Virtual Images

Jacques Lacan (April 13, 1901 to September 9, 1981) was a towering figure in Parisian intellectual life for much of the twentieth century. Sometimes referred to as “the French Freud,” he was an important figure in the history of psychoanalysis. His teachings and writings explored the significance of Freud’s discovery of the unconscious both within the theory and practice of analysis itself as well as in connection with a wide range of other disciplines. I frequently wonder if the virtual worlds of Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter and all the rest have psychological parallels from which we can learn and Lacan was a man before his time. Reading and commenting online as frequently as I do reveals the dark side, snarky tweets and abrasive social media commentary, the shadowy flipside to otherwise socially well attuned personalities.  Who we are online is the painting in the attic, the mirror crack’d from side to side. We drink Agatha Christie’s poisoned cocktail every day and things we dare not say in the real world we have no compunction in dumping into cyberspace – the bottomless well, slowly filling with the world’s bile.

We have access like a mirror image to our own black arts and sometimes use them inappropriately, as children examining their own reflection.

Screen Shot.jpg‘The Mirror Stage’ describes a pivotal stage in ego formation: the recognition of one’s own image in a mirror. Jacques Lacan theorised that the child, in apprehending his own reflection in a mirror, is captured by that image, seduced by its apparent perfection, its immeasurable potential. A child is endlessly fascinated by their own likeness in a mirror in a way that they are not when shown a photograph of themselves. The mirror image exists in a separate domain to its originator. Reflected, it deflects. Howsoever the child may try, they cannot delete or ruffle the image. It feels no pain when she beats it. I look more knowingly, as an adult, with adult eyes, yet the image unforgivingly projects my own feelings pitilessly back to me. Of itself, it feels no envy, no isolation, no love, no hate. It feels nothing, except what I project upon it: my own fears – of ridicule, contempt, my own yearning, even love. It appears to see the arrow that has missed the mark, the aspiration unachieved, the weakness and failure to do better. Does it see my sins as I see them? It weeps when I do, it laughs in synchrony with me. When I post on Facebook, or blog, it is, as it were, a paradigm of the mirror, suited to volatile outbursts of anger, love or other strong emotions. It is a virtual, imaginary space where normal sanctions do not apply and conflictual emotions vie for supremacy. I am allowed to be enraged, deviant, uncaring and immoral within my self-created vortex. When I write, I am speaking to a screen upon which I have projected something of my own, my own literary libido or lack thereof, of individuation of self, my creative juices smear its surface, dirtily. The image in the mirror is cracked, reflected by a thousand shards. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, the image speaks: “you will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.” Whether someone reads it subsequently is initially not relevant. Sometimes, we – I and my imaginary readers – may aspire to be a community but usually it is as a large, ill-disciplined family, shackled pitilessly to the algorithms of personalized advertising to which we offer infantilised and hopeful complaints, appeals for validation and affirmation to Mama whom we neither know nor understand.





Even Archbishop Michael Curry, who went spectacularly off-script at Harry and Meghan’s wedding yesterday reminded the two billion or so hearers of his message that ‘…fire makes it possible for us to text and tweet and e-mail and Instagram and Facebook and socially be dysfunctional with each other.’ Nobody laughed, because it’s true.

Teilhard de Chardin wrote that “the discovery and harnessing of fire was one of the great technological discoveries of human history”. Reprogramming, replace ‘fire’ with the Internet and the virtual image is complete.

Taking his words entirely out of context, let us invert the metaphor. Today is Pentecost Sunday. Let the fire fall. Let’s try to be less ‘socially dysfunctional’, kinder, willing to touch instead of instant messaging, drawing a curtain over the mirror images, Faustian bargains all, the Dorian Grays we try so hard to hide.

Perfect and Complete

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“and the winner is…”

It’s been a pretty momentous week in Israel, apart from the unapologetically sunny Netta, complete with Minnie Mouse ears made with her own hair (a Photoshopped version of them on Bibi Netanyahu is doing the rounds on the Internet) winning Eurovision – the competition is only eight years younger than the State of Israel itself.

Seventy has always been significant, even before the seventieth anniversary of her founding. After the universal flood, seventy nations were named in Genesis 10. Jacob – renamed Israel –  and his family were seventy in number when they went down into Egypt. Moses appointed seventy elders of Israel, Israel was held captive in Babylon for seventy years and Daniel speaks of seventy weeks of years, all of which have been fulfilled except for the seventieth week. A “generation” or lifespan is seventy years. Seventy scholars allegedly translated the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek Septuagint. And so on. The numbers themselves probably carry no significance but it’s interesting to see how often the number 70 appears, numerologists suggesting that its meaning is derived from seven (representing perfection) and ten (representing completeness and God’s law)

I am a day late, but Monday, May 14, 2018 marked the 70th anniversary of Israel becoming a nation. May 14, 1948, was the day some suggest that God decided he would once again bring His people to the land He promised to them as their permanent home. On that day, 11 minutes after declaring statehood, President Harry Truman was the first to recognise the new Jewish nation, later apologising that he had left it so late. Under a Muslim Shah, Iran, surprisingly, was the second, which today given its burning genocidal ambition to wipe Israel off the map is quite surprising.

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Somewhat overcome.

“We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, to be called Israel” – so spoke David Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv on May 14th, 1948, to rapturous applause and tears from the crowd gathered at the Tel Aviv Art Museum. The ceremony yesterday to open the US Embassy in Jerusalem had a similarly spine-tingling sense of history as a palpable sense of triumph, excitement and resolve pervaded the speeches.

A moment in history

But, for the Palestinians, that day, seventy years ago, was a catastrophe.Yawm an-Nakba as they call it, resulted in the exodus of more than seven hundred thousand Arabs, who either fled or were evicted to neighbouring Arab states, as well as more than 200,000 internally displaced persons, who remained within the borders of Israel, but were unable to return to their properties once the Israeli-Arab war was over.

War is atrocious and in its fog, few can escape blame. In October 1948, Eilabun, a predominantly Christian village, was captured by the 12th Battalion of Israel’s Golani Brigade. Following the town’s surrender, the commander of the Golani troops selected a dozen residents and had them executed. The village was then looted, and all property confiscated, while most of the town’s residents were sent to neighbouring Lebanon. Harsh indeed, but what seems to have been left out of the narrative is the underlying circumstances and people are left to draw monochromatic, black and white conclusions. Prior to Israeli troops taking the town, the Arab Liberation Army (ALA) had set up a base there and killed two Israeli soldiers. The ALA gunmen and local inhabitants of Eilabun then paraded the severed heads of the Israelis through the streets of the town. It was not common for the nascent Israeli army to target Christian towns, but what happened in Eilabun made it an exception. Interestingly, the original inhabitants were permitted to return one year later in 1949 as part of an agreement between Israel and the Patriarch of Antioch.

But even in less exceptional cases, Israel is reluctant to accept allegations of genocide like those tossed about by various politicians and Western pundits. The government maintains, against other revisionist narratives, that it had no official policy of expulsion targeting local Arabs in 1948. Israel’s narrative is clear:  local Arabs were not expelled, but many did flee as a result of being ordered, cajoled or convinced to do so by their leaders or the leaders of Arab states who wanted to make room for the invading Arab armies and when the overthrow of the upstart Jews was complete, the armies would withdraw, releasing the land back to its owners. So convinced were they that they were going to win, the Arabs had no strategy for what might happen to all these people if they didn’t.

But even if they did leave, as many rich Arabs from Haifa and Jaffa did, for example, why does Israel refuse to let them come back to their property? The reason is simple: the original 700,000 Palestinian refugee population has mushroomed – in various refugee camps in neighbouring countries – and is now ten times greater, some seven million people (the actual refugees and their descendants). Together with the Arabs now living in Israel who make up some 20 percent of the population, Israel’s government is well aware that if everyone returned, the Arabs would then become a majority, bringing about the end of the “Jewish” state, which was the whole point of its creation.

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All quiet on the Western Front – for the moment.

According to some historians, during the War of Independence in 1948, Arab inhabitants of Israel were promised total equality in the new state if they remained neutral. However, if they fought or fled, they’d be considered a potential threat, a fifth column. It’s not hard to understand why the Israelis view the prospect of hundreds of thousands of legal but hostile residents with so little enthusiasm. The recent strategy of Hamas massing tens of thousands of people on the Gaza border in the hope of pushing aside the security fence and invading Israel by sheer weight of numbers has an ironic chill to it.

Postscript. The fury and outrage of the international community over the deaths and injuries of the rioters at the Gaza border has resulted in ambassadorial recall, UN condemnation, calls for proportionality and, bizarrely, Dublin City Hall flying a Palestinian flag in solidarity. Social media is awash with allegations of apartheid and occupation. Ten million dollars has allegedly been spent, however,  by Hamas in massing tens of thousands of people at the border, many will have been financially incentivised to turn out – intelligence suggests $14 per person or $100 per family. I am coming more and more to the conclusion that as the crisis deepens, and the possibility of wider conflict becomes more of a reality, everyone is going to have to pick a side.



Big Data

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This is the Internet

IQ tests are a crude metric. They rely on the ability to reason which of four or five answers to a particular, often quite limited problem, happens to be correct. Dependent on how many correct answers are scored, a number is assigned which carries meaning. But, an IQ test only measures a few key variables, and does so with remarkably little data. It cannot measure emotional intelligence, sense of humour, personality type or any one of a hundred variables which define us uniquely. It cannot measure whether what we read is true or not; it cannot distinguish between pornography and art. It is the difference between limited artificial intelligence and general AI. Limited systems are closed and numerical, such as computers learning to play chess, or crunching numbers to find available flights or using real-time routing software on a map,  general systems are poor at screening “undesirable” content on Facebook’s pages – they just aren’t very good at the requisite subtlety and discrimination, so, for the most part, humans still have to do it instead. Which is, I suppose, something of a relief, SkyNet won’t be going self-aware any time soon.

Of the dozen or so most valuable public companies in the world today, over half depend substantially on data-driven automated scaling, using relatively few real people – great news for their shareholders – since this makes them profitable beyond all dreams of avarice, for example, WhatsApp (monthly userbase, over 450 million) was sold to Facebook for 22 billion (yes, billion) US dollars, which will buy a freshly brewed Starbucks for every man, woman and child on the planet and pay off the national debt of Albania with the change. Artificial intelligence and “big data” enables these digital companies to grow in unprecedented ways.  Facebook, Amazon and similar companies are now reaching more customers with more personalised experiences than any others that came before them, which is touted as a huge advantage over previous, cruder advertising content. But this comes at a price. Alarmingly, Facebook uses phone-contact data as part of its friend recommendation algorithm and it is possible to download one’s entire phone records from them, which is deeply worrying. Most users are blissfully unaware of the sheer quantity of metadata that Facebook and others harvest about them and use to provide targeted advertising. While data collection is technically “opt-in,” in Messenger, for example,  opt-in is the default installation mode for the application, not a separate notification of data collection. Facebook has never explicitly revealed that the data was being collected, and it was only discovered as part of a review of the data associated with the accounts. Those problems hinge on Facebook’s various uses of automation that only inconsistently involve actual human judgment. Content-suggestion algorithms, which place a premium on user attention, have been shown to systematically amplify shocking and extreme material, including fabricated or misleading news. Facebook’s lightly-screened ad sales – which they described later as a ’technical failure’ allowed Russia-linked buyers to spend as much as $150,000 to try to influence US politics, and made it possible to run racially discriminatory housing advertisements. And this is possibly the tip of the iceberg. I wonder how much digital meddling has gone on between the Russians, the Chinese and the North Koreans. The North Korean change of heart over nuclear weapons came about with quite remarkable speed. I wonder why…
We have all experienced what happens if, for example, just for our own amusement, we explore the cost of a weekend in Prague, we are then bombarded with advertising seeking to either sell us airline tickets or discounted rates on tourist sites in the city. Even places we visited years ago occasionally surface with hotel deals.  Most of us, setting aside the irritation of such unwanted advertising,  have a trouble-free experience with social media and protective algorithms work well in most cases. However,  the instances where their systems fail – referred to as “edge cases”  – have proven deeply troubling to the public and regulators. And technological solutions may not be achievable before the broader idea of digital scaling itself is undermined, along with a global economy whose future is increasingly premised on it. For example, it was discovered that Google’s YouTube Kids app, touted as a safer destination than the main site, was displaying disturbing conspiracy videos to children. That same day, Facebook admitted that Cambridge Analytica had improperly harvested the data of what turned out to be millions of its users, and an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a 49-year-old woman in Tempe, Arizona. Uber has been operating at a massive loss for years and investors have continued to feed it cash largely on the premise that the company will become as profitable as Amazon once it masters the technology of self-driving cars and eliminates the cost of drivers, which the company founder believes to be an ‘existential priority’. Edge effect failure, death being the most spectacular example, undermines the whole concept and Uber could come crashing down incredibly fast. As an update, Uber’s ‘edge effect’ worries are not just confined to driverless cars; a Jewish diplomat in Chicago was ejected from an Uber in Chicago for answering a phone call in Hebrew. The driver threw him out in the middle of a busy highway.
I sometimes ask myself: is there a limit to the amount of useful data that can be collected about me, so that machines can predict with almost total accuracy what I am going to buy next, where I am most likely to go on my next trip, what medical conditions I will suffer from and so on. I very much hope that the cost of collection will outweigh the benefits that might result. I’m a subversive little creature, along with most of the rest of the seven billion or so data mining possibilities on the planet and I will take steps to hide, screen or otherwise mislead the number crunchers who want to know the size of my soul. I may never own a self-drive car – indeed if ownership will then be the right word, but as the old protest song said “die gedanken sind frei”.