Tag: politics

Friday ferretings

These things jumped out at me this week:

  • Deepfakes will influence the 2020 election—and our economy, and our prison system (Quartz) ⁠— “The problem doesn’t stop at the elections, however. Deepfakes can alter the very fabric of our economic and legal systems. Recently, we saw a deepfake video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bragging about abusing data collected from users circulated on the internet. The creators of this video said it was produced to demonstrate the power of manipulation and had no malicious intent—yet it revealed how deceptively realistic deepfakes can be.”
  • The Slackification of the American Home (The Atlantic) — “Despite these tools’ utility in home life, it’s work where most people first become comfortable with them. ‘The membrane that divides work and family life is more porous than it’s ever been before,’ says Bruce Feiler, a dad and the author of The Secrets of Happy Families. ‘So it makes total sense that these systems built for team building, problem solving, productivity, and communication that were invented in the workplace are migrating to the family space’.”
  • You probably don’t know what your coworkers think of you. Here’s how to change that (Fast Company) — “[T]he higher you rise in an organization, the less likely you are to get an accurate picture of how other people view you. Most people want to be viewed favorably by others in a position of power. Once you move up to a supervisory role (or even higher), it is difficult to get people to give you a straight answer about their concerns.”
  • Sharing, Generosity and Gratitude (Cable Green, Creative Commons) — “David is home recovering and growing his liver back to full size. I will be at the Mayo Clinic through the end of July. After the Mayo surgeons skillfully transplanted ⅔ of David’s liver into me, he and I laughed about organ remixes, if he should receive attribution, and wished we’d have asked for a CC tattoo on my new liver.”
  • Flexibility as a key benefit of open (The Ed Techie) — “As I chatted to Dames and Lords and fiddled with my tie, I reflected on that what is needed for many of these future employment scenarios is flexibility. This comes in various forms, and people often talk about personalisation but it is more about institutional and opportunity flexibility that is important.”
  • Abolish Eton: Labour groups aim to strip elite schools of privileges (The Guardian) — “Private schools are anachronistic engines of privilege that simply have no place in the 21st century,” said Lewis. “We cannot claim to have an education system that is socially just when children in private schools continue to have 300% more spent on their education than children in state schools.”
  • I Can’t Stop Winning! (Pinboard blog) – “A one-person business is an exercise in long-term anxiety management, so I would say if you are already an anxious person, go ahead and start a business. You’re not going to feel any worse. You’ve already got the main skill set of staying up and worrying, so you might as well make some money.”
  • How To Be The Remote Employee That Proves The Stereotypes Aren’t True (Trello blog) — “I am a big fan of over-communicating in general, and I truly believe that this is a rule all remote employees should swear by.”
  • I Used Google Ads for Social Engineering. It Worked. (The New York Times) — “Ad campaigns that manipulate searchers’ behavior are frighteningly easy for anyone to run.”
  • Road-tripping with the Amazon Nomads (The Verge) — “To stock Amazon’s shelves, merchants travel the backroads of America in search of rare soap and coveted toys.”

Image from Guillermo Acuña fronts his remote Chilean retreat with large wooden staircase (Dezeen)

Life doesn’t depend on any one opinion, any one custom, or any one century

Baltasar Gracián was a 17th-century Spanish Jesuit who put together a book of aphorisms usually translated The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence or simply The Art of Worldly Wisdom. It’s one of a few books that have had a very large effect on my life. Today’s quotation-as-title comes from him.

The historian in me wonders about why we seem to live in such crazy times. My simple answer is ‘the internet’, but I want to dig into a bit using an essay from Scott Alexander:

[T]oday we have an almost unprecedented situation.

We have a lot of people… boasting of being able to tolerate everyone from every outgroup they can imagine, loving the outgroup, writing long paeans to how great the outgroup is, staying up at night fretting that somebody else might not like the outgroup enough.

This is really surprising. It’s a total reversal of everything we know about human psychology up to this point. No one did any genetic engineering. No one passed out weird glowing pills in the public schools. And yet suddenly we get an entire group of people who conspicuously promote and defend their outgroups, the outer the better.

What is going on here?

Scott Alexander

It’s long, and towards the end, Alexander realises that he’s perhaps guilty of the very thing he’s pointing out. Nevertheless, his definition of an ‘outgroup’ is useful:

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

Scott Alexander

Over the last three years in the UK, we’ve done a spectacular job of adding a hatred of the opposing side in the Brexit debate to our national underlying sense of xenophobia . What’s necessary next is to bring everyone together and, whether we end up leaving the EU or not, forging a new narrative.

As Bryan Caplan points out, such efforts at cohesion need to be approached obliquely. He uses the example of American politics, but it applies equally elsewhere, including the UK:

Suppose you live in a deeply divided society: 60% of people strongly identify with Group A, and the other 40% strongly identify with Group B. While you plainly belong to Group A, you’re convinced this division is bad: It would be much better if everyone felt like they belonged to Group AB. You seek a cohesive society, where everyone feels like they’re on the same team.

What’s the best way to bring this cohesion about? Your all-too-human impulse is to loudly preach the value of cohesion. But on reflection, this is probably counter-productive. When members of Group B hear you, they’re going to take “cohesion” as a euphemism for “abandon your identity, and submit to the dominance of Group A.” None too enticing. And when members of Group A notice Group B’s recalcitrance, they’re probably going to think, “We offer Group B the olive branch of cohesion, and they spit in our faces. Typical.” Instead of forging As and Bs into one people, preaching cohesion tears them further apart.

Bryan Caplan

So, what can we do? Caplan suggests that members of one side should go out of their way to be overwhelmingly positive and friendly to the other side:

The first rule of promoting cohesion is: Don’t talk about cohesion. The second rule of promoting cohesion is: Don’t talk about cohesion. If you really want to build a harmonious, unified society, take one for the team. Discard your anger, swallow your pride, and show out-groups unilateral respect and friendship. End of story.

Bryan Caplan

It reminds me of the Christian advice to “turn the other cheek” which must have melted the brains of those listening to Jesus who were used to the Old Testament approach:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

Matthew 5:38-40 (ESV)

Over the last 20 years, as the internet has played an ever-increasing role in our daily lives, we’ve seen a real ramping-up of the feminist movement, gay marriage becoming the norm in civilised western democracies, and movements like #BlackLivesMatter reminding us of just how racist our societies are.

In addition, despite the term being coined as long ago as 1989, we’ve seen a rise in awareness around intersectionality. It’s not exactly a radical notion to say that us being more connected leads to more awareness of ‘outgroups’. What is interesting is the way that we choose to deal with that.

Let’s have a quick look at the demographics from the Brexit vote three years ago:

Brexit demographics from The Guardian
Brexit demographics from The Guardian

Remain voters were, on the whole, younger, better educated, and more well-off than Leave voters. They were also slightly more likely to be born outside the UK. I haven’t done the research, but I just have a feeling that the generational differences here are to do with relative exposure to outgroups.

What’s more interesting than the result of the referendum itself, of course, is the reaction since then, with both ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ digging in to their entrenched positions. Now we’ve created new outgroups, we can join together in welcoming in the old outgroups. Hence LGBT+ pride rainbows in shops and everywhere else.

As I explained five years ago, one of the problems is that we’re not collectively aware enough of the role money plays in our democratic processes and information landscapes:

The problem with social networks as news platforms is that they are not neutral spaces. Perhaps the easiest way to get quickly to the nub of the issue is to ask how they are funded. The answer is clear and unequivocal: through advertising. The two biggest social networks, Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp), are effectively “services with shareholders.” Your interactions with other people, with media, and with adverts, are what provide shareholder value. Lest we forget, CEOs of publicly-listed companies have a legal obligation to provide shareholder value. In an advertising-fueled online world this means continually increasing the number of eyeballs looking at (and fingers clicking on) content.

Doug Belshaw

Sadly, in the west we invested in Computing to the detriment of critical digital literacies at exactly the wrong moment. That investment should have come on top of a real push to help everyone in society realise the importance of questioning and reflecting on their information environment.

Much as some people might like to, we can’t put the internet back in a box. It’s connected us all, for better and for worse, in ways that only a few would have foreseen. It’s changing the way we interact with one another, the way we buy things, and the way we think about education, work, and human flourishing.

All these connections might mean that style of representative democracy we’re currently used to might need tweaking. As Jamie Bartlett points out in The People vs Tech, “these are spiritual as well as technical questions”.


Also check out:

  • There is nothing more depressing than “positive news” (The Outline) — “The world is often a bummer, but a whole ecosystem of podcasts and Facebook pages have sprung up to assure you that things are actually great.”
  • Space for More Spaces (CogDogBlog) — “I still hold on to the idea that those old archaic, pre-social media constructs, a personal blog, is the main place, the home, to operate from.”
  • Clay Shirky on Mega-Universities and Scale (Phil on EdTech) — “What the mega-university story gets right is that online education is transforming higher education. What it gets wrong is the belief that transformation must end with consolidation around a few large-scale institutions”

There’s no viagra for enlightenment

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.

Mark Wilson

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.

Jessica Lindsay

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.

Karen Hao

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.

Mike Caulfield

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.


Also check out:

Form is the possibility of structure

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein with today’s quotation-as-title. I’m using it as a way in to discuss some things around city planning, and in particular an article I’ve been meaning to discuss for what seems like ages.

In an article for The LA Times, Jessica Roy highlights a phenomenon I wish I could take back and show my 12 year-old self:

Thirty years ago, Maxis released “SimCity” for Mac and Amiga. It was succeeded by “SimCity 2000” in 1993, “SimCity 3000” in 1999, “SimCity 4” in 2003, a version for the Nintendo DS in 2007, “SimCity: BuildIt” in 2013 and an app launched in 2014.

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

Jessica Roy

Some games are just awesome. SimCity is still popular now on touchscreen devices, and my kids play it occasionally. It’s interesting to read in the article how different people, now responsible for real cities, played the game, for example Roy quotes the Vice President of Transportation and Housing at the non-profit Silicon Valley Leadership Group

“I was not one of the players who enjoyed Godzilla running through your city and destroying it. I enjoyed making my city run well.”

Jason Baker

I, on the other hand, particularly enjoyed booting up ‘scenario mode’ where you had to rescue a city that had been ravaged by Godzilla, aliens, or a natural disaster.

This isn’t an article about nostalgia, though, and if you read the article in more depth you realise that it’s an interesting insight into our psychology around governance of cities and nations. For example, going back to an article from 2018 that also references SimCity, Devon Zuegel writes:

The way we live is shaped by our infrastructure — the public spaces, building codes, and utilities that serve a city or region. It can act as the foundation for thriving communities, but it can also establish unhealthy patterns when designed poorly.

[…]

People choose to drive despite its costs because they lack reasonable alternatives. Unfortunately, this isn’t an accident of history. Our transportation system has been overly focused on automobile traffic flow as its metric of success. This single-minded focus has come at the cost of infrastructure that supports alternative ways to travel. Traffic flow should, instead, be one goal out of many. Communities would be far healthier if our infrastructure actively encouraged walking, cycling, and other forms of transportation rather than subsidizing driving and ignoring alternatives.

Devon Zuegel

In other words, the decisions we ask our representatives to make have a material impact in shaping our environment. That, in turn, affects our decisions about how to live and work.

When we don’t have data about what people actually do, it’s easy for ideology and opinions to get in the way. That’s why I’m interested in what Los Angeles is doing with its public transport system. As reported by Adam Rogers in WIRED, the city is using mobile phone data to see how it can ‘reboot’ its bus system. It turns out that the people running the system had completely the wrong assumptions:

In fact, Metro’s whole approach turned out to be skewed to the wrong kinds of trips. “Traditionally we’re trying to provide fast service for long-distance trips,” [Anurag Komanduri, a data anlyst] says. That’s something the Orange Line and trains are good at. But the cell phone data showed that only 16 percent of trips in LA County were longer than 10 miles. Two-thirds of all travel was less than five miles. Short hops, not long hauls, rule the roads.

Adam Rogers

There’s some discussion later in the article about the “baller move” of ripping down some of the freeways to force people to use public transportation. Perhaps that’s actually what’s required.

In Barcelona, for example, “fiery leftist housing activist” Ada Colau became the city’s mayor in 2015. Since then, they’ve been doing some radical experimentation. David Roberts reports for Vox on what they’ve done with one area of the city that I’ve actually seen with my own eyes:

Inside the superblock in the Poblenou neighborhood, in the middle of what used to be an intersection, there’s a small playground, with a set of about a dozen picnic tables next to it, just outside a local cafe. On an early October evening, neighbors sit and sip drinks to the sound of children’s shouts and laughter. The sun is still out, and the warm air smells of wild grasses growing in the fresh plantings nearby.

David Roberts

I can highly recommended watching this five-minute video overview of the benefits of this approach:

So if it work, why aren’t we seeing more of this? Perhaps it’s because, as Simon Wren-Lewis points out on his blog, most of us are governed by incompetents:

An ideology is a collection of ideas that can form a political imperative that overrides evidence. Indeed most right wing think tanks are designed to turn the ideology of neoliberalism into policy based evidence. It was this ideology that led to austerity, the failed health reforms and the privatisation of the probation service. It also played a role in Brexit, with many of its protagonists dreaming of a UK free from regulations on workers rights and the environment. It is why most of the recent examples of incompetence come from the political right.

A pluralist democracy has checks and balances in part to guard against incompetence by a government or ministers. That is one reason why Trump and the Brexiters so often attack elements of a pluralist democracy. The ultimate check on incompetence should be democracy itself: incompetent politicians are thrown out. But when a large part of the media encourage rather than expose acts of incompetence, and the non-partisan media treat knowledge as just another opinion, that safegurd against persistent incompetence is put in danger.

Simon Wren-Lewis

We seem to have started with SimCity and ended with Trump and Brexit. Sorry about that, but without decent government, we can’t hope to improve our communities and environment.


Also check out:

  • ‘Nation as a service’ is the ultimate goal for digitized governments (TNW) — “Right now in Estonia, when you have a baby, you automatically get child benefits. The user doesn’t have to do anything because the government already has all the data to make sure the citizen receives the benefits they’re entitled to.”
  • The ethics of smart cities (RTE) — “With ethics-washing, a performative ethics is being practised designed to give the impression that an issue is being taken seriously and meaningful action is occurring, when the real ambition is to avoid formal regulation and legal mechanisms.”
  • Cities as learning platforms (Harold Jarche) — “For the past century we have compartmentalized the life of the citizen. At work, the citizen is an ‘employee’. Outside the office he may be a ‘consumer’. Sometimes she is referred to as a ‘taxpayer’. All of these are constraining labels, ignoring the full spectrum of citizenship.

The quixotic fools of imperialism

As an historian with an understanding of our country’s influence of the world over the last few hundred years, I look back at the British Empire with a sense of shame, not of pride.

But, even if you do flag-wave and talk about our nation’s glorious past, an article in yesterday’s New York Times shows how far we’ve falled:

The Brexiteers, pursuing a fantasy of imperial-era strength and self-sufficiency, have repeatedly revealed their hubris, mulishness and ineptitude over the past two years. Though originally a “Remainer,” Prime Minister Theresa May has matched their arrogant obduracy, imposing a patently unworkable timetable of two years on Brexit and laying down red lines that undermined negotiations with Brussels and doomed her deal to resoundingly bipartisan rejection this week in Parliament.

I think I’d forgotten how useful the word mendacious is in this context (“lying, untruthful”):

From David Cameron, who recklessly gambled his country’s future on a referendum in order to isolate some whingers in his Conservative party, to the opportunistic Boris Johnson, who jumped on the Brexit bandwagon to secure the prime ministerial chair once warmed by his role model Winston Churchill, and the top-hatted, theatrically retro Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose fund management company has set up an office within the European Union even as he vehemently scorns it, the British political class has offered to the world an astounding spectacle of mendacious, intellectually limited hustlers.

When leaving countries after their imperialist adventures, members of the British ruling elite were fond of dividing countries with arbitrary lines. Cases in point: India, Ireland,  the Middle East. That this doesn’t work is blatantly obvious, and is a lazy way to deal with complex issues.

It is a measure of English Brexiteers’ political acumen that they were initially oblivious to the volatile Irish question and contemptuous of the Scottish one. Ireland was cynically partitioned to ensure that Protestant settlers outnumber native Catholics in one part of the country. The division provoked decades of violence and consumed thousands of lives. It was partly healed in 1998, when a peace agreement removed the need for security checks along the British-imposed partition line.

I’d love to think that we’re nearing the end of what the Times calls ‘chumocracy’ and no longer have to suffer what Hannah Arendt called “the quixotic fools of imperialism”. We can but hope.

 

On ‘radical incompetence’

One of the reasons I’ve retreated from Twitter since May of last year is the rise of angry politics. I can’t pay attention to everything that’s happening all of the time. And I certainly haven’t got the energy to deal with problems that aren’t materially affecting me or the people I care about.

Brexit, then, is a strange one. On the one hand, I participated in a democratic election to elect a government. Subsequently, a government formed from a party I didn’t vote for called a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. As we all know, the result was close, and based on lies and illegal funding. Nevertheless, perhaps as a citizen I should participate democratically and then get on with my own life.

On the other hand of course, this isn’t politics as usual. There’s been a rise in nationalistic fervour that we haven’t seen since the 1930s. It’s alarming, particularly at a time when smartphones, social media, and the ever-increasing speed of the news cycle make it difficult for citizens to pay sustained attention to anything.

This article in The New York Times zooms out from the particular issues of Trump and Brexit to look at the wider picture. It’s not mentioned specifically in the article, but documentary evidence of struggles around political power and sovereignty goes back at leats to the Magna Carta in England. One way of looking at that is that King John was the Donald Trump of his time, so the barons took power from him.

It’s easy to stand for the opposite of something: you don’t have to do any of the work. All that’s necessary is to point out problems, flaws, and issues with the the person, organisation, or concept that you’re attacking. So demagogues and iconoclasts such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, whose lack of a coherent position wouldn’t work at any other time, all of a sudden gain credibility in times of upheaval.

Like so many political metaphors, the distinction between “hard” and “soft” is misleading. Any Brexiteer wanting to perform machismo will reach for the “hard” option. But as has become increasingly plain over the past two years, and especially over recent weeks, nobody has any idea what “hard” Brexit actually means in policy terms. It is not so much hard as abstract. “Soft” Brexit might sound weak or halfhearted, but it is also the only policy proposal that might actually work.

What appear on the surface to be policy disputes over Britain’s relationship with Brussels are actually fundamental conflicts regarding the very nature of political power. In this, the arguments underway inside Britain’s Conservative Party speak of a deeper rift within liberal democracies today, which shows no sign of healing. In conceptual terms, this is a conflict between those who are sympathetic to government and those striving to reassert sovereignty.

I’m writing this on the train home from London. I haven’t participated in or seen any of the protests around Trump’s visit to the UK. I have, however, seen plenty of people holding placards and banners, obviously on their way to, or from, a rally.

My concern about getting angry in bite-sized chunks on Twitter or reducing your issues with someone like Trump or Johnson to a placard is that you’re playing them at their own game. They’ll win. They thrive on the oxygen of attention. Cut it off and they’ll whither and be forced to slink off to whatever hole they originally crawled from.

A common thread linking “hard” Brexiteers to nationalists across the globe is that they resent the very idea of governing as a complex, modern, fact-based set of activities that requires technical expertise and permanent officials.

[…]

The more extreme fringes of British conservatism have now reached the point that American conservatives first arrived at during the Clinton administration: They are seeking to undermine the very possibility of workable government. For hard-liners such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, it is an article of faith that Britain’s Treasury Department, the Bank of England and Downing Street itself are now conspiring to deny Britain its sovereignty.

What we’re talking about here is ideology. There’s always been a fundamental difference between the left and the right of politics in a way that’s understood enough not to get into here. But issues around sovereignty, nationalism, and self-determinism actually cut across the traditional political spectrum. That’s why, for example, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, can oppose the EU for vastly different reasons to Jacob Rees-Mogg, arch-Brexiteer.

I haven’t got the energy to go into it here, but to me the crisis in confidence in expertise comes from a warping of the meritocratic system that was supposed to emancipate the working class, break down class structures, and bring forth a fairer society. What’s actually happened is that the political elites have joined with the wealthy to own the means of cultural reproduction. As a result, no-one now seems to trust them.

What happens if sections of the news media, the political classes and the public insist that only sovereignty matters and that the complexities of governing are a lie invented by liberal elites? For one thing, it gives rise to celebrity populists, personified by Mr. Trump, whose inability to engage patiently or intelligently with policy issues makes it possible to sustain the fantasy that governing is simple. What Mr. Johnson terms the “method” in Mr. Trump’s “madness” is a refusal to listen to inconvenient evidence, of the sort provided by officials and experts.

There have been many calls within my lifetime for a ‘new politics’. It’s nearly always a futile project, and just means a changing of the faces on our screens while the political elite continue their machinations. I’m not super-hopeful, but I do perhaps wonder whether our new-found connectedness, if mediated by decentralised technologies, could change that?

Source: The New York Times

Where memes come from

In my TEDx talk six years ago, I explained how the understanding and remixing of memes was a great way to develop digital literacies. At that time, they were beginning to be used in advertisements. Now, as we saw with Brexit and the most recent US Presidential election, they’ve become weaponised.

This article in the MIT Technology Review references one of my favourite websites, knowyourmeme.com, which tracks the origin and influence of various memes across the web. Researchers have taken 700,000 images from this site and used an algorithm to track their spread and development. In addition, they gathered 100 million images from other sources.

Spotting visually similar images is relatively straightforward with a technique known as perceptual hashing, or pHashing. This uses an algorithm to convert an image into a set of vectors that describe it in numbers. Visually similar images have similar sets of vectors or pHashes.

The team let their algorithm loose on a database of over 100 million images gathered from communities known to generate memes, such as Reddit and its subgroup The_Donald, Twitter, 4chan’s politically incorrect forum known as /pol/, and a relatively new social network called Gab that was set up to accommodate users who had been banned from other communities.

Whereas some things ‘go viral’ by accident and catch the original author(s) off-guard, some communities are very good at making memes that spread quickly.

Two relatively small communities stand out as being particularly effective at spreading memes. “We find that /pol/ substantially influences the meme ecosystem by posting a large number of memes, while The Donald is the most efficient community in pushing memes to both fringe and mainstream Web communities,” say Stringhini and co.

They also point out that “/pol/ and Gab share hateful and racist memes at a higher rate than mainstream communities,” including large numbers of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi memes.

Seemingly neutral memes can also be “weaponized” by mixing them with other messages. For example, the “Pepe the Frog” meme has been used in this way to create politically active, racist, and anti-Semitic messages.

It turns out that, just like in evolutionary biology, creating a large number of variants is likely to lead to an optimal solution for a given environment.

The researchers, who have made their technique available to others to promote further analysis, are even able to throw light on the question of why some memes spread widely while others quickly die away. “One of the key components to ensuring they are disseminated is ensuring that new ‘offspring’ are continuously produced,” they say.

That immediately suggests a strategy for anybody wanting to become more influential: set up a meme factory that produces large numbers of variants of other memes. Every now and again, this process is bound to produce a hit.

For any evolutionary biologist, that may sound familiar. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a process that treats pHashes like genomes and allows them to evolve through mutation, reproduction, and selection.

As the article states, right now it’s humans creating these memes. However, it won’t be long until we have machines doing this automatically. After all, it’s been five years since the controversy about the algorithmically-created “Keep Calm and…” t-shirts for sale on Amazon.

It’s an interesting space to watch, particularly for those interested in digital literacies (and democracy).

Source: MIT Technology Review

The New Octopus: going beyond managerial interventions for internet giants

This article in Logic magazine was brought to my attention by a recent issue of Ian O’Byrne’s excellent TL;DR newsletter. It’s a long read, focusing on the structural power of internet giants such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

The author, K. Sabeel Rahman, is an assistant professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He uses historical analogues to make his points, while noting how different the current state of affairs is from a century ago.

As in the Progressive Era, technological revolutions have radically transformed our social, economic, and political life. Technology platforms, big data, AI—these are the modern infrastructures for today’s economy. And yet the question of what to do about technology is fraught, for these technological systems paradoxically evoke both bigness and diffusion: firms like Amazon and Alphabet and Apple are dominant, yet the internet and big data and AI are technologies that are by their very nature diffuse.

The problem, however, is not bigness per se. Even for Brandeisians, the central concern was power: the ability to arbitrarily influence the decisions and opportunities available to others. Such unchecked power represented a threat to liberty. Therefore, just as the power of the state had to be tamed through institutional checks and balances, so too did this private power have to be contested—controlled, held to account.

This emphasis on power and contestation, rather than literal bigness, helps clarify the ways in which technology’s particular relationship to scale poses a challenge to ideals of democracy, liberty, equality—and what to do about it.

I think this is the thing that concerns me most. Just as the banks were ‘too big to fail’ during the economic crisis and had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, so huge technology companies are increasingly playing that kind of role elsewhere in our society.

The problem of scale, then, has always been a problem of power and contestability. In both our political and our economic life, arbitrary power is a threat to liberty. The remedy is the institutionalization of checks and balances. But where political checks and balances take a common set of forms—elections, the separation of powers—checks and balances for private corporate power have proven trickier to implement.

These various mechanisms—regulatory oversight, antitrust laws, corporate governance, and the countervailing power of organized labor— together helped create a relatively tame, and economically dynamic, twentieth-century economy. But today, as technology creates new kinds of power and new kinds of scale, new variations on these strategies may be needed.

“Arbitrary power is a threat to liberty.” Absolutely, no matter whether the company holding that power has been problematic in the past, has a slogan promising not to do anything wrong, or is well-liked by the public.

We need more than regulatory oversight of such organisations because of how insidious their power can be — much like the image of Luks’ octopus that accompanies this and the original post.

Rahman explains three types of power held by large internet companies:

First, there is transmission power. This is the ability of a firm to control the flow of data or goods. Take Amazon: as a shipping and logistics infrastructure, it can be seen as directly analogous to the railroads of the nineteenth century, which enjoyed monopolized mastery over the circulation of people, information, and commodities. Amazon provides the literal conduits for commerce.

[…]

A second type of power arises from what we might think of as a gatekeeping power. Here, the issue is not necessarily that the firm controls the entire infrastructure of transmission, but rather that the firm controls the gateway to an otherwise decentralized and diffuse landscape.

This is one way to understand the Facebook News Feed, or Google Search. Google Search does not literally own and control the entire internet. But it is increasingly true that for most users, access to the internet is mediated through the gateway of Google Search or YouTube’s suggested videos. By controlling the point of entry, Google exercises outsized influence on the kinds of information and commerce that users can ultimately access—a form of control without complete ownership.

[…]

A third kind of power is scoring power, exercised by ratings systems, indices, and ranking databases. Increasingly, many business and public policy decisions are based on big data-enabled scoring systems. Thus employers will screen potential applicants for the likelihood that they may quit, be a problematic employee, or participate in criminal activity. Or judges will use predictive risk assessments to inform sentencing and bail decisions.

These scoring systems may seem objective and neutral, but they are built on data and analytics that bake into them existing patterns of racial, gender, and economic bias.

[…]

Each of these forms of power is infrastructural. Their impact grows as more and more goods and services are built atop a particular platform. They are also more subtle than explicit control: each of these types of power enable a firm to exercise tremendous influence over what might otherwise look like a decentralized and diffused system.

As I quote Adam Greenfield as saying in Microcast #021 (supporters only!) this infrastructural power is less obvious because of the immateriality of the world controlled by internet giants. We need more than managerial approaches to solving the problems faced by their power.

A more radical response, then, would be to impose structural restraints: limits on the structure of technology firms, their powers, and their business models, to forestall the dynamics that lead to the most troubling forms of infrastructural power in the first place.

One solution would be to convert some of these infrastructures into “public options”—publicly managed alternatives to private provision. Run by the state, these public versions could operate on equitable, inclusive, and nondiscriminatory principles. Public provision of these infrastructures would subject them to legal requirements for equal service and due process. Furthermore, supplying a public option would put competitive pressures on private providers.

[…]

We can also introduce structural limits on technologies with the goal of precluding dangerous concentrations of power. While much of the debate over big data and privacy has tended to emphasize the concerns of individuals, we might view a robust privacy regime as a kind of structural limit: if firms are precluded from collecting or using certain types of data, that limits the kinds of power they can exercise.

Some of this is already happening, thankfully, through structural limitations such as GDPR. I hope this is the first step in a more coordinated response to internet giants who increasingly have more impact on the day-to-day lives of citizens than their governments.

Moving fast and breaking things is inevitable in moments of change. The issue is which things we are willing to break—and how broken we are willing to let them become. Moving fast may not be worth it if it means breaking the things upon which democracy depends.

It’s a difficult balance. However, just as GDPR has put in place mechanisms to prevent the over-reaching of governments and of companies, I think we could think differently about perhaps organisations with non-profit status and community ownership that could provide some of the infrastructure being built by shareholder-owned organisations.

Having just finished reading Utopia for Realists, I definitely think the left needs to think bigger than it’s currently doing, and really push that Overton window.

Source: Logic magazine (via Ian O’Byrne)

Living in a dictatorship

The historian and social commentator in me found this fascinating. This article quotes Twitter user G. Willow Wilson (who claims to have liven in a dictatorship) as saying:

It’s a mistake to think a dictatorship feels intrinsically different on a day-to-day basis than a democracy does. I’ve lived in one dictatorship and visited several others—there are still movies and work and school and shopping and memes and holidays.

The difference is the steady disappearance of dissent from the public sphere. Anti-regime bloggers disappear. Dissident political parties are declared “illegal.” Certain books vanish from the libraries.

If you click through to the actual Twitter thread, Wilson continues:

The genius of a true, functioning dictatorship is the way it carefully titrates justice. Once in awhile it will allow a sound judicial decision or critical op-ed to bubble up. Rational discourse is never entirely absent. There is plausible deniability.

Of course this isn’t a dictatorship. It’s only a temporary state of affairs. And we’re doing it for your benefit:

So if you’re waiting for the grand moment when the scales tip and we are no longer a functioning democracy, you needn’t bother. It’ll be much more subtle than that. It’ll be more of the president ignoring laws passed by congress. It’ll be more demonizing of the press.

That’s what concerns me when people say that they don’t care about privacy and security. Technology can help with resistance to autocracy.

Source: Kottke.org

Tribal politics in social networks

I’ve started buying the Financial Times Weekend along with The Observer each Sunday. Annoyingly, while the latter doesn’t have a paywall, the FT does which means although I can quote from, and link to, this article by Simon Kuper about tribal politics, many of you won’t be able to read it in full.

Kuper makes the point that in a world of temporary jobs, ‘broken’ families, and declining church attendance, social networks provide a place where people can find their ‘tribe’:

Online, each tribe inhabits its own filter bubble of partisan news. To blame this only on Facebook is unfair. If people wanted a range of views, they could install both rightwing and leftwing feeds on their Facebook pages — The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, say. Most people choose not to, partly because they like living in their tribe. It makes them feel less lonely.

There’s a lot to agree with in this article. I think we can blame people for getting their news mainly through Facebook. I think we can roll our eyes at people who don’t think carefully about their information environment.

On the other hand, social networks are mediated by technology. And technology is never neutral. For example, Facebook has gone from saying that it couldn’t possibly be blamed for ‘fake news’ (2016) to investigating the way that Russian accounts may have manipulated users (2017) to announcing that they’re going to make some changes (2018, NSFW language in link).

We need to zoom out from specific problems in our society to the wider issues that underpin them. Kuper does this to some extent in this article, but the FT isn’t the place where you’ll see a robust criticism of the problems with capitalism. Social networks can, and have, been different — just think of what Twitter was like before becoming a publicly-traded company, for example.

My concern is that we need to sort out these huge, society-changing companies before they become too large to regulate.

Source: FT Weekend