So said my namesake Douglas Adams. In fact, he said lots of wise things about technology, most of them too long to serve as a title.
I’m in a weird place, emotionally, at the moment, but sometimes this can be a good thing. Being taken out of your usual ‘autopilot’ can be a useful way to see things differently. So I’m going to take this opportunity to share three things that, to be honest, make me a bit concerned about the next few years…
Attempts to put microphones everywhere
In an article for Slate, Shannon Palus ranks all of Amazon’s new products by ‘creepiness’. The Echo Frames are, in her words:
A microphone that stays on your person all day and doesn’t look like anything resembling a microphone, nor follows any established social codes for wearable microphones? How is anyone around you supposed to have any idea that you are wearing a microphone?
When we’re not talking about weapons of mass destruction, it’s not the tech that concerns me, but the context in which the tech is used. As Palus points out, how are you going to be able to have a ‘quiet word’ with anyone wearing glasses ever again?
It’s not just Amazon, of course. Google and Facebook are at it, too.
With the exception, perhaps, of populist politicians, I don’t think we’re ready for a post-truth society. Check out the video above, which shows Chinese technology that allows for ‘full body deepfakes’.
The video is embedded, along with a couple of others in an article for Fast Company by DJ Pangburn, who also notes that AI is learning human body movements from videos. Not only will you be able to prank your friends by showing them a convincing video of your ability to do 100 pull-ups, but the fake news it engenders will mean we can’t trust anything any more.
If you clicked on the ‘super-secret link’ in Sunday’s newsletter, you will have come across STEALING UR FEELINGS which is nothing short of incredible. As powerful as it is in showing you the kind of data that organisations have on us, it’s the tip of the iceberg.
Kaveh Waddell, in an article for Axios, explains that brains are the last frontier for privacy:
“The sort of future we’re looking ahead toward is a world where our neural data — which we don’t even have access to — could be used” against us, says Tim Brown, a researcher at the University of Washington Center for Neurotechnology.
This would lead to ‘neuromarketing’, with advertisers knowing what triggers and influences you better than you know yourself. Also, it will no doubt be used for discriminatory purposes and, because it’s coming directly from your brainwaves, short of literally wearing a tinfoil hat, there’s nothing much you can do.
This week’s roundup is going out a day later than usual, as yesterday was the Global Climate Strike and Thought Shrapnel was striking too!
Here’s what I’ve been paying attention to this week:
How does a computer ‘see’ gender?(Pew Research Center) — “Machine learning tools can bring substantial efficiency gains to analyzing large quantities of data, which is why we used this type of system to examine thousands of image search results in our own studies. But unlike traditional computer programs – which follow a highly prescribed set of steps to reach their conclusions – these systems make their decisions in ways that are largely hidden from public view, and highly dependent on the data used to train them. As such, they can be prone to systematic biases and can fail in ways that are difficult to understand and hard to predict in advance.”
The Communication We Share with Apes(Nautilus) — “Many primate species use gestures to communicate with others in their groups. Wild chimpanzees have been seen to use at least 66 different hand signals and movements to communicate with each other. Lifting a foot toward another chimp means “climb on me,” while stroking their mouth can mean “give me the object.” In the past, researchers have also successfully taught apes more than 100 words in sign language.”
Why degrowth is the only responsible way forward(openDemocracy) — “If we free our imagination from the liberal idea that well-being is best measured by the amount of stuff that we consume, we may discover that a good life could also be materially light. This is the idea of voluntary sufficiency. If we manage to decide collectively and democratically what is necessary and enough for a good life, then we could have plenty.”
3 times when procrastination can be a good thing(Fast Company) — “It took Leonardo da Vinci years to finish painting the Mona Lisa. You could say the masterpiece was created by a master procrastinator. Sure, da Vinci wasn’t under a tight deadline, but his lengthy process demonstrates the idea that we need to work through a lot of bad ideas before we get down to the good ones.”
Why can’t we agree on what’s true any more?(The Guardian) — “What if, instead, we accepted the claim that all reports about the world are simply framings of one kind or another, which cannot but involve political and moral ideas about what counts as important? After all, reality becomes incoherent and overwhelming unless it is simplified and narrated in some way or other.
A good teacher voice strikes fear into grown men(TES) — “A good teacher voice can cut glass if used with care. It can silence a class of children; it can strike fear into the hearts of grown men. A quiet, carefully placed “Excuse me”, with just the slightest emphasis on the “-se”, is more effective at stopping an argument between adults or children than any amount of reason.”
Freeing software(John Ohno) — “The only way to set software free is to unshackle it from the needs of capital. And, capital has become so dependent upon software that an independent ecosystem of anti-capitalist software, sufficiently popular, can starve it of access to the speed and violence it needs to consume ever-doubling quantities of to survive.”
Today’s title comes from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which regular readers of my writing will know I read on repeat. George Herbert, the English poet, wrote something similar to this in “living well is the best revenge”.
But what do these things actually mean in practice?
Frasier: You know the expression, “Living well is the best revenge”? Niles: It’s a wonderful expression. I just don’t know how true it is. You don’t see it turning up in a lot of opera plots. “Ludwig, maddened by the poisoning of his entire family, wreaks vengeance on Gunther in the third act by living well.” Frasier: All right, Niles. Niles: “Whereupon Woton, upon discovering his deception, wreaks vengeance on Gunther in the third act again by living even better than the Duke.” Frasier: Oh, all right!
In other words, it often doesn’t feel that ‘living well’ makes any tangible difference.
But let’s step back a moment. What does it mean to ‘live well’? Is it the same as refraining from imitating others, or are Marcus Aurelius and George Herbert talking about two entirely different things?
During an email exchange last week, someone mentioned that they weren’t sure whether my segues between topics were ‘brilliant’ or ‘tenuous’. Well, dear reader, here’s a chance to judge for yourself.…
In a recent article for Fast Company, ostensibly about ‘personal branding’ Trip O’Dell gets awfully deep awfully quickly and starts invoking Aristotle:
Aristotle is the father of Western philosophy because he didn’t focus on likes, engagement, or followers. Aristotle focused on the nature of authenticity; what it means to be real but also persuasive. He broke the requirements for persuasiveness into four simple elements: ethos (reputation/authority), logos (logic), pathos (feeling), and kairos (timing). Those four elements are required to argue persuasively in any context. However, the stakes are higher in business. Confidently communicating who you are, what you stand for, and why you’re great at what you do is not only essential, it’s liberating.
What I particularly like about the article is the re-focusing on ‘personal ethos’ rather than ‘personal brand’. Branding is a form of marketing, of changing the surface appearance of something. It’s about morphing a product (in this case, yourself) into something that better fits in with what other people expect.
An ethos runs much deeper. It is, as Aristotle noted, about your reputation or authority, neither of which are manufactured overnight.
The hardest part of establishing a professional ethos is describing it; it takes work, and it isn’t easy. The process requires a level of maturity and self-awareness that can be uncomfortable at times. You’re forced to ask some essential questions and make yourself vulnerable to critique and rejection. That discomfort is the tax that is paid to eliminate self-defeating habits that hold many people back in their professional lives.
This is where that magnificent word ‘authenticity’ comes in. No-one really knows what it means, but everyone wants to have it. I’d argue that authenticity is a by-product of reputation and authority. Easy to destroy, difficult to build.
Let me set my stall out by saying that I think that Marcus Aurelius (“To refrain from imitation is the best revenge”) and George Herbert (“Living well is the best revenge”) were actually talking about much the same thing.
I don’t know much about George Herbert, but Wikipedia tells me he was an orator as well as a poet, and fluent in Latin and Greek. So I’m surmising that he at least had a passing knowledge of the Stoics. The chances are he was using his poetic flair to make Marcus Aurelius’ quotation a little more memorable.
Revenge can be dramatic and explosive. It can be as subtle as tiny daggers. Either way, revenge involves communicating something to another person in such a way that they realise you’ve got one up on them.
Malice may or may not be involved; it’s probably better if it isn’t. The pop diva Mariah Carey is the queen of this, claiming that she “doesn’t know” people with whom she’s allegedly having a feud.
But, back to the dead white dudes. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson explains that the Stoics saw that both way we live and the way we communicate as important.
The Stoics realized that to communicate wisely, we must phrase things appropriately. Indeed, according to Epictetus, the most striking characteristic of Socrates was that he never became irritated during an argument. He was always polite and refrained from speaking harshly even when others insulted him. He patiently endured much abuse and yet was able to put an end to most quarrels in a calm and rational manner.
Donald J. Robertson
In other words, you don’t need to imitate other people’s anger, irritability, or lack of patience. You can ‘live well’ by being comfortable in your own skin and demonstrate the calm waters of your soul.
This, of course, is hard work. Nietzsche is famously quoted as saying:
He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.”
Feel free to substitute ‘internet trolls’ or ‘petty-minded neighbours’ for ‘dragons’. The effect is the same. Marcus Aurelius is reminding us that refraining from imitating their behaviour is the best form of revenge.
Likewise, George Herbert is telling us that ‘living well’ is (as Trip O’Dell notes in that Fast Company article) about having a ‘personal ethos’. It’s about knowing who you are and where you’re going. And, potentially, acting like Mariah Carey, throwing shade on your enemies by not acknowledging their existence.
Did you see these things this week? I did, and thought they were aces.
Do you live in a ‘soft city’? Here’s why you probably want to(Fast Company) — “The benefits of taking a layered approach to building design—and urban planning overall—is that it also cuts down on the amount of travel by car that people need to do. If resources are assembled in a way that a person leaving their home can access everything they need by walking, biking, or taking transit, it frees up space for streets to also be layered to support these different modes.”
YouTube should stop recommending garbage videos to users(Ars Technica) — “When a video finishes playing, YouTube should show the next video in the same channel. Or maybe it could show users a video selected from a list of high-quality videos curated by human YouTube employees. But the current approach—in which an algorithm tries to recommend the most engaging videos without worrying about whether they’re any good—has got to go.”
Fairphone 3 is the ‘ethical’ smartphone you might actually buy(Engadget) — “Doing the right thing is often framed as giving up something. You’re not enjoying a vegetarian burger, you’re being denied the delights of red meat. But what if the ethical, moral, right choice was also the tastiest one? What if the smartphone made by the yurt-dwelling moralists was also good-looking, inexpensive and useful? That’s the question the Fairphone 3 poses.”
Uh-oh: Silicon Valley is building a Chinese-style social credit system(Fast Company) — “The most disturbing attribute of a social credit system is not that it’s invasive, but that it’s extralegal. Crimes are punished outside the legal system, which means no presumption of innocence, no legal representation, no judge, no jury, and often no appeal. In other words, it’s an alternative legal system where the accused have fewer rights.”
The Adults In The Room(Deadspin) — “The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.”
A brief introduction to learning agility(Opensource.com) — “One crucial element of adaptability is learning agility. It is the capacity for adapting to situations and applying knowledge from prior experience—even when you don’t know what to do. In short, it’s a willingness to learn from all your experiences and then apply that knowledge to tackle new challenges in new situations.”
Telegram Pushes Ahead With Plans for ‘Gram’ Cryptocurrency(The New York Times) — “In its sales pitch for the Gram, which was viewed by The New York Times, Telegram has said the new digital money will operate with a decentralized structure similar to Bitcoin, which could make it easier to skirt government regulations.”
Don’t Teach Tools(Assorted Stuff) — “As Culatta notes, concentrating on specific products also locks teachers (and, by extension, their students) into a particular brand, to the advantage of the company, rather than helping them understand the broader concepts of using computing devices as learning and creative tools.”
Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 2) by Greg Sadler(Modern Stoicism) — “From a Stoic perspective, what we do or don’t make time for, particularly in relation to other things, reflects what Epictetus would call the price we actually place upon those things, on what we take to be goods or values, evils or disvalues, and the relative rankings of those in relation to each other.”
Some of your talents and skills can cause burnout. Here’s how to identify them(Fast Company) — “You didn’t mess up somewhere along the way or miss an important lesson that the rest of us received. We’re all dealing with gifts that drain our energy, but up until now, it hasn’t been a topic of conversation. We aren’t discussing how we end up overusing our gifts and feeling depleted over time.”
Learning from surveillance capitalism(Code Acts in Education) — “Terms such as ‘behavioural surplus’, ‘prediction products’, ‘behavioural futures markets’, and ‘instrumentarian power’ provide a useful critical language for decoding what surveillance capitalism is, what it does, and at what cost.”
Facebook, Libra, and the Long Game(Stratechery) — “Certainly Facebook’s audacity and ambition should not be underestimated, and the company’s network is the biggest reason to believe Libra will work; Facebook’s brand is the biggest reason to believe it will not.”
The Pixar Theory(Jon Negroni) — “Every Pixar movie is connected. I explain how, and possibly why.”
Mario Royale(Kottke.org) — “Mario Royale (now renamed DMCA Royale to skirt around Nintendo’s intellectual property rights) is a battle royale game based on Super Mario Bros in which you compete against 74 other players to finish four levels in the top three. “
Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think(The Atlantic) — “In The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings Institution scholar and an Atlantic contributing editor, reviews the strong evidence suggesting that the happiness of most adults declines through their 30s and 40s, then bottoms out in their early 50s.”
What Happens When Your Kids Develop Their Own Gaming Taste(Kotaku) — “It’s rewarding too, though, to see your kids forging their own path. I feel the same way when I watch my stepson dominate a round of Fortnite as I probably would if he were amazing at rugby: slightly baffled, but nonetheless proud.”
Whence the value of open?(Half an Hour) — “We will find, over time and as a society, that just as there is a sweet spot for connectivity, there is a sweet spot for openness. And that point where be where the default for openness meets the push-back from people on the basis of other values such as autonomy, diversity and interactivity. And where, exactly, this sweet spot is, needs to be defined by the community, and achieved as a consensus.”
How to Be Resilient in the Face of Harsh Criticism(HBR) — “Here are four steps you can try the next time harsh feedback catches you off-guard. I’ve organized them into an easy-to-remember acronym — CURE — to help you put these lessons in practice even when you’re under stress.”
These are things I came across that piqued my attention:
What do cats do all day?(The Kid Should See This) — “Catcam footage from collar cameras captured the activities of 16 free-roaming domestic cats in England as they explored, stared, touched noses, hunted, vocalized, and more.”
Fables of School Reform(The Baffler) — “Even pre-internet efforts to upgrade the technological prowess of American schools came swathed in the quasi-millennial promise of complete school transformation.”
This quotation from the enigmatic Russell Brand seemed appropriate for the subject of today’s article: the impact of so-called ‘deepfakes’ on everything from porn to politics.
First, what exactly are ‘deepfakes’? Mark Wilson explains in an article for Fast Company:
In early 2018, [an anonymous Reddit user named Deepfakes] uploaded a machine learning model that could swap one person’s face for another face in any video. Within weeks, low-fi celebrity-swapped porn ran rampant across the web. Reddit soon banned Deepfakes, but the technology had already taken root across the web–and sometimes the quality was more convincing. Everyday people showed that they could do a better job adding Princess Leia’s face to The Force Awakens than the Hollywood special effects studio Industrial Light and Magic did. Deepfakes had suddenly made it possible for anyone to master complex machine learning; you just needed the time to collect enough photographs of a person to train the model. You dragged these images into a folder, and the tool handled the convincing forgery from there.
As you’d expect, deepfakes bring up huge ethical issues, as Jessica Lindsay reports for Metro. It’s a classic case of our laws not being able to keep up with what’s technologically possible:
With the advent of deepfake porn, the possibilities have expanded even further, with people who have never starred in adult films looking as though they’re doing sexual acts on camera.
Experts have warned that these videos enable all sorts of bad things to happen, from paedophilia to fabricated revenge porn.
This can be done to make a fake speech to misrepresent a politician’s views, or to create porn videos featuring people who did not star in them.
It’s not just video, either, with Google’s AI now able to translate speech from one language to another and keep the same voice. Karen Hao embeds examples in an article for MIT Technology Review demonstrating where this is all headed.
The results aren’t perfect, but you can sort of hear how Google’s translator was able to retain the voice and tone of the original speaker. It can do this because it converts audio input directly to audio output without any intermediary steps. In contrast, traditional translational systems convert audio into text, translate the text, and then resynthesize the audio, losing the characteristics of the original voice along the way.
The impact on democracy could be quite shocking, with the ability to create video and audio that feels real but is actually completely fake.
However, as Mike Caulfield notes, the technology doesn’t even have to be that sophisticated to create something that can be used in a political attack.
There’s a video going around that purportedly shows Nancy Pelosi drunk or unwell, answering a question about Trump in a slow and slurred way. It turns out that it is slowed down, and that the original video shows her quite engaged and articulate.
In musical production there is a technique called double-tracking, and it’s not a perfect metaphor for what’s going on here but it’s instructive. In double tracking you record one part — a vocal or solo — and then you record that part again, with slight variations in timing and tone. Because the two tracks are close, they are perceived as a single track. Because they are different though, the track is “widened” feeling deeper, richer. The trick is for them to be different enough that it widens the track but similar enough that they blend.
This is where blockchain could actually be a useful technology. Caulfield often talks about the importance of ‘going back to the source’ — in other words, checking the provenance of what it is you’re reading, watching, or listening. There’s potential here for checking that something is actually the original document/video/audio.
Ultimately, however, people believe what they want to believe. If they want to believe Donald Trump is an idiot, they’ll read and share things showing him in a negative light. It doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not.
‘The Next Backlash Is Going to Be Against Technology’(Foreign Policy) — “We’ve seen the backlash against globalization. If anything, the dislocations and the adverse labor market implications of artificial intelligence, automation, new digital technologies—the impacts of those will be even larger.”
So said Ivan Illich. Another person I can imagine saying that is Diogenes the Cynic, perhaps my favourite philosopher of all time. He famously lived in a large barrel, sometimes pretended he was a dog, and allegedly told Alexander the Great to stand out of his sunlight.
What a guy. The thing that Diogenes understood is that freedom is much more important than power. That’s the subject of a New York Times Op-Ed by essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreiger, who explains:
I would define power as the ability to make other people do what you want; freedom is the ability to do what you want. Like gravity and acceleration, these are two forces that appear to be different but are in fact one. Freedom is the defensive, or pre-emptive, form of power: the power that’s necessary to resist all the power the world attempts to exert over us from day one. So immense and pervasive is this force that it takes a considerable counterforce just to restore and maintain mere autonomy. Who was ultimately more powerful: the conqueror Alexander, who ruled the known world, or the philosopher Diogenes, whom Alexander could neither offer nor threaten with anything? (Alexander reportedly said that if he weren’t Alexander, he would want to be Diogenes. Diogenes said that if he weren’t Diogenes, he’d want to be Diogenes too.)
Of course, Tim is a privileged white dude, just like me. His opinion piece does, however, give us an interesting way into the cultural phenomenon of young white men opting out of regular employment.
As Andrew Fiouzi writes for Mel Magazine, the gap between what you’re told (and what you see your older relatives achieving) and what you’re offered can sometimes be stark. Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress, is cited by Fiouzi in the article.
While there’s a lot of speculation as to why this is the case, Madowitz says it has little to do with the common narrative that millennial men are too busy playing video games. Instead, he argues that millennials… who entered the labor market at a time when it was less likely than ever to adequately reward them for their work — “I couldn’t get any interviews and I tried doing some freelance stuff, but I could barely find anything, so I took an unpaid internship at a design agency,” says [one example] — were simply less likely to feel the upside of working.
By default in our western culture, no matter how much a man earns, if he’s in a hetrosexual relationship, then it’s the woman who becomes the care-giver after they have children. I think that’s changing a bit, and men are more likely to at least share the responsibilities.
So in the end, it may be the very inflexibility of an economy built on traditional gender roles that ultimately brings down the male-dominated labor apparatus, one stay-at-home dad at a time.
Part of the problem, I think, is the constant advice to ‘follow your heart’ and find work that’s ‘your passion’. While I think you absolutely should be guided by your values, how that plays out depends a lot on context.
Pavithra Mohan takes this up in an article for Fast Company. She writes:
Sometimes, compensation or job function may be more important to you than meaning, while at other times location and flexibility may take precedence.
Something that can get lost in the conversation around meaningful work is that even pursuing it takes privilege.
Making an impact can also mean very different things to different people. If you feel fulfilled by your family or social life, for example, being connected to your work may not—and need not—be of utmost importance. You might find more meaning in volunteer work or believe you can make more of an impact by practicing effective altruism and putting the money you earn towards charitable causes.
I’ve certainly been thinking about that this Bank Holiday weekend. What gets squeezed out in your personal life, when you’re busy trying to find the perfect ‘work’ life? Or, to return to a question that Jocelyn K. Glei asks, who are you without the doing?
Also check out:
Is pleasure all that is good about experience?(Journal of Philosophical Studies) — “In this article I present the claim that hedonism is not the most plausible experientialist account of wellbeing. The value of experience should not be understood as being limited to pleasure, and as such, the most plausible experientialist account of wellbeing is pluralistic, not hedonistic.”
Strong Opinions Loosely Held Might be the Worst Idea in Tech(The Glowforge Blog) — “What really happens? The loudest, most bombastic engineer states their case with certainty, and that shuts down discussion. Other people either assume the loudmouth knows best, or don’t want to stick out their neck and risk criticism and shame. This is especially true if the loudmouth is senior, or there is any other power differential.”
Check out these links that I came across this week and thought you’d find interesting:
Netflix Saves Our Kids From Up To 400 Hours of Commercials a Year(Local Babysitter) — “We calculated a series of numbers related to standard television homes, compared them to Netflix-only homes and found an interesting trend with regard to how many commercials a streaming-only household can save their children from having to watch.”
Sidewalk Labs’ street signs alert people to data collection in use(Engadget) — “The idea behind Sidewalk Labs’ icons is pretty simple. The company wants to create an image-based language that can quickly convey information to people the same way that street and traffic signs do. Icons on the signs would show if cameras or other devices are capturing video, images, audio or other information.”
The vision of the home as a tranquil respite from labour is a patriarchal fantasy(Dezeen) — “[F]or a growing number of critics, the nuclear house is a deterministic form of architecture which stifles individual and collective potential. Designed to enforce a particular social structure, nuclear housing hardwires divisions in labour, gender and class into the built fabric of our cities. Is there now a case for architects to take a stand against nuclear housing?
The Anarchists Who Took the Commuter Train (Longreads) — “In the twenty-first century, the word “anarchism” evokes images of masked antifa facing off against neo-Nazis. What it meant in the early twentieth century was different, and not easily defined. “