Conscience lost it compass; the whole of society had surrendered ‘normal’ moral maxims to the unprecedented perversions of the Nazi ideology of killing.

Guilt was in a sense, therefore, universal; but Arendt nevertheless held the ‘normal’ Eichmann individually accountable, demolishing his ‘single cog in a machine’ defence. Humans always have their agency; a gigantic seemingly insensate bureaucracy never ceases to be an amalgam of human perpetrators. A little more plausible was the argument that Nazi outrages were acts of state, raison d’état, and that its functionaries and citizens were in thrall to a criminal gang that had seized the powers of government. Neither this could this defence be valid, however, as it would exonerate everyone up to and including Hitler himself. Eichmann’s complicity in ‘a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people’ meant that ‘no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you’. ‘This is the reason,’ she pronounced, ‘and the only reason, you must hang.’

I read Eichmann while on holiday in the Alps near Salzburg. On early morning runs near the Eagle’s Nest and the Berghof, Hitler’s summer lodge, I imagined queasily the Nazis only a few generations ago on their bracing mountain walks between discussions on how to eliminate sub-humans. Flesh and blood, each of them once an adorable, innocent baby cradled in his mother’s arms, breathing, eating and drinking and stooping to shit. Our species. (Arendt: ‘The law presupposes that we have a common humanity with those whom we accuse and judge and condemn.’) Sure of themselves, operating within a framework of rules and authority, the successful ones advancing through knowing when to kowtow, how to use people, how to push at boundaries and refashion the rules and structures to their advantage. (A game, Arendt judged, at which Eichmann was less than adept.) Gazing down from space you would not notice anything remarkable or awry, the green blue earth partly shrouded in clouds continuing to spin slowly between light and darkness. Yet the day-to-day business of these people, along with the cheery personnel running Auschwitz ,was genocide – ‘an attack’, wrote Arendt, ‘upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the human status without which the very words “mankind” or “humanity” would be devoid of meaning.’

The Nazis and their signature brand of insouciant depravity could be coming back into fashion.  The media are titillated by the emergence of Eric Zemmour, likely candidate for the French presidential elections next spring, who would have us believe that Vichy France did the Jews a good turn and who is currently polling over 15%. His numbers are only slightly lower than Marine le Pen’s, meaning that around one-third of French voters seem partial to a regime of aggressive, racist nationalism. This equates more or less to the proportion of American voters who believe Biden stole Trump’s re-election alongside related fantasies such as white America being steadily ‘replaced’ and the Covid vaccine containing a government tracking device. The swelling core of reaction across many western democracies is nowhere more tumescent than in Italy, where the combined polling numbers of Fratelli d’Italia and La Lega indicate close to four in ten would sooner see dark people drown in the Mediterranean than polluting la Patria. Nigel Farage tries vainly to stay relevant in the UK by reporting on boats of migrants in the Channel. It is now normal for politicians to equate immigration with security threats. It is a blessing that these reprobates remain largely disunited because their breeding ground is increasingly fertile. In 2019, a Eurobarometer survey showed 68% of respondents uninformed about Jewish culture, history and religion. During the pandemic, antisemitism spiked on social media. Historical consciousness fades with time, and the old analogue anger, prejudice and conspiracy theories are amplified for the digital age by social media algorithms.

‘It is in the very nature of things human,’ wrote Arendt, ‘that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past.’ Now that humans have demonstrated their potential for genocide, ‘no people on earth, least of all, of course the Jewish people, can be confident to survive without the protection of internal law.’ Evil is banal because the coexistence of delusion and cruelty is evident every day. In Eichmann, evil proved itself to be extreme, depthless, and most horrific of all, able to ‘spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world’. That the term ‘Jewish Question’ ever existed at all is in itself horrifying. The problematization of entire categories of people is rife around the world, as the non-Han citizens of China and the Rohingya in Myanmar can bear witness. Jewish people were abused for centuries for being the suspected enemy within; millions of potential immigrants and refugees in a warming world are under similar suspicion as the enemy without. This is what unites the new extreme right, and the reason democracies ought to question their entitlement to stand at all on such platforms. The freedom of expression of white racists is far less important than the right to dignity of vulnerable people of colour.

Rich countries are now spending between twice and fifteen times more money on militarising their borders to keep out the poor than they are on helping them to combat and adapt to climate change. Arendt partly anticipated this. ‘The frightening coincidence of the modern population explosion with the discovery of technical devices that, through automation, will make large sections of the population ‘superfluous’ even in terms of labor, and that, through nuclear energy, make it possible to deal with this twofold threat by the use of instruments beside which Hitler’s gassing installations look like an evil child’s fumbling toys, should be enough to make us tremble.’

Eichmann in Jerusalem ought to be essential reading in every school, because the next genocide will again be the work not of monsters but of normal people.

*William Phillips scolded the ping-pong of her critics and counter-critics in the Partisan Review: ‘Particularly  depressing  is  the  procession  of  polemics, with  everyone  arguing  so  cleverly,  with  so  much  wit  and  logic,  as  though  those awful events were being used to sharpen one’s mind and one’s rhetoric.’ Such self-indulgent squabbling merely cripples progressive forces while the right gets on with fleecing the state.  

Sempre ricordato

On GDPR Day, 25 May 2018, he was invited to attend a meeting of the directors-general of the European Commission. Selmayr sat him to his right, and welcomed the elite throng of white, grizzled, po-faces arrayed around an elliptical table to a rare audience with ‘the most senior independent official in the EU’. Nice bit of research behind that remark, I thought, from the ever-charming, baby-faced Richelieu. Giovanni Buttarelli duly obliged with a some gentle schooling on the brave new world of European data protection.

Emerging later from the Berlaymont building, Giovanni, escorted by his personal assistant Silva, spotted a one Euro cent coin from the ground.

‘Non dovete mai lasciar stare le monete. Porta fortuna.’

He told me to pick it up and give it to Silva.

‘Ecco. Diventerai ricco.’

Then he ambled over to the big European Commission sign for a souvenir photo.

It is just one of many trivial, poignant memories that came to mind, two years to the day that we lost Giovanni Buttarelli, a great man of kindness, wit and wisdom, sorely missed.


Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’.

Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World

Fat-bellied white men clinging to the front of a double decker (destination Willesden), or tumbling over plastic tip up seating. Images of a green laser beam on the furrowed brow of Casper Schmeichel readying himself to save Kane’s penalty. Another fat-bellied white dude, in this case the prime minister, draping himself in the flag of St George, endlessly thrusting at the eager cameras tumescent thumbs which have been in god-knows-what places over the five decades of his sinful, successful life.

Such bacchanalia following the England’s first qualification for a final since 1966 would have been interpreted by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin as the temporary triumph of the lower stratum, the sudden outburst of carnival and the bodily grotesque, a necessary counterpoint to the official order of the Renaissance social system. 

It is embarassing but also intoxicating and I miss being part of it. People in England have been physically locked down behind facemasks and in their homes, and digitally couped up in their filter bubbles. I reckon these filter bubbles have become more hermetically sealed than ever during the pandemic. For instance, on the last day of term, I suddenly found myself in a tense early morning discussion at the school bus stop with two ordinary dads, educated middle class expats, when a polite inquiry about destinations for summer holidays descended into a very testy exchange about vaccines. These men were genuinely convinced that the pandemic, lockdowns and vaccinations were a global conspiracy to manipulate and control the population. When I suggested they should be more worried about the world on fire and ruining the future lives of our children, I further learned that they dismissed global warming as a distraction from the real problem of human underpopulation of the planet, and that we are not having enough babies who can ‘look after us’ when we are old.

The pandemic has taken a further toll on the diversity of social interaction. Already a generation with heads bowed and focused on screens, lockdown for long periods obliterated the chance encounters in the street, on the bus and by the water cooler where you might briefly have been exposed to views unfamiliar or divergent or opposed to your own.  

It is a big problem in society now. It is terrifying that temperatures this summer have hit 50 degrees in Vancouver and Jacobabad, and 20 in Antarctica, and the Gulf of Mexico in flames in a scene that set #Godzilla trending, sending into an unsuspecting atmosphere yet more tonnes of carbon which we can ill-afford and had lain deep within the earth for millions of years. My wife mused we might be witnessing a vindication of the Gaia theory, the inevitable unfolding of an impersonal universal plan to harness and contain its most dominant species.

Euro2020 has released a pressure valve and it’s not supposed to be beautiful. For me football and England have represented an unresolvable conundrum of identity and belonging. I spent most of my life in London. My parents are Irish and Indian, products of the British Empire. My partner is Polish and we live in Flanders. I have attempted to rebrand myself as Irish, sickened by the nationalistic turn in my country of birth. Noone is convinced. And football is my game of choice, as a spectator and player – though few were ever convinced of that latter either.

So I have had a love-hate relationship with the England national team. I was scandalised by Maradona’s hand-of-God in 1986, repulsed by the omission of Arsenal players in 1990, and enviously watched from Italy the original ‘it’s coming home’ class of 1996, devastated when Germany won on pens. I then cheered them on and wanted to belong in the 00s, much to the chagrin of my Irish family, until eventually the side descended into an ugly uselessless and sense of entitlement encapsulated in the disdainful grimace of Wayne Rooney. Italy was my home for a while, I am not a really English, Brexit is happening, so my allegiances in tomorrow’s final should be a no-brainer.

Indeed, watching the semi outside a bar on the ironically-named Place de Londres in the trendy margins of the European quarter, the well-heeled crowd other than a clutch of estuary English were united behind Denmark, and booed when England scored. Speaking with an English accent is now a mark of Cain in these parts, thanks to Brexit and Boris. Guilt by association is never fair. The rapper who regaled Glastonbury a couple of years ago with ‘fuck Brexit fuck Boris’ is the same brilliant black musician spotted in Croydon stoking the ectasy that greeted the win over Germany in the round of last 16. This England team is composed of phenomenally-talented boys young enough for me to be their dad who are prepared to take the knee and endure the scorn of the gammon boomers with their eternal victimhood and new mantra about wokeness, which are merely proxies for wanting to go back to the good old days of racism and homophobia. And these lads are managed by Gareth Southgate, a previously dorkish penalty-squanderer with a modesty and respectfulness that the country doesn’t seem to deserve: this is has been a week where their journey-towards-fascism government has now proposed laws criminalising peaceful protest and helping asylum seekers. It is a squad of mixed races and second or third generation immigrants like me, sporting that Delphic surface shyness and mischief associated with GenZ. They probably inspire envy in other Europeans from a continent riven by systemic racism that its politicians willfully ignore as they pat themselves on their back for their integration of nations under the EU flag. The UK was an unusual member state as it would bring black and brown faces into policy discussions. So I wonder if there is a hint of racism in the European’s booing this particular England team which manages to represent the millions, like my friends and family I left behind over 13 years ago now, with a positive vision for the country. Everyone’s shit stinks.

So much of life is just spent arranging your face. People have tried to congratulate me on England’s progress and I have reacted with long-winded tergiversation like this blogpost. The best advice came from one old friend whose delayed response to one of my hand-wringing texts was quite simple. Take the win. Don’t think too hard about it.