By John Kendall Hawkins
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? [sinister laugh] The Shadow knows.”
– from The Shadow, a radio drama from the ‘30s
What a difference a week makes, the kind where you feel more certain than ever that signs are mounting that we are historically placed somewhere between the profligate days of Caligula and a postmodern Apocalypse where God is taking no prisoners. An Iceberg-looking submarine smacking at the Titanic — like a taunt. The Burger King ad featuring Thanatopsis, making a time-elapsed burger look like a picture of what smoking does — you wondering, if the burgers are better at Burger King, then what next? Joe Biden speaking in tongues. King Trump grinning, threatening Romney like a crime boss, while contradictorily claiming to be the nation’s top law enforcement agent. Buttery margarine, human-y AIs: It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.
Things finally got back to what passes as normal when the Ukraine government recently announced through their local press that they had begun work on turning their government itself into a “service-sector” function of their young democracy. They call it Diia, “the state in the smartphone.” All government services would be available through an app on a smartphone, including, the most important function for a modern democracy, voting for politicians.
The Idea means well. Many countries have super-apps like this that feature aspects of Ukraine’s proposed system, including Australia, but voting on-line makes the proposition iffy. Ukraine is drawing on the experiences of Lithuania and Estonia, two former Soviet-bloc nations that have gone digital, and include e-residencies and tax havens, and voting, for citizens, tossed in. According to a New York Times piece, most Estonians seem to agree that a paperless bureaucracy is vast improvement over the officious inefficiencies of the Soviet past. According to Wired, “Estonia is the world’s most digitally advanced society” and there is shared euphoria, maybe gone too far (“a digital Estonia would never cease to exist”), as it flaunts its Brand of freedom.
But Ukraine is no puckish Estonia. Her corruption is world-renowned. And if you had half a brain, you probably would have to worry when your government flat out wants to crow about your service-sector future. One pictures mattresses and a nation on its back. Mikhail Fedorov, the ‘mastermind’ of the system, both Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation, envisions a ‘fast-track rollout’, from the late 2019 unveiling of the project to February’s introduction of a working device. (The original unveiling was scheduled for January, but had to be moved back to accommodate Federov’s “illness.”)
Ukraine has many problems, other than corruption, to overcome to make such an enterprise even conceivable — let alone do-able. Oliver Boyd-Barrett, a political researcher and media specialist for the region, cites the national decline after Ukraine refused an IMF offer in 2014 leading to a CIA-influenced coup, an “oligarch democracy,” and a “historical brain drain” that leaves the impression that a nation of Borats was left behind. But also, not many people in Ukraine have smartphones. So there’ll have to be a massive gifting of such mobiles by the government or industry (no doubt, with backdoors installed) before the benefits of e-government can kick in and Ukraine can be a successful brand™ like Estonia. Five months from concept to rollout. Unh-huh. That’s funny.
There’s also the problem that the Ukraine government has not budgeted any funds for the DIIA project. Money has been obtained through a “private-public partnerships,” says Federov, who further explains, “”I rely on an effective team and international technical assistance, public-private partnerships, volunteering.” Volunteering? One of the “private” funders is old friend USAID, coming along with its easy-to-obtain high interest rate loans. Curious citizens were directed to a YouTube explanation and were (are) met with hunh?
If anyone can do it, maybe Federov is the man. President Zelinsky came to power in 2019 through the prowess of Federov’s machinations and Facebook manipulations. The ex-actor and comedian won in a landslide, with Federov behind him, fighting heroically against “disinformation,” pressuring Facebook to take down ‘fake ads’ and ‘news’ from Russia meant to futz with the election. If true. But Federov seems far more interested in making a long term buck. When asked during the campaign Why Zelensky? What can he offer? It wasn’t a democratically satisfying response: he can monetize stuff. Oh, Fredonia, don’t you cry for me.
One claim that NYT seemed to let stand, without critical appraisal ,was that Russians were approaching everyday Ukrainians and offering to pay cash-money to “rent” their Facebook accounts for disinformation purposes. Again, suggesting a Borat-like nation nimcompoopery. The NYT piece inexplicably referred to this as “an evolution in tactics.” What, are we evolving to a clown species?
As if such absurdity weren’t sufficient, the Times went on to blatherscheiss — “Facebook Tackles Rising Threat: Americans Aping Russian Schemes to Deceive” — that Americans were emulating the Russkies by way of pressuring tactics. Still, signing up for Facebook with multiple (perhaps paid) troll accounts is different than having to picture some swarthy stranger coming up to you and pssssting that you could make a buck airbnbing your Facebook account. Wouldn’t you run?
Strange news comes out of Ukraine that nobody really pays much attention to. For instance, last week a Ukrainian publication reported that Viktor Shokin, the prosecutor Joe Biden had successfully got fired for, ostensibly, failing to aggressively pursue corruption allegations at Burisma Holdings, had himself, on February 7, appealed to the National Police to prosecute Biden for the “commission of a criminal offence by Biden both in the territory of Ukraine and abroad…In particular, Biden was accused of interference in the work of a law enforcement body under Section 2 of Article 343 of the Penal Code of Ukraine.”
Shokin Gun? Did Trump push him to appeal? (More impeachableness.) Funny stuff, out of Ukraine.
Of course, DIIA, the smartphone government for stupid people, got me thinking about high tech in America. Gadgets and gizmos, smartphones and apps, seems to be the way we’re going, and not necessarily in a benign way. For instance, the Diebold machines that helped fuck up the 2000 Florida election, along with Gore not winning his home state and Nader offering an alternative with integrity, just sold to another company, which reportedly has the same problems with hackability. Jeesh.
But also, and finally, when one thinks of Ukraine’s new infatuation with service-sector politics, Iowa comes to mind. One problem with Shadow, the app meant to calculate the caucus vote, was that it was fanfared with much promise and too few people to roll it out properly. Brand recognition was the game. Now, Acronym, the non-profit agency that used the device at the caucus is ducking from the fallout after the app’s catastrophic failure. It makes the Dems look techo dumb.
Perhaps the real worry, though, should be what the names evoke. When I think of Acronym, I think of FBI, CIA, NSA, and all the funny ones that Edward Snowden describes in Permanent Record that don’t mean anything in themselves and cover something else up. Shadow we know, or don’t, thinking along a Jungian strain. When the acronyms and the shadows merge you just know some SHIT is going to hit the FAN.