From the Night King to Capital
[snippets from an unfinished essay]
“The end of the HBO series Game of Thrones was still worse than 2020”, a meme I encountered while endlessly scrolling through Facebook or Reddit -I don’t remember- but it stuck with me. Those who watched it understand, for those who didn’t: don’t (or instead, I recommend quitting before the last two seasons). The Game of Thrones television series is an adaptation of the Song of Ice and Fire novels but will deviate from them in some areas, partly because the book series -author George R. R. Martin- isn’t finished yet. “You’ll hate it, you’ll love it, you’ll vow to never read it again and then you’ll be eagerly looking for the sequel.” wrote WilkinsonBec on Enki-Village about the Game of Thrones: 7 Books in Order.
The Game of Thrones is about the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, princess Daenerys, queens, princes, incest, noble (Stark) families, the Night’s Watch, battles, riots, treachery and murder, slaves and tribes, dragons and the undead. I will quote some fans to depict what you might have missed (while watching it or not watching it at all).
“According to legend, the Night’s King was originally a Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who found in the Haunted Forest a cold woman with bright blue eyes, seemingly a female White Walker. He took her to the other side of the Wall and declared himself the “Night’s King”.The Game of Thrones fandom
Pieter is the GoT fanboy who introduced me to the TV series. He explained that White Walkers are a race of sentient beings that can raise the dead, a.k.a. Wights (I called them zombies when watching the series together). Don’t confuse them with each other, he notes. A song of ice and fire is a fantasy novel inspired by the War of the Roses, a historical event in medieval Britain. “The HBO-show isn’t half as good as the books.” Author George R.R. Martin (born September 20, 1948) has been holed up and deep into writing at a remote, isolated location during the pandemic. Pieter excitingly waits for the new book.
“Even Barack Obama has said that it taught him more about politics than any textbook. But for some reason, it hasn’t caught on with the black audience because … well … I guess because dragons are white-folks shit. But there is one reason I recommend that we as a people incorporate dem Thrones into our viewing habits: It explains wypipo.
GOT is basically an all-encompassing analogy for white America and should be studied in the same way seventh-grade English teachers make their students dissect Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies to understand society.” 1 wrote Michael Harriot in The Black Person’s Guide to Game of Thrones, July 2017. Dragons stand for white privilege says he and Donald Trump is a Lannister. He “discussed how the “army of the dead” (the White Walkers) is a metaphor for the white nationalist movement that seeks to slowly purge this country of everything other than Caucasian Christians.” 2
The digital data economy has all sorts of ways for determining how valuable you are to a marketer and your race is one of them. Algorithms aren’t racist. People are. But raw data is an oxymoron. Most of the time, we have no clue about how the algorithm works, and we aren’t aware of the power that is unlocked with our data. I fear that we could all become Wights, but some are easier targets. I see a resemblance between White Walkers and the rich white men from Silicon Valley. We should neutralize them. Hand me a weapon made of Valyrian steel!
The Silicon Valley White Walkers walking in their white paradise. “IBM, Lockheed, Syntex, Hewlett-Packard – the “white lady” was passed around the iconic tech companies of the time by bathroom attendants, shoeshine boys, mailroom clerks and sometimes even a stranger with a pager from off the street in the 1980s.3 Snow, crystal, ice, sugar, stardust; cocaine. The Night King, leader of White Walkers, won’t wait out the snowstorms because he is the one who brings it.
“Cocaine, like software, is a technology. We process coca leaves to make cocaine, cocaine to make crack, and numbers to make software – all to meet human needs and desires. Technologies – whether cocaine or software – become white or black by association. Cocaine was considered a white drug, and chemically pure. White people used and had access to it because they could afford to pay for it, or had the cultural capital to associate with those who did.” Crack was dark, dirty, more affordable and considered a black drug. Cocaine addicts are seen as sick and suffering from a disease, and black users as dangerous and criminal. White people’s perpetual fear of blackness and black people kicked in. To white technologists, black people have always been a problem that invited computational solutions.4 White people have never been seen as “a” or “the” issue here. Silicon Valley still has, at least metaphorically, a cocaine problem.
“Ten large technology companies in Silicon Valley did not employ a single black woman in 2016. Three had no black employees at all. Six did not have a single female executive.” Adobe, an American multinational computer software company, headquartered in San Jose, California, had no black executives in 2016, and I am not sure if it has changed. And Nvidia’s workforce was 17 per cent women. It declined multiple requests to discuss this but had, just like eBay, a high proportion of Asian professionals, such as analysts, designers and engineers. They employed among the lowest percentages of black, Latino and multiracial professionals. Women and other minorities are overrepresented in support jobs, such as administrative assistants, customer service and retail, but other doors stay shut.5
Hold The Door
Bran Stark has visions, and in season 6 of GoT, he finds himself, in a dream, looking at an army of wights, the Night King and other White Walkers. Bran comes and is shocked to see that the Night King notices his presence. The Night King suddenly appears right next to him and grabs his arm. Bran wakes up screaming. He is marked, and because of that mark, the Night King now knows exactly who and where he is.
“If it was true during the early dot-com days that “nobody knows you’re a dog,” it’s the exact opposite today.” wrote Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction. Alphabet (the mother company of Google) and other advertisement companies find ways to mark you and feed on that information. O’Neil takes the example of the University of Phoenix, Corinthian College, Vatterott College and other for-profit colleges that assure -in education- a usually false road of prosperity and leaves their customers (I intentionally wrote customers i.s.o. students) with huge debts. The targeted customers for those scams are clustered under example: “isolated”, “impatient”, “low self esteem”, or “Welfare Mom w/Kids”, “recent divorce”, “low income jobs”, “drug rehabilitation”, “dead-end jobs – no future”. Why? Vulnerability is worth gold! Recruiters find out where the pain is. They’re more likely to target the people in the poorest zip codes, particularly those who’ve clicked on an ad for payday loans. The Internet -and machine learning- provides advertisers with the most outstanding research laboratory ever; feedback arrives within less than a second, their fine-tuning never stops.
Everyone needs money, but some more urgently than others.6. I am privileged, and I have all the resources I possibly need. I am, like many others from my generation, neck-deep in debt from student loans. And that is without being directly targeted as such, I think, I thought… I decided to look it up (and you can do it too! it is straightforward!). I wrote about how connections are drawn, and correlations are made between race, religion, zip code, and more specifically *must love cats, House & Garden (magazine), Drake (rapper), pub quiz, ArtForum, Female Entrepreneur Association, Bollywood films, Tatler, Transgenderism, Castle (TV series), Afterlife, Ibiza, Watermelon, Extreme Metal, Gamble, Ghosts, Techno, Thank You (2011 film), TV 2 (Norway), Province of Brabant, Postmodernism a.o. All of these data points are proxies.
Killing a Night King -Alphabet for example, or Facebook- with its army of White Walkers -Google Maps, Waymo, WhatsApp, Nest, and other ventures- and all wights (zombies) under their command, would put an end to the Great War before they own us completely. However, I stand with Jon Snow, who dismissed this plan in season 7, arguing that trying to fight a way through the wights to reach the Night King would be suicide. I will explain my preferred battle tactic is a bit.
*List of what Facebook bases “my ad preferences” on, which influences the ads I see and takes control of my ads to experience. (https://www.facebook.com/ds/preferences/?entry_product=information_about_you§ion_id=interests) accessed on 26-5-2020
The Old Gods and the New
“Power. Instead of making people compliant, it seeks to make them dependent.”
Byung-Chul Han, 2017
Their intensity is vast, the content extensive, the capacity endless. The volume is high. The scope wide. Size is a problem. The (Night) Kings are too big-to-fail institutions, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google. Well, those are the well-known names amongst the big tech companies. As I confirmed earlier in this text, they have a significant influence that we shouldn’t underestimate. Their power reaches beyond wights and users, from the (financial)market into politics. These Kings are difficult to police. Their debts are the biggest ever. They don’t mind. For others, the smaller companies debts are more problematic.
“The Bank for International Settlements – the international body that monitors the global financial system – has warned that the long period of low rates has cooked up a larger than usual number of “zombie” companies, which will not have enough profits to make their debt payments if interest rates rise. When rates eventually do rise, warns the BIS, losses and ripple effects may be more severe than usual.” 7 The zombie firms are rising. Many companies cannot service their debts, but young companies that may need more time for investment projects to deliver returns do not qualify as zombies just yet. Easy money allows companies to borrow cheaply, low rates stimulate investors to take their chance on riskier companies. This is not inherently bad, but resurrecting companies requires greater and greater amounts of capital and drains the rest of the economy of resources. Most airlines, for example, are losing money for years. K.L.M. is resurrected over and over again with the state capital. “In December, the Indian government, after many changes of heart, finally announced they are going to get rid of the entirety of Air India by seeking to sell 100% of the money-losing airline. Air India is reportedly sitting on $10 billion in debt and in 2019 was cut off from fuel supplies at several airports due to unpaid bills by the state-owned Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) before the government stepped in with a bridge loan.” 8 And it is not much better for others: “Alitalia entered the third year of “extraordinary administration” (a form of bankruptcy protection) in May 2019, and has exhausted the €900-million lifeline extended by the Italian government two years ago. A new €400-million lifeline should be available by the end of January 2020, as no serious buyers were found.”
Condor Flugdienst is flying around on a taxpayer guarantee. Condor obtained a €380-million bridge loan too.9 British Airways will sell off a part of its corporate art collection to protect jobs and avoid laying off staff as it faces cash due to the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown. “According to Forbes, British Airways’s parent company IAG reported a £1.5 billion ($1.8 billion) loss in the first three months of the year. In April, the airline furloughed 30,000 staff, according to the Guardian, and it was reported this month that the company is considering cutting 12,000 jobs, according to CNN.” 10 British Virgin Atlantic is too big to fail, but lost money the last years (2017 and 2019) and won’t make any profit for at least another two years because of Brexit and high fuel costs, or so they say. They’re private funding today to re-apply for government assistance later.
I have been on quite a few flights in the past year. Things will change when those companies fail and return to their graves; I imagine mostly economic pain – including job losses.. I’d rather take taking the train instead of sitting on another zombie plane. The U.K.’s GDP is falling hard and will suffer economically from the pandemic anyway. I question how (and what) the British government and the Bank of England will resurrect. We know the stories of the too-big-to-fail banks all too well. But did you know that the term Zombie firm was created in the 1990s to explain the “lost decade” in Japan, already almost 30 years ago? Japan didn’t let their big companies die during that time, it did when the economy improved. The count of those walking dead’s will only increase as governments are deciding which struggling companies to help out after the COVID-19 pandemic.
CEOs get paid more than three hundred times as much as the average worker.11 The growing share of income of a small elite is clearly visible, and it has been indisputable for a while now, especially in American during the rise of big tech in the 1980s. No, actually technology has a lot less to do with the increase of inequality than you’d think, but power relations do. There has been a huge change in income distribution.
That doesn’t mean there is a ‘Skills Gap’. Claims that inadequate worker skills explain high unemployment are not scientifically grounded. Still, a lot of people believe it to be true because everyone they know says it’s true. This is a ‘mind virus’, that created a zombie idea. The zombie idea of skills gap should have been killed by evidence, but it refuses to die. Yes, some workers with lower education have higher unemployment, but this isn’t always the case. Indeed, a lot of job spots aren’t filled, especially those that require certain skills. But employers are not willing to offer higher wages to attract workers with those skills. Unfortunately, this skill myth has a big effect on real-world policy. It shifts the attention away from the employers, companies and government by blaming workers for their own unfortunate situation.12 We take this blame and we feel guilty, but that doesn’t mean we can take full responsibility.
The Laws of Gods and Men
Byung-Chul Han is a South Korean-born German philosopher and cultural theorist. He states that Neoliberalism converted oppressed workers into individual contractors, to entrepreneurs of the self. We are self-exploiting workers in our own enterprise. We see ourselves, not society as the problem. If we need something we turn to Capital. We work for Capital and not necessarily for our essential needs. Han sees Capital as our universal God. He writes that the guilt we feel towards it subtracts us from being responsible. Capital bounds, obstructs, restraints, and restricts us. We have faith in it, in Capital, like we once did in any other god. We need its restrictions, says he. We wouldn’t know how to be ‘free’. This freedom we can’t have because we can’t redeem ourselves. Capitalism is our religion, he writes in Psychopolitics, Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (2017). Byung-Chul Han quotes Walter Benjamin, in that capitalism represents the “first case of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement.” We seem to be in this indefinitely. Breaking with our religion seems impossible, because “a vast sense of guilt that is unable to find relief seizes on the cult, not to atone for this guilt but to make it universal.”13
Our debts and capital affect us personally, it changes our mood. The lack of money makes me, and most of us, anxious and frustrated. It haunts us. Just like ghosts, zombies return “as collectors of some unpaid symbolic debt.” Slavoj Žižek points out in Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. This debt is not merely a token, or representative for something else. Its essence is not only universal -from material labour capitalism to immaterial labour capitalism and cognitive capitalism; from industrial workers in China, sweatshops in Thailand to temporary workers, Upwork™ freelancers, NHS workers, bus drivers, artists, lawyers, government workers and everything in-between- but also ever-changing in appearance. Maybe we should question if it (still) exists?
We believe that we are in this, the stigma of debts and money forever (even after our deaths), but it could just as well be an illusion. “If the greatest trick of the devil was to persuade us that the devil does not exist, then maybe the greatest trick of capitalism is to gull us into imagining that there is nothing but eternal capitalism.”14 “God is dead; Communism is dead. It is, at best, the legacy code of the Chinese ruling class.”15 Capital is dead. The fact that you are reading these words is proof of how it comes -or came- apart.
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Winter is Coming
“Do you remember the winter of debt?” is how Paul Krugman starts a subchapter (Chapter 9. Fiscal Phonies, Melting Snowballs and the Winter of Debt p. 207) in his book Arguing With Zombies. As he wrote earlier in his twice-weekly column in the New York Times, the U.S. hardly started recovering from the 2008 financial crisis in late 2010/ early 2011. But against all odds, the continuing employment crisis wasn’t the focus of the economic policy discussion. Capital itself is fixated on debt. Because of the winter of debt America entered a period of cutbacks in government spending. “The obsession with debt is looking foolish even at full employment.” 16 Krugman writes about America’s ongoing consumption with this belief. The winter came and made raising private investment an even bigger priority than before. He writes about the warning that debt becomes a snowball over time; high debt means high-interest rates, leading to more debt, to even higher interest rates, and so on. Government wealth is not the same as its debt, though. The economy or the monetary measure of the market value of all goods and services produced in that period is how wealth usually is calculated (G.D.P.). If interest rates are less than G.D.P. growth, the debt- snowball will melt away on its own, he says. America -like many other countries do- shifted to private investments. Private investment usually doesn’t have a very high rate of return. We should look at the public investment in infrastructure instead. The government shouldn’t run like a business. The public infrastructure has been neglected, not only in America but also in many other countries, and this infrastructure suffers from apparent deficiencies. Krugman writes that the magic of tax cuts for the rich is the ultimate zombie. It is so hard to kill because a few billionaires spend a small fraction of their capital to support politicians, think tanks, and partisan media and keep spreading the tax-cut virus.
The Wars to Come
The Game of Thrones-ie White Walker problem became too big, primarily because it wasn’t addressed on time. The real world is unlike the Seven Kingdoms, not a fantasy show. We shouldn’t wait for an Arya with a special sword to jump from nowhere to kill the Night King (Facebook, for example), which meant that all the White Walkers (WhatsApp’s) generated instantly died, causing all the wights they created to perish too, in one stroke. But what is it that we need to not go there, where… winter is already here?
O’Neil wrote that this problem screams for change. We should be educating on ethics. We have to shift towards a culture of diverse ethical programmers, hackers and thinkers that respects diverse perspectives. Only then we can solve the problems that are emerging with biased technology, this evil. We need transparency, accountability and openness from our governments and companies. This openness, or open-source, comes with a new danger. Of course, it is giving dedicated criminals access to the information as well. It is time we talk about regulation.
Let’s punish the Capital. “Capital punishment (which is also known as the death penalty) is a government-sanctioned practice whereby a person is put to death by the state as a punishment for a crime. The sentence ordering that someone be punished in such a manner is referred to as a death sentence, whereas the act of carrying out such a sentence is known as an execution. A prisoner who has been sentenced to death and is awaiting execution is referred to as condemned, and is said to be on death row. Etymologically, the term capital (lit. “of the head”, derived via the Latin capitalis from caput, “head”) in this context alluded to execution by beheading” .17
I am not necessarily in favour of the death penalty, even if humans are not that innocent. Can we kill the thing they stand for? I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to behead the monopoly (companies). To chop them up and shatter big companies into smaller pieces. There is something too big. Too much. Too powerful. Too-big-to-fail institutions; enough is enough. It is going to be a long and uneasy process to break up. Google knows how to defend itself. They’ve killed before, and they bully cities and states using their resources and control over the way we use the Internet. Amazon is the world’s largest online store that slaughters companies by copying their ideas and buys out others.
Apple takes a 30% commission from app developers and can prevent them from selling in other places. Google literally controls information, from navigation (Maps, Waze), video (YouTube), mobile operating systems (Android), a.o. and Facebook (and thus Instagram + Whatsapp) violates user privacy, spreads disinformation, and helps incite genocide while basically using their over 2 billion users. European regulators have been fining them, but these companies haven’t changed anything. Elizabeth Warren (American politician and lawyer) says Facebook should spin off Instagram and WhatsApp. Amazon should spin off Whole Foods and Zappos, and Google should divest Waze, its smart-home company Nest, and its ad company DoubleClick. She plans to force these tech companies to become “platform utilities.” When the company is a platform, it can’t also use the platform. This means that Amazon can’t run its online marketplace and sell Amazon Basics in the marketplace, and Google has to split up its ads business. Another option would be to implement nondiscrimination rules assuring that Google and Amazon can’t give themselves special treatment. This means that Amazon can’t recommend its own products first on its website, and Google can’t prioritize its own content instead of others.18 Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you won’t be able to go on Google and search like you do today. You’ll still be able to look at how your high school crush is doing on Facebook, text with WhatsApp and watch videos on YouTube. You’ll still be able to find the Song of Ice and Fire book series on Amazon and have it delivered the next day.
1 Michael Harriot, The Black Person’s Guide to Game of Thrones, The Root, 12 July 2017 https://www.theroot.com/the-black-persons-guide-to-game-of-thrones-1796847562
2 Michael Harriot, Game of Thrones Shows Us How America Treats White Supremacy, The Root 14 August 2017, https://www.theroot.com/game-of-thrones-showed-us-how-america-treats-white-supr-1797817865
3 Charlton D McIlwain, Silicon Valley’s cocaine problem shaped our racist tech, 30 December 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/30/silicon-valleys-cocaine-problem-shaped-our-racist-tec
5 Sinduja Rangarajan, Here’s the clearest picture of Silicon Valley’s diversity yet: It’s bad. But some companies are doing less bad https://www.revealnews.org/article/heres-the-clearest-picture-of-silicon-valleys-diversity-yet/ June 25 2018 (accessed on 11-5-2020)
6 Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math destruction, How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy (UK: Penguin Books Ltd, 2016)
7 Rana Foroohar, Don’t Be Evil, The Case Against Big Tech (London: Penguin Books Ltd 2019)
8 MC01, 2020, Already the Year of Zombie Airlines for Wolf Street, 5 January 2020 https://wolfstreet.com/2020/01/05/2020-already-the-year-of-zombie-airlines/
10 Kate Brown, Facing a Cash Crunch, British Airways Looks to Sell Off Its Star-Studded Art Collection, June 11, 2020 https://news.artnet.com/market/british-airways-art-auction-1884387?utm_content=from_artnetnews&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=European%20New%20Afternoon%206/11/20&utm_term=EUR%20Daily%20Newsletter%20%5BAFTERNOON%5D
12 Paul Krugman, Arguing with Zombies, Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future (Penguin Random House Ltd, 2020)
13 Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, (London; New York: Verso, 2017)
14 McKenzie Wark, Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? (London; New York: Verso, 2019) Chapter 1: the sublime Language of my century p.24
15 McKenzie Wark, Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? (London; New York: Verso, 2019) Chapter 6: Nature as Extrapolation and Inertia p. 121
16 Paul Krugman, Arguing with Zombies, Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future (Penguin Random House Ltd, 2020)
18 Angela Chen, Regulating or breaking up Big Tech: an antitrust explainer, June 5 2019 https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/06/05/135080/big-tech-breakup-regulation-antitrust-apple-amazon-google-facebook-doj-ftc-policy/