Category Archives: Culture and international affairs

Tales of the world episode 71 – I saw a documentary

In this episode Tales of the world takes an experimental route to make a point. Enjoy a multi-track and polyvocal creation taking a stab at the fact that we are so well informed on just about everything, and yet, somehow, we can’t or won’t go beyond that.

Tales of the world episode 70 – Of (UN) interns and men

It is fitting to start the new season of Tales of the world podcasts with a news story arc that happened in Geneva this August. It was broken to the public by the very local newspaper Tribune de Genève, which, for three whole days, knew the glory of being quoted and mentioned by the global media giants, in their search for human-interest stories that could touch their readers during the typically slow summer reel.

The premise of the story arc was quite simple: the newspaper posted on Monday evening, around the time people check their facebook and twitter feeds, a potentially explosive news, as it was directly related to Geneva: young unpaid UN intern has to live in a tent during his internship because he cannot afford anything else, raising the question about who can actually afford to take up this kind of unpaid job. The response was quite immediate and overwhelming: almost everyone in Geneva knows someone or has been in the situation of being an unpaid UN intern, so they sympathise. They also feel inspired that someone courageous has finally took it upon themselves to say something, when they themselves did not do it, although the thought has crossed their minds. So there go offers of lodging and support. On the other hand, as the story is being picked up by more and more international media, the UN itself is forced to come up with a half baked declaration about how it helps its interns survive the fourth most expensive city in the world.

The next day, around midday, lo and behold, the intern buckles under the unexpected pressure of media coverage and claims himself touched and surprised by such reaction. He decided to resign however, and above all, to do this in a press conference in front of Palais des Nations, full of symbolism and fake humility, which instantly raises suspicions as to his ingenuity in this affair. The alarm bells started with the question of “how did the TDG journalist hear about this story” are confirmed, and sure enough, by Wednesday evening, in the middle of a heated public discussion about UN interns and their pay, or lack thereof, the third act in the drama is played and David Hyde confesses publicly that his was a communication coup orchestrated in order to get attention to this topic, about which he intended to do a documentary.

Meanwhile, UN interns did go out on a protest asking for a change the system, which was reported virtually nowhere in the press. And now, for the fifth act and the revenge, as it is called in theatre theory…the weekend papers wasted no time in calling this story a “publicity coup”, a “lying strategy”, with its main character “coming clean”, “confessing” to a “deception” and a “stunt”. By doing this they buried, in their turn, the real story – which is the growing inequality and injustice embedded in the UN internship system – under the cover of self- righteousness.

Three main observations occur to me in relation to this saga.

First, I am appalled by the comments posted by people on the first articles describing the interns’ situation, which, in their majority, did not even engage with the possibility that something is rotten in the system, and kept saying that the only thing to do is to adapt and essentially submit to the current situation, work hard and eventually “earn” the right to have a good internship, when it is pretty clear that these are no longer sufficient conditions to achieve one’s goals. I guess this is Calvinism at its best and Calvin may rest in peace, his city is still under the spell of his 16th century ideology and hypocrisy.

Secondly, my thoughts turn towards David Hyde, the unhappy protagonist of this story. I choose to be naïve enough to believe that his was not a self-interested publicity stunt, but rather the case of young person of strong convictions, who was overwhelmed by hubris and the arrogance stemming from the fact that, at the root of it, he had a good point to make. Also, let us be honest, this type of calculation turns out to be the only way to actually get through to the press, who fell so quickly and so hard for a story which was in the image of the way it works. If the idea of a documentary about this subject really existed, it was a good one and an honest one. The rub is that it needed time and reflection, values and skills that are no longer taught in schools, families and society at large. This brings me to my third point.

The ethics of journalism. What kind of journalist falls right into a youth’s poorly organised plan of making a splash for an idea? Or should we think that, more cunning than a fox who studied cunning at Oxford, the TDG journalist was complicit in this plan out of their support of the cause? I think this overestimates that particular individual on several accounts. Also, what kind of media, in general, fails to stop and reflect on why this entire situation happened, and why, ultimately, it failed to treat in depth the real subject: inequality, injustice and entitlement, and the many forms they take, including in the institutions that are meant to combat these very things. That which has failed us, including David Hyde, most in this story, is lazy journalism, which promises the glory of an instant for an individual, only to bury deep the idea or the cause they happen to stand for.

So there we go, the start of a season, which begins with a bang and a whimper and with a very precious insight: we cannot take the system on full frontal, no matter how right we are; we shall always be crushed, not least by the complicities it generates within ourselves; we can, however, build strategies and proposals based on reflection and medium and long-term processes, which help us build ourselves and narratives that will withstand the temptations of arrogance and hubris and truly build a better future.

Tales of the world episode 64 – Of rats and men

Last week the Nobel Prize Committee announced that this year, the Nobel Prize for medicine went to three researchers for their groundbreaking work on discovering and confirming the existence of what the media calls the “inner GPS” of the brain, a system of “place” and “grid” cells, which, when activated, explain humans’ ability of orienting themselves in space.

Truly fascinating discoveries that essentially illustrate the physiology of human memory related to space and localisation in it.

Experiments performed on rats show that upon going to different locations, different types of cells get activated in their brains: one set is called “place cells” and store the location information for future times when they pass it anew. When they are moving, another set, called “grid cells” gets activated, as a grid would, thus providing links and a “map” that the animals build and store in relation to the environment in which they move.

It would appear that these discoveries can help with addressing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, which alters the sense of orientation in the individuals affected.

In the meantime, in a part of our world which is quite different from the one I have just talked about, some other kind of achievements are recorded.

News is that the EU and Canada have finalised the text on their Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), and they have made it public, claiming that civil society, if it so desired, could suggest changes to it.

You might, legitimately, wonder, what is the link between these two pieces of news. Perhaps, a little more detail about the second one will bring some hints.

The CETA between EU and Canada belongs to the same family of treaties as the TTIP, TPA and TISA.

Among the many technical issues it seeks to lighten up in matters of trade barriers, it also has the potential of introducing some serious structural changes in the way politics is conducted in any given country. All of this in the name of free trade and corporate profits.

The more one reads about these agreements, the more one realises one thing: beyond the obvious danger these agreements represent to national politics and leadership, through the power they give corporations to define “global public goods” and to otherwise, override political decisions, accepting these agreements would mean signing the death certificate of politics as process and as a function in society.

With their technical language that calls “laws” – regulations and political considerations “operational constraints” these texts, by changing the language in which we think the political, erase the link between citizens’ lives, their politics and even their economics.

The very notion of citizen is disappearing from these texts, in favour of “consumers”.  And consumers don’t need politics, at least not in the Greek “polis” sense of the notion; they need cost/benefit analyses and the illusion of making a good deal. They need not rights, or obligations, but regulations and fines and a GPS to take them to the closest mall. Thinking in these terms obscures the idea that taxes or rules could have an actual connection with people’s lives and the logic of their public duties. It abolishes the public space in favour of its privatisation, in which the individual ends up extremely exposed and vulnerable.

By giving corporations the right to see, comment and suggest changes in official texts of law, before, marks these words, before Parliaments see them, essentially gives these entities power in processes of which they would benefit entirely, without going through the labour and pains of actually contributing to or at least thinking about governance. For this kind of power, paying taxes – the ultimate argument constantly brought by corporations – is simply not enough; governance is more, or should be more, than just representing and addressing the needs of the actor with the highest contribution stake. These mechanisms essentially end up placing separate corporate interests above those of the polis and the community, and in the long run, deny the very reason of the existence of the set up of the State – with capital S. This, invariably, leads to war, the very state – with small s, of fear and isolation, which we’ve been trying to avoid for so long.

Now, isn’t it ironic, that at a time when science is able to demonstrate and confirm that humans and animals best perform in processes that emphasise links and strategic mechanisms involving memory and building connections, homo politicus, or whatever is left of it, is just about to give up this privilege by erasing centuries of experience and cooping itself up in the carton silos of self interest and indifference?

Tales of the world episode 63 – Si par une nuit d’automne…

Dernièrement, j’appréhende les événements et l’analyse de l’actualité en lisant et écoutant des œuvres littéraires. Je trouve que, de près ou de loin, les histoires que je lis arrivent à exprimer très bien le désespoir ou l’enthousiasme de telle ou telle situation contemporaine, l’ingéniosité d’une invention ou l’extrémisme des attitudes. Je ne vous donnerai pas d’exemple. Ouvrez le livre que vous avez aujourd’hui sur votre table de chevet et, qu’il soit de cette rentrée ou d’il y a deux mille ans, vous vous y retrouverez, et vous le comprendrez à la lumière de l’époque que vous vivez et ça vous aidera dans votre jour à jour. Ce n’est pas un secret que la littérature est un miroir de la vie. Dans cette veine là, je remarque aussi, que, la plupart des actualités que je lis ces temps-ci m’inspirent, malheureusement, d’idées d’écrits distopiques. Par exemple, j’entends que les abeilles sont disparues dans une grande partie de la Chine et que les gens y sont obligés de faire la polenisation à la main : ça me donne envie d’écrire une nouvelle qui se passe dans un univers sans abeilles, sans grillons, tiens, sans locustes même, où les gens sont forcés de devenir eux-mêmes des insectes, pour que leur environnement puisse continuer à leur apporter ce qu’ils attendent : le miel, le son de la nature et même le maintien des cultures.

Je lis que les droits des femmes sont bafoués dans un pays telle que l’Inde, où on trouve encore des institutions qui tolèrent le viol, et ça me donne l’idée d’écrire un roman fantastique dans lequel la déesse Shakti, déesse de la féminité et de la force, fâchée avec les hommes de l’Inde, envoie sur terre des féroces émissaires qui imposent une férule féminine, qui finit par être aussi terrible que celle qu’elle essaye de combattre. Je n’arrive pas à être optimiste et confiante dans la rédemption de notre espèce. Ni même, en lisant quelqu’un comme l’économiste Jeremy Rifkin, qui, optimiste, lui, a récemment écrit un livre sur la “Nouvelle société du coût marginal zéro”.

En voilà quelques extraits : « nous parlons d’un monde où vous pourrez alimenter votre petite entreprise de production 3D par de l’énergie gratuite que vous aurez produite vous-même ou échangée sur Internet. Un monde dans lequel vous pourrez transporter votre produit 3D dans des véhicules électriques, qui eux-mêmes ont été alimentés par de l’énergie renouvelable. Et dans dix ans maximum, ces voitures seront sans chauffeur. Vous les réserverez sur votre mobile et elle vous localiseront toutes seules avec leur GPS… »

et encore

« C’est donc bien autour du Big Data que se joueront les profits – et les grands débats politiques – dans les prochaines décennies. Songez que Google enregistre chaque jour 6 milliards de recherches, qu’un habitant sur trois ou quatre de la planète est sur Facebook, que Twitter a 160 millions d’utilisateurs, qu’Amazon est le supermarché du monde… Comment s’assurer que ces compagnies ne séquestrent pas les infos qu’elles récupèrent à chacune de nos opérations sur le Net, comment faire en sorte qu’elles n’occupent pas de position de monopole dans leur activité ? Personne ne doit dominer outrageusement la plateforme technologique de l’Internet des objets.

Les centaines de millions d’internautes que nous sommes devenus doivent s’organiser. Rien d’impossible ! Les syndicats sont bien apparus avec le début du capitalisme, parce que les individus isolés ne parvenaient pas à exiger leur part de la production… Je suspecte que, demain, de nouveaux mécanismes émergeront afin que chacun ait un droit de regard sur la façon dont les informations qu’il laisse sur le Web sont utilisées. »

Les changements qui s’annoncent, que ce soit sous forme d’une situation qui change en empirant, ou une dans laquelle les humains s’adaptent et maîtrisent ce qui arrive présuppose une transformation radicale de la nature de ce que nous appelons le facteur humain. En anglais, « human agency », le libre arbitre, on pourrait dire, bien que toute traduction de ce terme reste imparfaite. Des siècles durant chaque individu a été appelé à conquérir son humanité en luttant contre toute sorte de contraintes et injustices, liées pour la plupart au pouvoir que certains aimeraient exercer sur les autres et aux pressions déshumanisantes des systèmes inventés, eux aussi, par des individus. C’est une humanité combattante, cruelle parfois, qui, pourtant est appelée à décider par elle même de chaque moment de la vie : du lever et jusqu’au coucher, chaque jour, et sans délégation. Quelle sorte d’humanité connaîtrons nous dans quelques dizaines d’années, quand la plupart des choix et décisions que nous prenons en ce moment par nous mêmes, dans notre vie, seront prises par des machines, ou des systèmes qui sauraient mieux que nous ce dont nous avons besoin par des invisibles fils qui nous tiendront? Sur quoi va-t-on exercer notre libre arbitre et surtout, l’aiguiser ?

Un de mes livres favoris est le roman d’Italo Calvino « Si par une nuit d’hiver un voyageur ». Il a cette particularité de commencer à chaque chapitre une nouvelle histoire sans jamais la conclure. Le roman se déploie sur le dos de son personnage principal, qui se laisse à chaque fois prendre par chaque nouvelle histoire, et devient presque fou en essayant de trouver sa conclusion. A aucun moment ne pense-t-il y renoncer, ou se poser la question s’il peut, au fait, écrire ses propres conclusions et fins d’histoires. En somme, exercer son libre arbitre de lecteur…et peut être d’auteur. Il reste pendu au suspens, à savoir sus-pendu. L’ironie est que, exaspérée par une suite littéralement sans fin d’histoires, je n’ai jamais conclu la lecture de ce roman. Et franchement, je pense qu’il n’y en a pas besoin. Car, par une nuit d’automne, la voyageuse que je suis, en lisant les nouvelles et écrivant sa chronique, ai entendu encore autre part quel était le message conclusif de cette œuvre espiègle…

Tales of the world episode 62 – The rise of the robots

Many things are currently creeping into our existence, under our benevolent, but mostly disinterested and ignorant gaze. With our senses numbed or dizzied by the hardships of everyday life and the spectacle of cruelty and incompetence on the international scene, we might even see their advance, without feeling that we can do anything about it.  Here are some which are to me most worrying and vicious…