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Global Affairs

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The Dream of Algorithms: Our Calculated Existences

Most visibly for Google, Facebook, and Amazon, but perhaps more importantly for banks, insurance companies, and major corporations, “Big Data” provides a new paradigm for organizing information, to which the use of algorithms has become ever more central. In his book ‘What are Algorithms Dreaming Of: Our Lives in Times of Big Data’ (‘A quoi rêvent les algorithmes: Nos vies à l’heure des big data’, Seuil, Paris 2015), Dominique Cardon aims to show how these new computing techniques are revolutionizing our society. Through new ways of classifying information, personalized advertising, product recommendation, and the track of consumers’ behaviour and interested, large-scale calculating infrastructures are trying to interfere ever more intimately in individuals’ lives. Yet far from being merely technical tools, algorithms bring with them an emergent political project. As reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein notes, there is a sinister paradox here. People are by and large suspicious of centralized powers, be it the power of politicians, journalists, or unions; they (profess to) abhor being classified into broad categories, believing instead that their individuality fits into no “box.” Yet, these very same individuals allow themselves to become locked into the bubble of algorithms – partly because this new algorithmic authoritarianism has successfully been camouflaged as non-authoritarianism, partly because they are impressed with the speed and the effects of algorithmic coordination.

How to Destroy Europe, in 8 Easy Steps

The Eurozone, and the larger European Union within which it is embedded, finds itself at risk of turning into a project of safeguarding the wealth and status of the select few — what Jürgen Habermas has characterized as a ‘hybrid actor’ consisting of European institutions and private investors and financial conglomerates. Private banks, mostly French and German, were bailed out in 2010, at the expense of the public, and countries such as Greece found themselves unable to meet their financial obligations. But just because a country hasn’t paid up, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t paid a price. European leaders, argues BRB editor Axel Gelfert, must start valuing people, not numbers.

A Modern Social History Classic

While a number of major surveys of European social history have been presented in recent decades, many of these are indebted to Western European perspectives and narratives. In his ‘A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe’ (London: Routledge 2013), Béla Tomka, professor of history at the University of Szeged (Hungary), offers a modern synthesis, based on painstaking empirical data. As reviewer, Ferencz Laczó argues, the volume may be considered as a corrective to more established perspectives, as well as a contribution to post-communist attempts at revising inherited historical understandings especially regarding the supposedly notable successes of communist-era modernization. All in all, Laczó argues, Tomka’s book represents a towering achievement in the historiography of European social reality.

Another Internet is Possible! Or is it?

A pervasive techno-fix mentality, coupled with a nauseating utopianism, characterizes much of the discourse on new technologies and the internet. In his handbook ‘Social Media: A Critical Introduction’ (Sage 2014), Christian Fuchs offers a welcome dissenting view from the self-congratulatory navel-gazing of most new media pundits. Fuchs’ handbook, which is largely aimed at students, illustrates through many illuminating examples, discussions, and tables, that social media are imbricated in a fundamentally exploitative and oppressive political economy, in which one part of the nexus of exploitation has shifted from the mere consumer to the ‘prosumer’, and the other part towards the extreme exploitation of rightless workers in the various global electronics factories. Yet, writes reviewer Ingrid Hoofd, there remains a nagging suspicion that Fuchs’ stance of ‘critical optimism’, too, remains attached to the very logic of ‘branding’, which his he purports to criticize: if one of the ‘selling points’ of the handbook is its appeal to students to individually take a more critical stance, does this not obscure the fact that many social media are at base corporate entities, well beyond the control or influence of individual activists?

Chronicles of Brazil

Perhaps coincidentally, diplomats feature prominently among writers from ‘emerging’ countries such as Brazil and India. Yet unlike, say, Vikas Swarup’s ‘Q & A’ (better known through its movie adaptation ‘Slumdog Millionaire’), Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s recent novel ‘His Own Man’ (first published in Portuguese in 2010, and translated into English in 2014) does not let the — often messy — politics fade into the background of a human-interest story. ‘His Own Man’, writes BRB reviewer Julian Murphy, sometimes reads like a personal effort at coming to grips with how a country and a people can rapidly change its leaders and its values, yet calling the book a ‘personal’ account would do the book a disservice: It is also undoubtedly a contribution to a public record of a dark era — between 1960 and ca. 1985 — of South America’s history.

Who Owns Germany?

‘Who owns Germany?’ What might look like a polemical question, intended to incite envy, is in fact a valid concern that merits attention from social scientists and policy-makers. On average, a German household owns wealth to the tune of more than two-hundred thousand Euros. But wealth is unevenly distributed — which is why half of the population owns barely 1.4 percent of total wealth, whereas two thirds of Germany’s wealth are in the hands of the top 10 percent. In his eponymous book, ‘Who Owns Germany?’ (Westend, Frankfurt 2014), Jens Berger traces the origins and the consequences of uneven wealth distribution, its hidden mechanisms and those profiteer from policies that continue to channel wealth from the bottom to the top. Throughout, writes reviewer Patrick Schreiner, Berger maintains a measured tone and displays a keen attention to detail and an awareness of the social realities — from the casualization of labour to the malfunctions of the international financial markets.

Crunch Time for Food Policy

How do we feed an ever growing world population in an environment of increasing scarcity? In their book ‘Food Policy and the Environmental Credit Crunch: From Soup to Nuts’ (London: Routledge 2014), investment bankers Julie Hudson and Paul Donovan liken the current overuse of the environment to the over-borrowing that ultimately led to the credit crunch in the global financial markets in 2008/09. Yet, argues reviewer Heiko Fritz, this perspective is ultimately limiting, and says more about the mindset of those trained to look at the world’s problems through the lens of financial markets, than about the challenges of food policy under conditions of environmental degradation. This is why, ultimately, the authors converge on the misguided conclusion that, as Fritz summarizes their views, “the hunt for technical efficiency is the most pressing problem of global food production”.

Optimists Beware!

Geoengineering — the idea that humans should deliberately engage in planetary-level interference with the Earth’s natural systems, in an attempt to partially reverse anthropogenic climate change — is a contentious idea, which nonetheless has quickly spread in policy circles and in the public’s imagination. Partly this is the result of the dismal failure of the global community to agree on, and enact, mitigation measures; partly, it is fuelled by a desire to see human beings as ‘in control’. Adding to several recent books on geoengineering, Clive Hamilton in ‘Earthmasters’ (Yale UP 2013) surveys the types of technologies being talked about under such labels as ‘solar radiation management’ and ‘carbon dioxide removal’, and inquires into the reasons for our collective inaction on climate mitigation. While much of the terrain has been covered elsewhere, reviewer Rose Cairns argues, Hamilton succeeds in bringing to the fore the issue of the enormous scale of the infrastructures that would be required to deploy any of the geoengineering techniques currently being explored.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake

Two and a half years after the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011, a number of books have appeared which explore the impact of the events on Japanese politics and policy-making. In ‘After the Great East Japan Earthquake’, published by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, based in Copenhagen, a number of contributors analyze those policy areas most likely to be affected by the tragedy – politics, economics, energy, climate, agriculture and food safety – and describe how the sectors have been affected and what the implications are for the future. This adds up to a useful set of additional perspectives, according to reviewer Hansley A. Juliano, in this review originally written for the LSE Review of Books.

The Culture of the “As If”

The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of political mass movements and revolts — ranging from the West’s ‘Occupy’ movement to the Arab Spring and recent protest movements in Turkey and Egypt. Participation in these movements is heavily skewed towards the urban, educated classes. Two recent books — one in German, the other in French — approach this phenomenon at a theoretical level, though from different disciplinary perspectives. As reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein describes in his essay review of Wolfgang Kraushaar’s ‘The Revolt of the Educated’ (Hamburg 2012) and Roland Gori’s ‘The Impostor Factory’ (Paris 2013), both books identify a dissatisfaction with a particular style of governance and formal-instrumental style of rationality as one of the reasons behind these protests. Whereas Kraushaar gives an empirical-historical reconstruction of the figure of the “new global protester”, Gori — in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Jacques Ellul — analyzes the psychological potency of various techniques of ‘normalization’. Together, both books amount to a powerful critique of the social and political impostures that are being performed through false abstractions and misguided claims to universality.