Saturday, November 26, 2016

those rifles buried in memory lane

It's been exactly twenty years to the day since my mother died. A life of inextricably high complexity, out of which it is difficult to extract a coherent memory portrait. In light of the current events, I am naturally driven to recall those aspects of my mother's life that were more public and political, and more closely connected to the experience of the antifascist resistance. Among those historical pictures of the armed women partisans, you will not see one of my mother: she was considered too young for those combat roles, but old enough to perform for the resistance the dangerous work of carrier (of food, letters, clandestine press, and sometimes ammunition) from the villages to the partisans mountain camps during the last year of the nazi occupation.

The chronologically closest picture I have of her was taken a few years later, in that same place in the mountains where all the action took place. I was born twenty years later. That may seem like a long time, but I still grew up under the long shadow of the war and of the immediately lived experience that had inexorably divided the country into fascism and antifascism: a divide that became a defining texture underlying the entire country's existence, and that never subsided. The rifles of the Resistance are still buried in the yards.

Antifascism in her country meant largely Communism: even though socialists, anarchists, progressive catholics, and liberals had all participated in the Resistance movement, certainly the communist contingent was by far the largest. Like most Italian intellectuals, my mother was a communist through most of her life, with an earlier period of socialist militance, and a brief allegiance to the PSIUP formation (socialist party of proletarian unity) at a later time.

In the postwar years, my mother studied first as a chemistry student and then as an architect. In later years she also worked in graphic design, textile design, and art history. One of the first things that my mother and father designed together, as young graduates of the polytechnic school of architecture, was this monument to the antifascist resistance.

I grew up in different times. There was a revolution going on while I was living through my childhood years, a revolution that failed. A different one, and yet eerily still that same one, once again involving a fight between fascists and a communist/anarchist revolutionary front. The people who had been personally involved with the wartime Resistance fight reacted to the unfolding situation of the 1970s with a range of very different attitudes. As for myself, I was just growing up, too young to be involved in anything. Yet it was all there, that strange chaotic revolution, it was the world as my generation knew it. My mother, in trying to make sure that the "true lesson" of the antifascist resistance would not be lost, educated me from a very early age with an endless series of drills, lessons, and continuous rehearsals, about what is to be done, practically, immediately, should the fascists gain access to the government again. I must admit that, even though I became politically active at a very early age, I always doubted the need for all those continuous drills and rehearsals. What help is it to know where the rifles are buried? After rusting for so many years, they would blow up in the face of anyone using them. Why training to fight? In my then untroubled optimism, I thought that fascism would never make a comeback: yes, in both Italy and Germany it was voted to power through democratic elections and, once in power, it quickly moved to abolish democracy entirely. Yes, but it would never happen again, because the lesson of history is clearly in front of everybody's eyes, because after all nobody, no rational human being, could ever possibly desire to be a fascist. In the old days people were swayed by the fascist propaganda and did not see the truth, but now... I was sufficiently young and optimistic back then, that I did not even see the circularity of my argument: yes, certainly there were many victims of fascist propaganda, but someone somewhere must have set the wheel in motion, somebody must have indeed desired to be a fascist. The concept still bothers me, but I now understand much better the effects on the human mind of the poison of power (which is why I am an anarchist), and I know how narcissism, lack of empathy, manipulation, and domination can all contribute to create a mental state capable of seeing fascism as attractive: fear of an imagined enemy, an attachment to a fictitious image of "the past" as a nostalgic reference point, the scourge of the nation states and of all forms of nationalism, all of these things can simultaneously fuel the growth of fascism. Yes, my mother was right, one needs to stay vigilant, always, continuously.

In these last weeks, all those years of endless training suddenly kicked in and turned my mind into an unstoppable wailing siren engaged in a continuous screaming of alarm signals. Here it is, get ready, act now! I am endlessly going through that old list of "do/don't do" things, trying to mentally update them to the needs of 21st century technology and society. Is your passport up to date? Check. Can you do something to improve your mobility across borders? Think about it and act now. Renew the contract for your second job in Canada. Check. What next? Communications, yes, secure your communication channels. In those days that meant postal communication, a friend's address to whom mail for you can be delivered without raising suspicion. Now it's Signal on your cellphone and PGP on your email. Next, find the people most at risk in your immediate surroundings, at work, among your friends. That used to mean jews, now it's muslims, people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants, and yes once again jews since nazis don't lose their old habits. Think about how you can help them: contacts, safe space, protection from violence. OK, mom, what was next on your list? Why did I stop rehearsing so many years ago, did I really think it would never happen again?

Antifascism is complex and subtle: in Italy the fascists were elected to power in 1922. Up until the days of the Spanish Civil War, the Resistance consisted of a completely non-violent organization whose main purpose was to distribute banned information (clandestine press, dissenting opinions), largely produced by those who escaped in exile in various other countries, distributed though a networks of people willing to face the risk of violence and imprisonment. The Spanish Civil War for the first time gave rise to an armed resistance to fascism, and it was finally only in the 1940s, in light of the ongoing horrors of the war and the holocaust, that the Resistance as we usually understand it really took form. It is dangerous to get romanticized ideas about the struggle against fascism by watching war movies: that's not how it works! You cannot just dig up the rusty old rifles, that would not do: it would be tactically, ethically, and ideologically wrong. You cannot jump start a resistance movement in such a naive way. Opposition is multiform, organization is crucial, refusal to cooperate is essential, and most of all there is a lot of intellectual work involved that is long and demanding. The crucial practical steps, as my mother's drill list taught me, are how to stay safe, how to help others stay safe, and how to organize and maintain a robust and reliable network of communication. Focus on these goals.

My mother taught me the love of science. Her life was an incredible amalgam of optimism and despair, inspiring and frightening. There are many possible different ways in which I can choose to remember her. Today, on the twentieth anniversary of her death, I prefer to remember that she also taught me basic antifascism skills. I do still hope, somehow, that they will not be needed, that we can build a world in which they won't be needed.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Mathematicians and the Moral Responsibilities of Science

Three years ago I was giving my plenary address at a posh conference in Shanghai, all luxury and splendor in one of the most beautifully futuristic cities in the world. I was content enough to entertain my audience with the innocent and amusing mysteries of the "field with one element". My talk was followed by another plenary speaker, a famous applied mathematician, who suddenly shocked me into awareness of the murky ethical waters mathematicians are threading in our society. The work presented by my colleague, who like myself lives and works in the Los Angeles area, was nothing short of a Minority Report quality dystopian-futurism. It claimed to have developed an algorithm that would allow the Los Angeles police to estimate the most likely places and times where crime (from gang crime to burglaries) was about to occur and intervene promptly by allocating their forces to the predicted hot-spots. Now if you live in LA (and even if you don't, I would imagine) it shouldn't be lost on you that the LAPD is one of the police departments in the country with the bleakest record of brutality and human rights violations. It does not take much thinking to realize what the immediate consequence of applying this algorithm will be: the LAPD will show up where the algorithm indicates and will find criminals there, regardless of whether they exist or not. In other words, the alleged sense of "objectivity" provided by the presence of a "mathematical formula" will provide a police force of dubious ethical reputation with a very convenient excuse to brutalize low income communities.

In a similar vein, many appeals have already been launched by influential voices within the mathematical community, raising serious ethical questions about mathematicians working for the NSA, in light of the Snowden revelations about mass surveillance. The NSA, it is worth remembering, is the world largest single employer of mathematicians. In the very near future, we are going to be faced by an even more pressing ethical issue: the US just elected a fascist government. This is probably the single scariest event that happened in the world since the end of World War 2. The question now is not going to be just whether it is ethical for a mathematician to work for an agency that engages in mass surveillance, but whether one is willing to be a collaborationist of a fascist government. The lesson of the historical European anti-fascist Resistance tells us the answer to that question, but who is listening? We seem to be really coming to the point where, as a very famous mathematician friend of mine once said: "applied mathematics is the art of doing with great skills and proficiency what shouldn't be done at all".

It needn't be this way, though. There is a struggle and we need to take sides. Scientific and technological expertise are going to be crucial now more than ever. The new government may be the most bigoted anti-science team ever assembled, but at the same time these fascists of our time can count on hordes of technically savvy alt-right trolls in their service. It is crucial to maintain the upper hand in science and technology. I am especially speaking to all those who will be organizing the actual Resistance on the ground. Don't shy away from science, just because you are wary of its unethical involvement with power. Don't leave the fascists with the exclusive access to it, or all will be lost. Applied mathematics can also do what should be done, not only what shouldn't. In the example of the model predicting crime hotspots mentioned above, a discrete sample of event locations is used to generate a probability density that produces an estimate with priors on certain spatial data. All their papers are available. They can equally well be used to predict occurrences of neo-nazi attacks on various communities and concentrate antifa resources where most effective. Better still, we are soon going to witness waves of deportation raids on a scale unprecedented in history. As a scale for comparison, remember that, in order to carry out its genocidal plans, the German Third Reich had to organize the arrest and deportation of six million people, which they then proceeded to murder. This was an operation on an impossibly gigantic scale, carried out across the entire European territory. Now the incoming fascist American government has promised the deportation of eleven million people, almost doubling that scale. (Yes, I know, they are not claiming any genocidal intent, for the moment, but the Nazi Germans also continued to talk only about deportations until the "final solution" was adopted in 1941 - remember Eichmann's Madagascar? As history teaches us, the step from mass deportation to genocide is brief.) Deportation raids can only work if they involve a surprise element: raids on farms, on housing complexes in the middle of the night... if anything can be done to reduce the surprise element, to have a better than chance predictor of where the next raid is likely to occur, it can save lives. In a similar vein, French mathematicians who joined the anti-fascist Resistance during the war, and who were acquainted with the early famous mathematical game theory paper of Emil Borel, tried to apply mathematical methods to improve the efficiency of the distribution of initiatives, strikes, and resources in the Resistance. Scientific researchers tied to the US military later widely developed these ideas into what came to be known as 4th generation warfare. Again, the mathematics can be applied to what should or to what shouldn't be done: the choice is ours to make. We need to take sides, we cannot be impartial spectators because lives are at stake and the very texture of our civilization lies in the balance.

Pack all the tools you need in your bag: network theory, bayesian analysis, probability, differential equations, cryptography, computing, game theory, neural networks. We need them all and we need them now. Get down to work for the sake of our future.

Se non ora, quando?