Why I turned away from social networks

jaron lanier

Jaron Lanier: Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. ISBN 978-1-847-92539 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I left Twitter today. Time will tell for how long. The business model behind it will have to change radically before I become an active user again. I logged out and I deleted the app on my smart phone. I did the right thing. I heeded Jaron Lanier’s advice because the ten arguments he exposes in his most recent book all make very much sense to me. Being part of a planetary wide scheme to manipulate people’s behaviour – because this is what social networks like Twitter or Facebook and the behemoth called “Google” do – was not part of the deal as I understood it. I was naive and Lanier opened my eyes. I am very grateful for that.

So what about these arguments? Social networks made an addict of me. We all long for social recognition, don’t we? Social networks bet on this psychological weakness and offer us easy rewards. We post a cute picture, a witty idea, a cool video – and we get “likes”. Such an easy reward. And we feel good since we “like” other people’s stuff too. The trouble is – it’s all fake. We do not know most of our followers, they could be real, they could be bots, and still we attach a lot of emotions to those “likes”. And to our ever-growing number of followers. Both taken together make us change our behaviour. We spend more and more time on social networks which is precisely what the algorithms in charge want us to do. Because they want to show us advertisement.

Profiling on a global scale

Finely tuned advertisement that fits our profile, a profile defined by all that we share on social networks and aggregated with millions of other similar profiles. The profile defines what we see on social networks. It’s not us who define it. We have little say in that. Furthermore, according to Lanier, living on social networks – often anonymously – stimulates us to behave badly, to lose our natural inhibition. Negativism attracts people – good news is no news – and makes them stay on social networks. Glee and social pressure are the keywords here: We are more easily tempted to howl with the wolf pack and engage in collective misbehaviour. The algorithms behind social networks encourage us to do so. Free will? Forget it. We are being manipulated. Welcome to the bubble that traps us for life.

“See what’s happening in the world right now!” That’s how one of these networks tries to lure new subscribers. To see what’s happening in the world I read newspapers instead. I read two paper editions and several foreign online editions every day. I can pick the piece I want to read while social networks show me what it’s algorithms thinks I may want to read. That’s not the same. Or it shows me what it wants me to read because somebody paid for my profile data and has a custom-tailored message for me. No, thank you. It opens the door to fake news, distorted news, hate speech and political propaganda on an unseen scale.

Less empathy, less happiness

Lanier comes up with many more arguments: Social networks destroy the context of what people say – a source for misunderstandings and manipulation – and lower our capacity for empathy. It makes us unhappy – addictions always do. Social networks make rational politics difficult as Brexit and the US election have shown and – worst of all – they try to supplant our individual spiritual landmarks by their own, exclusively economic values, geared towards making a few people – the operators of the networks and their advertisement customers – rich. Do I want to be part of such a scheme? No, I don’t.

It took a while until I reached that conclusion. I had made a short stint to Facebook and was horrified by the meaningless stuff I read there. Twitter at least limited the trash to 140 characters at the time. My Twitter presence started in December 2014 and had two objectives: First, to engage with people interested in books and music. It rarely happened, and when it happened we quickly switched to emails and letters. Yes, letters. Very old school. Second, to promote my two blogs. Initially that worked to some degree, but once the number of my followers stagnated, Twitter became useless. Visitor numbers grew, but not because of Twitter.

A real life with real emotions

Something had been brewing there. I have been unhappy with the time I devoted to Twitter for a long time. I realized how stupid it is to look with anticipation at the numbers of followers and “likes” and retweets. Looking at the happy face of my child when we do a barbecue and hearing the cat purring on my lap is much more satisfactory. True love! It can’t be found on social networks. Real life matters. Virtual life is at best a delusion, at worst a blatant lie. The business model behind social networks is a perversion of human interaction.

The only reason I do not delete my Twitter account yet is the fact that it has 289 followers of which some might like to be informed when a new post will be published on this blog or on my music blog. But I won’t monitor the account, I won’t like, won’t comment, won’t retweet. If you decide to unfollow me, that’s okay. If you decide to leave social networks, and wish to stay in touch nevertheless –  I use the Swiss messaging service Threema; my ID is S2NMB3F4. It comes with an initial investment of 2.5 Euro and it uses end-to-end encryption like WhatsApp. Contrary to WhatsApp it does not ask for your phone number. It works without US servers prone to legal and illegal snooping, it stores no content on its servers and its operation is governed by Swiss data protection laws. Signal is the free US alternative with all the drawbacks free apps have.

Social networks as they are set up right now are a threat to individual self-determination and as such a threat to a democratic society. Freedom is a value I cherish. Some fight for it with weapons, others with music. Here is a delightful piece of music about the battle for liberty, Ludwig van Beethoven’s incidental music “Egmont”, Op. 84:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness

P. S. A much better review on Lanier’s book was published by The Guardian, a really good newspaper by the way, which I try to read every day.

Traveling to the epicenter of the revolution

merridale lenin zug

Catherine Merridale: Lenins Zug. Eine Reise in die Revolution. (English title: Lenin on the Train. Translation by Bernd Rullkötter) ISBN 978-3-10-002274-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Russian history is a fascinating subject and especially modern Russian history, starting with the revolution of 1905, is a subject that keeps fascinating a political scientist like me. Catherine Merridale retraces Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov’s trip from his Swiss exile to St. Petersburg in 1917 in order to reorganize first the Bolshevik party and then Russia itself – with an iron hand and little concern for democratic aspirations. Ulyanov? Well, the man became better known under his nom de guerre, the name he took while being banished by the Russian czar to Siberia: Lenin.

Europe was at war in 1917, and the German government had decided to let Lenin and some of his party friends travel from Switzerland through Germany to Sweden and Russia even though Russia was at war with Germany. The High Command, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and German spy networks supported all kind of opposition forces in Russia to weaken the czar’s government, hoping to negotiate a separate peace with Russia and to liberate army units much-needed on the Western front.

Merridale not only gives a vivid description of the travel conditions but also an extensive overview of the political, diplomatic, economical and military entanglements. She excels once again as a narrator; and should you find this book interesting, I warmly recommend her previous book “Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin”. Sound historic research, an excellent command of language and a good feeling for building tension are Merridale’s hallmarks, and the fact that all kind of intelligence services play a part in this book make it a true page-turner. History lessons can be so enjoyable! Too bad nobody told me at school.

In the final chapters the historian sketches the type of political system Lenin had in mind. By manipulating and intimidating his political opponents – conservatives, liberals, moderate leftists – he established the foundation of a tyranny and did not back away from blackmail, inciting riots or worse imprisonment and murder of his perceived enemies. Lenin had ruled out a democratic, open state. His ideal was the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which in fact was just an euphemism for the dictatorship of the elite of the Bolshevik and later the Communist party. Whether the population of Russia and the occupied territories like the Ukraine wanted such a rule, was of no concern to him. Loyal to Marx he believed in the deterministic model of the historical and dialectical materialism, and aimed to fulfill the historical necessity to bring down the old order and establish a new one.

The trip in the train gave Lenin ample time to write down the principles of this Marxist-Leninist political order. Once he and his fellow travelers had made it to St. Petersburg, the city that would later be named Leningrad in his honour, he engaged in a violent political combat against the established parties and politicians to implement his vision. The price did not matter, even if it meant turning the international conflict into a gruesome, European wide civil war pitting workers and farmers against the middle-class and the aristocracy. Merridale quotes one of Lenin’s allies in 1917, Leo Trotzky: “It is not by chance that ‘unforgiving’ and ‘merciless’ are frequent [words] in Lenin’s vocabulary.”

Just like Stalin, subject of a biography that I have presented in an earlier post, Lenin was more a professional revolutionary than a statesman or a politician. Still, despite his radical political ideas he was a friend of arts and admired Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata “Appassionata”, perhaps because he saw the revolution in music that Beethoven had kicked off. I wonder what he would have thought of the Five Piano Pieces (Op. 23), written by Arnold Schönberg, another musical revolutionary:

Intelligible music – To memorize means to understand

Restoring the equilibrium to preserve peace

Pierre Assouline: Une question d’orgueil. ISBN 978-2-07-045963-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What pushes a man to betray his country, his government, his government’s allies? Georges Pâques is at the center of an espionnage case that shook France and Europe in the 60s when Pâques was identied as a Soviet agent, arrested and sentenced.

The French writer Pierre Assouline goes beyond simply retracing the unusual career of a French public servant that passed intelligence for more than 20 years to Moscow. The quest for the truth about Pâques’ character and his motivation – if such a truth exists – was an adventure in itself that merited being shared with the public. And Assouline does it in his inimitable, beautiful way as he did it in his biography of the journalist Albert Londres.

Assouline talked to Pâques, to his first Soviet agent handler, the latter’s wife and grand-daughter. He sneaked into Russian archives at the time when Boris Yeltsin ruled Russia and everything in Russia was for sale, state secrets inclusive. And gradually he came closer to the essence of Pâques deepest convictions: A sense of mission to put something right, to correct the balance of world affairs. Nothing less.

Pâques was a deeply pious Catholic, politically conservative and he certainly felt no sympathy for the autocratic regime of Staline and his successors. At the same time he was disgusted by the United States’ dominance in world affairs and their government’s arrogance, something he experienced right at the beginning of his career as a public servant of the French administration in Algeria in the 40s. This experience triggered a reflection that would propulse his career: Restoring the equilibrium by helping the Soviet Union. Betraying to preserve world peace. Talk about an ambitious young man.

The Soviet side quickly realized their luck, and Pâques’ first handler rather easily recruited him to report rumours, ideas, opinions, gradually moving to more sensitive information. Once he realized he had in fact become a Soviet agent in the top echelons of the French government and NATO, it was too late to turn back. The irony of his career: Betrayal led to Pâques downfall. A Soviet defector revealed details about a French agent and authoritirs patiently collected information until they had singled him out.

I am not without ambition myself, though I feel much more attracted by music than by politics. One of my long-term goals is to learn to play Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major (Op. 53):

Standing in awe before the Waldstein- Sonata

Life and works of an avant-garde composer

faure-Nectoux

Jean-Michel Nectoux: Fauré. ISBN 978-2020234887 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I recently feel in love. With the music of a composer I had chosen to ignore for reasons I can’t quite understand. Gabriel Fauré. An outstanding composer. A man who most of the time underrated himself and his music. A man, trained as a church musician dared to fuse the compositional traditions of Renaissance and Baroque music with modern symphonic or chamber music.

The discovery of Fauré led me to buy a number of recordings – and on my music blog you will soon see more about that – and to look for a short introduction into the life and works of this man. I found this short book (256 pages) by Jean-Michel Nectoux, a condensed version of a more substantial biography (847 pages) he wrote. An excellent choice. I read it in one stretch, over a weekend. Worth the money for anyone interested in this avant-garde composer.

To get a feeling for Fauré’s music I suggest you try his Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor:

Fauré builts a bridge into musical modernity

Behemoth or the rule of the dark forces

Behemoth

Franz Neumann: Behemoth. Struktur und Praxis des Nationalsozialismus 1933-1944 (English title: Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944/Translation by Hedda Wagner and Gert Schäfer) ISBN 978-3-86393-048-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Franz Neumann scientific study of National Socialism, published during World War II, certainly is the most extraordinary and comprehensive work on the issue that I have read. I have been interested in the subject since I was 15 years old and since then I have read a lot about it.

Neumann was a German scholar who fled from the Nazis in 1933, days after Adolf Hitler came to power, to avoid being arrested. He went into exile first in England, later in the Unites States. In 1943 he started to advised the analysis branch of the OSS, that embryonic intelligence cell that would later become the CIA. In this position, Neumann was able to assess information about Germany from a multitude of sources. It explains why by 1944 parts of his study were no longer up to date. The annex takes this into account and provides new material confirming Neumann’s thesis.

Neumann advanced the idea that the Nazi regime rested on four distinct pillars: the administrative apparatus of Germany (the public service), the army, the industry and the National Socialist party. All four organizations are centralized, governed by the principle of one-man-leadership (the Führerprinzip) with the ultimate authority being concentrated in the person of Adolf Hitler. All four function to a large degree independently from each other, resulting in frequent clashes of competencies and a surprising inefficiency. One can only imagine in horror what the Nazi state could have achieved, had it overcome these obstacles.

Observing the Weimar tragedy

Neumann was born in Silesia at the turn of the century. He graduated as a law student, he played an active role during the short-lived working class revolution in 1918/19 on the barricades and developed an expertise in labour law. As such he was well placed to observe first hand the failure of the Weimar Republic and more specifically the failure of Germany’s Social Democratic Party – Neumann was a party member – to prevent the rise of nationalism and later the Nazi party. This subject is the actual introduction to a more detailed study of how the Nazi state came into being, complemented by an analysis of political and philosophical thinking in Germany during the 19th century.

These chapters alone are interesting because Germany is witnessing some 100 years later the rise of nationalism and racism again, in a climate where certain social strata appear to be receptive for such ideas and at a time where the Social Democratic Party seems to have zero vision of what the future of Germany could look like. Will history repeat itself?

The founders of the new German state in 1945 and the occupying powers in what used to be West Germany wanted to anticipate such a repetition, they had drawn the lessons from the failure of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s political system should be strong enough to resist such an evolution, the industry will certainly not embrace nationalist and imperialist thinking in a globalized economy and the Bundeswehr today is very different from the Reichswehr or the Wehrmacht. But recent political events in Brussels and in Berlin also show that democratic parties may be infected by autocratic, nationalist and racist ideas when they have little else to offer. Such is the case of chancellor Angela Merkel’s junior coalition partner.

The industry, Hitler’s ally

One of the outstanding features of Neumann’s study is the fact that he highlights the paramount role that Germany’s industry played in the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. While his Marxist background may call into question his neutral assessment of the situation, the many arguments and examples he advances make his point almost unrefutable. Neumann’s obsession with Germany’s monopolistic economy makes the book a tiresome read at times. It should be noted however that Neumann never considered writing a bestseller. This study was meant as Neumann’s personal contribution to help bring the Nazis down.

With Hitler, the industry wanted to conquer through war a dominant position in the world economy, a position that France and Great Britain had denied Germany when they had shared the world among themselves in the context of their respective colonial policy. Industrial policy was also a domestic policy issue. Neumann writes that “democratic planning [under the Weimar Republic] failed because all democratic planning needs to satisfy the needs of the masses.” This however would have meant to expand the production of consumption goods at the expense of the heavy industry, Germany’s strong point and a prerequisite for any military ambition.

Germany’s imperialist war

“The ruling classes refused to hand over the power of the economy to democracy”, Neumann explains, ” National Socialism has coordinated the many and contradicting state interventions [in the economy] with only one goal in mind: getting ready for an imperialist war […] Fascism is the dictatorship of the Fascist (National Socialist) Party, the bureaucracy, the Wehrmacht and high finance over the people.” Political ambitions and economic greed were two facets of Germany’s road into disaster.

Neumann’s sociological analysis is no less compelling than his study of the politico-economic forces behind National Socialism. After World War I Germany was a class society and the Nazis were well aware of that. Their aim was to consolidate the ruling elite and to win them while at the same time suppressing any social group that may try to mediate between the ruling class and the state. It boiled down to the atomization of the individual and the dissolution of all forms of social organisations not affiliated to the Nazi party. In each social stratum the Nazis tried to create a ruling elite controlling the other members of that strata through terror and manipulation. As such National Socialism permeate ever layer of society and every type of activity be it politics, administration, economy, leisure activities or culture.

He emphasizes the role of propaganda “to keep the masses from thinking”. The party held the society constantly under tension, and ideology changed with the prevalent mood among the population. The transformation of culture into propaganda became in this context an extremely important stabilization factor complemented by terror against anyone holding and spreading ideas contrary to the ideology of the day.

The rise of the non-state

What is interesting is Neumann’s conclusion that National Socialism never developed a coherent political theory explaining how a Nazi state should function. It rather was a mix of improvisation and opportunistic behaviour. If an unforseen situation arose, party, public service, army and industry would needed to find an ad hoc compromise that could be reversed quickly if the situation changed again. The absence of the rule of law in the Nazi society gave its leaders maximal flexibility and its citizen zero security. Neumann’s description reminds me a lot of George Orwell’s novel “1984” where today’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally and vice-versa.

This led to a situation where society was not held together by a feeling of loyalty. Neumann concludes that the Nazis actually did not rule a state, governed traditionally by a consistent political theory, the power being concentrated instead of being shared among four large independent organisations. Neumann saw the Nazis at the head of a non-state that could not give birth to a feeling of loyalty of the ruled masses. The loyalty to the Führer could only be guaranteed as long as the Hitler delivered victories. So what held the non-state together? Neumann’s answer: the longing for economic benefits, for power, for prestige and most of all fear.

One pillar fails, the regime fails

In 1942 when Neumann published his monumental study, he wrote that all four groups needed each other. The army needed the party, because war could only be won through the total mobilization of the masses for the war effort. The party needed the army because it concentrated the military expertise and power. Both needed the industry to sustain Germany’s imperialist expansion. And all three needed the public service to keep the different interlocking parts of the Nazi system working.

I read this book with a kind of morbid fascination. If the double biography of Hitler and Stalin that I have presented in an earlier post had already been a challenge to read, this book proved to be even more tough. Neumann has a very clear and concise style of writing, but it is this distanced attitude that makes the book attractive in a strange, eery way. At the same time I found many useful reflections  on how easily masses can be influenced by politicians to promote the most abject policies: the extermination of other human beings.

Selecting a music suggestion wuth a relation to this book necessitated some brain work. I settled for the greatest possible contrast despite the fact that German Romanticism and its emphasis on leading a heroic life certainly contributed to the masses’ receptiveness of National Socialism. At the antipodes of Nazism we find Fanny Mendelssohn’s remarkable Lieder:

Longing for Italy, home of Beauty