Lowy Institute

This trailer for a new documentary about Steve Jobs  (there's also a biopic in the works starring Michael Fassbender) reminds me that I have been meaning for some time to tell you about a thoughtful essay I read recently called Web Design: The First 100 Years.

Over the last few years a backlash has begun against the technological utopianism of the tech industry, and Apple and Google in particular. I suspect the tech sceptic Yevgeny Morozov has had a lot to do with this shift (see particularly To Save Everything, Click Here), and more recently it has become popularised in the TV comedy series Silicon Valley, in which tech industry CEOs with more than a passing resemblance to the Jobs persona are depicted as ruthless capitalists who have the public image of spiritual leaders. The industry's altruistic pretensions are also regularly mocked by way of a running joke on the mantra to 'make the world a better place': 

Maciej Ceglowski, an American programmer who shares this scepticism about Silicon Valley's utopian mission, writes in Web Design: The First 100 Years:

 FIX THE WORLD WITH SOFTWARE

This is the prevailing vision in Silicon Valley. The world is just one big hot mess, an accident of history. Nothing is done as efficiently or cleverly as it could be if it were designed from scratch by California programmers. The world is a crufty legacy system crying out to be optimized...This vision holds that the Web is only a necessary first step to a brighter future. In order to fix the world with software, we have to put software hooks into people's lives. Everything must be instrumented, quantified, and networked. All devices, buildings, objects, and even our bodies must become "smart" and net-accessible. Then we can get working on optimizing the hell out of life...

....But what if after software eats the world, it turns the world to shit?  Consider how fundamentally undemocratic this vision of the Web is. Because the Web started as a technical achievement, technical people are the ones who get to call the shots. We decide how to change the world, and the rest of you have to adapt. There is something quite colonial, too, about collecting data from users and repackaging it to sell back to them. I think of it as the White Nerd's Burden.

Technological Utopianism has been tried before and led to some pretty bad results. There's no excuse for not studying the history of positivism, scientific Marxism and other attempts to rationalize the world, before making similar promises about what you will do with software.

Ceglowski endorses a more modest vision for the web, one that has largely been achieved: to erase the barriers of distance between people, and put all of human knowledge at our fingertips.

Do read the whole thing

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Why do people commit cruelties on their fellow human beings? Because they're politely told to:

For another recent movie trailer in the same genre, see The Stanford Prison Experiment.

NB: I posted this in haste and didn't make it clear why the themes of this movie are of interest here on The Interpreter. The basic answer is that the movie raises interesting questions about the motivations of those involved in atrocities. See the excellent Wikipedia page on Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners for another example of this type of discussion.

(H/t Slashfilm.)

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A couple of things jump out at me from President Obama's latest (and last) interview with The Daily Show's Jon Stewart. The first is that in interview settings, Obama is not the most compelling advocate for his own policies and record. He's just too incorrigibly wonkish to connect with a broad range of people.

The second thing is Obama's consistent emphasis on the long term and gradual reform. It reinforces the assessment of Obama made by the US political analyst Josh Marshall last week, in which he disputes the emerging conventional wisdom that Obama is in a hurry to set his legacy in place:

When I look at Obama I don't see a President desperately trying to cram legacy achievements into the declining months of his presidency. I see achievements coming to fruition that were usually years in the making but often seemed errant or quixotic and uncertain in their outcome.

Marshall's take is not original. Andrew Sullivan was one of the first to identify that Obama has from the very beginning of his presidency had an eight-year agenda, and that he plays a long game. Further evidence emerges overnight in the form of this report saying that Obama is on the verge of finally fulfilling his 2008 election promise to close Guantanamo Bay. Yes, Obama has had a stellar month, but as his former campaign adviser David Axelrod says (my emphasis):

...he’s had the most productive period he’s enjoyed since the first two years: Cuba, the climate agreement with China, action on immigration, fast track on trade, the SCOTUS decisions on health care and marriage and now this agreement on Iran. These are big, historically significant developments, in most cases the culmination of years of commitment on his part.

Obama has one major international agenda item left, and that is climate change. On this issue, says the Wall St Journal, the President is on a long march to Paris, which will host global climate talks in December. That would certainly fit the pattern.

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The ALP is holding its National Conference in Melbourne next week, and in May it released a draft National Platform, which will be debated at the Conference. Media coverage thus far has hinted at the topics most likely to cause friction among party factions and with the Government: emissions trading, asylum seekersmarriage equality and perhaps energy policy.

The foreign policy section of the draft probably won't get much attention, but it is worth highlighting one change to the document compared to Labor's existing National Platform, which was agreed at Labor's last national conference in 2011.

That document refers to Japan as 'Australia’s closest partner in Asia'. But the new draft omits this statement or any similar sentiment. Instead, the new draft groups Japan alongside India, Indonesia and Korea as countries with which a Labor government would seek to build stronger ties. There is one other substantive reference to Japan in the 2015 draft, and it is more pejorative, saying that 'Labor is committed to ensuring that the landmark ruling in the International Court of Justice against Japan’s Antarctic "scientific" whaling program is adhered to by Japan.' While the existing platform also states Labor's opposition to whaling, it does not mention Japan in that context.

Does this signal a change in Labor sentiment on the Japan relationship?

We shouldn't overstate the significance of such changes. A future Labor government is not tied closely to this platform. The document is intended as 'a clear statement of Labor’s beliefs, values and program for government', but it is not specific enough to guide day-to-day foreign policy. Moreover, Labor governments have in the past managed the Japan relationship reasonably effectively and in fact they deepened it in the Rudd-Gillard years, despite tensions over whaling.

Then again, keep in mind that, back in May, Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek gave an interview in which she criticised the Abbott Government for favouring Japan over China:

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“The real issue is a prioritising of the relationship with Japan and the US over the relationship with China,” Ms Plibersek said. “They have seemed to make a choice in favour of Japan over China. And I think our interests are best served by having good and strong relationships with both countries.”

And earlier in the year, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten spoke to workers at submarine builder ASC in Adelaide about the possibility that the next generation of Australian subs might be built in Japan. He used rhetoric on that occasion which raised memories of World War II, a tactic that could not have endeared him to the Japanese.

These are straws in the wind, but we can't rule out the possibility that we are seeing a clear difference emerging in the foreign policy priorities of the two major parties. The Abbott Government, after all, has been very pro-Japan. The Prime Minister's rhetoric towards Japan has been warm from the beginning, and he is thought to enjoy a close relationship with Prime Minister Abe. Australia and Japan have inked a free-trade deal, deepened defence ties (Japanese forces are taking part in Exercise Talisman Sabre as we speak), and there's an excellent chance Australia's next generation of submarines will be Japanese-built or at the very least have a lot of Japanese input.

If there is an emerging difference in the approach of the two big parties to the Japan relationship, Plibersek's statement reveals the reason: it's about China, not Japan. A split on Japan policy would reveal that the two parties have arrived at different conclusions about the best way to manage the rise of China, with one side arguing that the best response is to double down on our traditional alliances, while the other hedges with a more pro-China line.

Photo by Flickr user James Cridland.

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Evidently the mood in Germany has turned against the Merkel Government's handling of the Greek crisis.

This video has gone viral in Germany this week. It's a comedy sketch in which two performers playing rich, entitled Germans speak to each other only in quotes from German newspapers and speeches by Angela Merkel. It ends with the statement: 'This summer, we Germans have a historic opportunity - not to behave like assholes for once':

(H/t The Australian.)

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We begin this week with Greece, and Matthew Dal Santo's pitiless dissection of German leadership in Europe:

True, whatever happens from here, the economic pain will fall on Greece and its people. But the big loser from last weekend's far-from-pointless referendum will be Germany. Whether a new deal is reached which still contains the element of 'punishment' the German Government considers so important to impose, or Greece defaults and leaves the euro, Germany will have shredded its claim to leadership in Europe. For that leadership will have been shown to rest not on consent or voluntary submission to a strong Germany claiming to act in the interests of all, but on force and the threat of economic Armageddon.

What is the big lesson from the Greek debt crisis? Stephen Grenville:

What are the economic lessons? Countries can run budget deficits, overly-generous pension schemes, and large external deficits for decades if foreigners provide the funding, but there is no free lunch. Unsustainable policies eventually stop and the longer countries have been off-track, the longer it will take to fix. Living standards can't rise if productivity remains low. Incompetent and sometimes corrupt governance might get by when the economic climate is benign, but can't cope when problems arise.

Is arguing about what to call ISIS a waste of time? Rodger Shanahan makes a pretty convincing case:

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Those who advocate using Da'ish instead of Islamic State say the group is neither Islamic nor a state, and they argue that the name perverts the name of Islam. But these arguments open a can of nomenclature worms. If it is perverting religion to refer to Islamic State as Islamic, then what of the myriad other armed Islamist groups who hijack Islam and God to reinforce their religious credentials for power?...

...How should politicians refer to Hizbullah (Party of God), for instance? Isn't it also a perversion of religion to think that God would be happy for an Australian to blow up a tourist bus in Bulgaria in his name? Some Sunni Islamists in the region, including Turkey's justice minister, have demanded that Hizbullah change its name to Hizb al-Shaytan (Party of Satan), but we are yet to see the same demand from those who prefer Dai'sh over Islamic State.

Jenny Hayward-Jones noted PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neil's sustained attempts to wrest leadership of the Pacific Islands region from Fiji:

Most of the credit for Papua New Guinea's new leadership role in the region should go to Prime Minister O'Neill. He has made a number of important speeches and interventions in 2015 both at home and abroad that are clearly focused on building and securing recognition of PNG's reputation as a regional leader and projecting his views on how PNG and its Pacific neighbours should interact on the global stage.

PNG is by far the largest Pacific Island nation in terms of population size, GDP and land size, and arguably more deserving of recognition as a regional leader than Fiji, which has historically played that role. But PNG's national development challenges are so much more significant in scale than those faced by any other island nation in the region. It is far from guaranteed that the Prime Minister can rely on support from his ministers, government agencies and the public, all of whom are necessarily more focused on domestic priorities, to reinforce his regional leadership ambitions.

Alan Keenan from the International Crisis Group on Sri Lanka's crucial upcoming general elections:

The coming campaign is set to be close, and possibly violent. While the UNP is still favoured to win the largest number of seats and to form the next government, many fear that once back in parliament, Rajapaksa and his powerful family will be able to chip away at the UNP's numbers until he is able to form a majority. It remains unclear what, if any, role Sirisena will play in the campaign. But unless there is another surprising reversal, his credibility as the leader of the movement for democratic reforms and reconciliation has been badly damaged.

The Bidun in Kuwait are now being seen as a security threat due to last months suicide bombing at the Imam Al-Sadeq mosque says Anneliese Mcauliffe:

While the suicide bomber was identified as a Saudi national, he worked with accomplices inside Kuwait. Within days, Kuwait's Ministry of the Interior moved swiftly to make the first arrests: 'We have referred five suspects accused of assisting the suicide bomber to the Public Prosecution...They include the driver who took the Saudi bomber to the mosque and the car's owner and his brother, all stateless people or Biduns'...

...This large group of disenfranchised people, who the Gulf states have failed to effectively recognise, is now seen as a potential security threat. The fear is that pent up hostilities, fueled by more than 50 years of statelessness and ongoing oppression, could make those at the margins of society willing or malleable accomplices for groups such as ISIS. A matter long relegated to the status of demographic problem and largely fueled by a need to restrict access to government services has now become a security issue.

Anneliese also wrote on a Saudi comedian who is fighting ISIS and fundamentalist ideology with humour, not violence:

Nothing is sacred in this program, and not everyone is amused.

Al-Qasabi's comedy sketches have targeted 'sex-jihad', ISIS sex slaves, beheadings and the banning of music by religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia. In one skit, al-Qasabi plays a Saudi mutawa (conservative preacher) who is outraged by the decadence of music being played during Ramadan. He smashes an oud (a traditional guitar) to the applause of a crowd of men in traditional robes.

Robert Kelly has made a provocative argument as to why South Korea should remain silent over China's island building in the South China Sea:

The end of Chinese support is a necessary (if not sufficient) cause for North Korea's eventual collapse. South Korean President Park's robust efforts to woo Beijing have helped push China and North Korea apart in the last few years. This is a huge achievement – arguably the most important in her otherwise scandal-laden presidency. For South Korea to weigh in on the South China Sea would jeopardise this tenuous breakthrough. Beijing must believe South Korea is at least neutral regarding Chinese power before it will give up Pyongyang. Given that US forces are stationed in South Korea, Park must be flattering Xi Jingping quite a lot, and she has probably bit her tongue on other issues, like the South China Sea. But ultimately who cares? Cutting Pyongyang off from its last sponsor would be a sea-change and is well worth these costs.

This week Rhys Thompson took a detailed look at how the Chinese Communist Party is increasing its links with smaller regional political parties in Myanmar:

China's relationship with groups like the RNP will be particularly useful if (or when) the USDP becomes a much weaker player in Myanmar politics, or if the Union Government devolves more autonomy and power to regional governments. Such a move was proposed recently in a formal submission to change the constitution, but the actual amount of power that would be devolved is open to question.

Elliot Brennan described Malaysian PM Najib Razak's travails:

Malaysian politics is often a tumultuous and headline-grabbing affair. Yet the current crisis is unprecedented. In a Wall Street Journal report last week, Prime Minister Najib Razak was accused of embezzling almost US$700 million (2.6 billion Ringgit). The days since, which have also seen the release of redacted supporting documents by the WSJ, have only deepened the crisis embroiling the Prime Minister.

The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment fund, was set up by Najib in 2009. Even before the current accusations, the fund was entangled in controversy as its debt had ballooned to US$11 billion. 

Much of the controversy over 1MDB has been led by former PM and power-wielder Mahathir Mohamad. His blog offers a long, running commentary on the 1MDB fund and at every turn attempts to throw Najib under the bus. Mahathir has spent much of the past year campaigning for Najib's resignation.

Is China ready for global leadership? Kerry Brown answered:

...there is a good reason why the government in Beijing, despite all the temptations of slotting itself into a more prominent position, might want to maintain this stance. Every time it does try to articulate a bolder vision of its international status, even in relatively benign areas, noisy constituencies in the US and elsewhere immediately shriek that this is a sign the country is positioning itself on some mission of global dominance.

Malcolm Cook responded:

The Chinese state has so far eschewed attempts at global leadership. Rather, Chinese policy-makers are focusing their institution-building efforts at the regional level, as part of what Beijing refers to rather undiplomatically as 'peripheral diplomacy', and among fellow developing-economy states.

Photo by Flickr user afilitos.

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This morning, via The Browser, I found a classic 1967 essay by Peter Benchley for the magazine Holiday about shark attacks. Benchley's editor encouraged him to turn his article into a novel, and the result was the bestseller Jaws, which of course was adapted to film by Steven Spielberg and became the prototypical summer blockbuster.

I was struck by the parallels between Benchley's description of how people think about shark attacks and the way we think about terrorism. Both are exceedingly unlikely ways to die, yet they have an enduring grip on our imaginations:

Irrational behavior has always been man’s reaction to the presence of sharks. Ever since man first returned to the sea, sharks have held all the terror and fascination of an ax murder.

And then near the close of the essay:

...despite the fact that a bather is more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by sharks, there will always be something primevally horrid about the sight of the black triangular fin slipping through the waves, and something viscerally terrifying about the choked cry “Shark !”

Malcolm Turnbull's speech to the Sydney Institute last night was an appeal to reason, an attempt to argue that the threat of terrorism should not be overstated. Yet Benchley's essay is a reminder that irrational fears seem to be a permanent feature of our psychological makeup, and very difficult to shift.

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Last month I wrote an op-ed for the Herald Sun on the topic of terrorism which drew on this short essay about risk perception. It argues that 'The patterns of how the human animal perceives and responds to risk have their roots in an ancient past that predates humans, and certainly predates the relatively recent development of our modern thinking brains. This may explain why we respond to risk so much more with fear than with cold factual analysis.'

So we tend to be much more fearful of rare but dramatic forms of death; of new risks that we hear a lot about from friends, colleagues and the media (what the economist Daniel Kahneman calls the 'availability heuristic'); and we tend to give more weight to the risk of catastrophic events (terrorist attacks, plane crashes, shark attacks) than chronic ones such as cancer.

There's little point arguing that the public's fears about catastrophic events are irrational; we're unlikely to be reasoned out of them anyway. But as I argued in the Herald Sun, our political leaders do have a choice to make about whether they exploit those fears or assuage them. As Turnbull argued, talk of 'existential threats' and of ISIS 'coming to get us' may just help the enemy. 'We need to be very careful we don’t...become amplifiers of their wickedness and significance.'

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Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull addressed the Sydney Institute on terrorism last night. Judge for yourself the difference in tone and argument with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's speech at the Sydney Institute in late April. First Turnbull:

Just as it is important not to underestimate, or be complacent about, the national security threat from Da’esh, it is equally important not to overestimate that threat. Any threat looms largest when it is close to us in either time or space - or both.

In Menzies’ day our democratic way of life was threatened by two totalitarian ideologies - Soviet Communism and fascism. Each were proselytising ideologies.  One was defeated in battle in 1945, the other expired, largely from its own contradictions, twenty five years ago. China, the last nominally communist superpower, does not seek to export its way of government.

But Da’esh is not Hitler’s Germany, Tojo’s Japan or Stalin’s Russia. Its leaders dream that they, like the Arab armies of the 7th and 8th century, will sweep across the Middle East into Europe itself. They predict that before long they will be stabling their horses in the Vatican.

Well Idi Amin wasn’t the King of Scotland either.

We should be careful not to say or do things which can be seen to add credibility to those delusions.

And here's Julie Bishop:

Tonight I will address what I see as the most significant threat to the global rules based order to emerge in the past 70 years - and included in my considerations is the rise of communism and the Cold War.

This threat is a form of terrorism - more dangerous, more complex, more global than we have witnessed before - a pernicious force that could, if left unchecked, wield great global power that would threaten the very existence of nation states.

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You're probably reading a lot of headlines today about Greece now being officially in arrears with the IMF. But as Lowy Institute economist Leon Berkelmans explains in this podcast, that's not the most important thing that happened in the Greek crisis over the last few days.

Listen also for Leon's views about the implications of this crisis for Asia. Europe thinks it has this problem contained, but the fall of Lehman Brothers taught us a few things about unanticipated consequences...

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By exploiting the lonely, that's how. The video below is from the New York Times, with accompanying story here.

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Lord Michael Williams is the Lowy Institute's guest today as part of the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue. He is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Chatham House and a former senior British diplomat with vast experience in Asia.

We talked this morning about China's land reclamation and its ultimate intentions in the South China Sea, and about whether Beijing is really in control of all this activity (that got an emphatic 'yes' from Lord Williams). At the end of the interview we shifted to Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi's little noticed recent visit to Beijing. 'This visit is one of the most important things that's happened in the region in 2015' says Lord Williams matter-of-factly.

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It's been all over the news this morning that during Tony Abbott's photo op/briefing at ASIO's new headquarters ('Lubjanka by the Lake', as Canberrans call it), the cameras picked up details of documents they should not have seen.

ASIO (which is a corporate member of the Lowy Institute) has quickly denied there was any security breach, and terrorism expert Andrew Zammit has pointed out on Twitter that the information revealed in the glimpsed documents — which show the Melbourne and Sydney suburbs from where most Australian fighters in Iraq and Syria had emanated from — has been publicly reported anyway.

But even if this was a minor breach, can we agree that playing Gotcha! in such situations serves no one's longer-term interests and in fact impoverishes the national debate on terrorism and security?

Yes, such incidents provide a nice sugar hit for the opposition and the media, but in fact they ought to be the ones encouraging greater scrutiny and transparency when it comes to national security, even when it happens by accident. When you jump all over trivial incidents like this, you just encourage the extreme risk aversion that causes our bureaucracy to adopt a defensive crouch any time it needs to deal with the public and media.

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It would also serve the Government's interest to be more open with the activities of its security agencies. In 2013 and 2014, Edward Snowden leaked some of those agencies' biggest secrets. And the result? Lowy polling in 2014 found that 70% of Australians considered it 'acceptable' that its government spies on countries with which Australia does not have good relations. The figure is 50% even when it concerns a government with which Canberra does have good relations.

So Australians support our spy agencies, even after they learn more about the activities of those agencies than they strictly ought to. That support is a source of democratic legitimacy which should be nurtured by governments, and they can do that in part by letting in a bit more sunlight. As I've argued before, a certain level of secrecy is essential for maintaining security and conducting Australia's international affairs. But we shouldn't just assume we have the balance between secrecy and transparency right. It's something that needs constant adjustment, and when governments fail to take the lead on that process of adjustment by improving transparency in a responsible way where they can, they increase the risk that such transparency will happen irresponsibly by the likes of Edward Snowden.

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American presidential politics really is one of the greatest shows on earth, isn't it?

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Oh, sign me up for this one:

Here's the synopsis, from the official website:

Best of Enemies is a behind-the-scenes account of the explosive 1968 televised debates between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley Jr., and their rancorous disagreements about politics, God and sex.

(H/t Fallows.)

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