Tag: The Guardian

Asking Google philosophical questions

Writing in The Guardian, philosopher Julian Baggini reflects on a recent survey which asked people what they wish Google was able to answer:

The top 25 questions mostly fall into four categories: conspiracies (Who shot JFK? Did Donald Trump rig the election?); desires for worldly success (Will I ever be rich? What will tomorrow’s winning lottery numbers be?); anxieties (Do people like me? Am I good in bed?); and curiosity about the ultimate questions (What is the meaning of life? Is there a God?).

This is all hypothetical, of course, but I’m always amazed by what people type into search engines. It’s as if there’s some ‘truth’ in there, rather than just databases and algorithms. I suppose I can understand children asking voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri questions about the world, because they can’t really know how the internet works.

What Baggini points out, though, is that what we type into search engines can reflect our deepest desires. That’s why they trawl the search history of suspected murderers, and why the Twitter account Theresa May Googling is so funny.

A Google search, however, cannot give us the two things we most need: time and other people. For our day-to-day problems, a sympathetic ear remains the most powerful device for providing relief, if not a cure. For the bigger puzzles of existence, there is no substitute for long reflection, with help from the great thinkers of history. Google can lead us directly to them, but only we can spend time in their company. Search results can help us only if they are the start, not the end, of our intellectual quest.

Sadly, in the face of, let’s face it, pretty amazing technological innovation over the last 25 years, we’ve forgotten what it is that makes us human: connections. Thankfully, some more progressive tech companies are beginning to realise the importance of the Humanities — including Philosophy.

Source: The Guardian

Insidious Instagram influencers?

There seems to a lot of pushback at the moment against the kind of lifestyle that’s a direct result of the Silicon Valley mindset. People are rejecting everything from the Instagram ‘influencer’ approach to life to the ‘techbro’-style crazy working hours.

This week saw Basecamp, a company that prides itself on the work/life balance of its employees and on rejecting venture capital, publish another book. You can guess at what it focuses on from its title, It doesn’t have to be crazy at work. I’ve enjoyed and have recommended their previous books (as ’37 Signals’), and am looking forward to reading this latest one.

Alongside that book, I’ve seen three articles that, to me at least, are all related to the same underlying issues. The first comes from Simone Stolzoff who writes in Quartz at Work that we’re no longer quite sure what we’re working for:

Before I became a journalist, I worked in an office with hot breakfast in the mornings and yoga in the evenings. I was #blessed. But I would reflect on certain weeks—after a string of days where I was lured in before 8am and stayed until well after sunset—like a driver on the highway who can’t remember the last five miles of road. My life had become my work. And my work had become a series of rinse-and-repeat days that started to feel indistinguishable from one another.

Part of this lack of work/life balance comes from our inability these days to simply have hobbies, or interests, or do anything just for the sake of it. As Tim Wu points out in The New York Times, it’s all linked some kind of existential issue around identity:

If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?

To me, this is inextricably linked to George Monbiot’s recent piece in The Guardian about about the problem of actors being interviewed about the world’s issues disproportionately more often than anybody else. As a result, we’re rewarding those people who look like they know what they’re talking about with our collective attention, rather than those who actually do. Monbiot concludes:

The task of all citizens is to understand what we are seeing. The world as portrayed is not the world as it is. The personification of complex issues confuses and misdirects us, ensuring that we struggle to comprehend and respond to our predicaments. This, it seems, is often the point.

There’s always been a difference between appearance and reality in public life. However, previously, at least they seem to have been two faces of the same coin. These days, our working lives as well as our public lives seem to be

Sources: Basecamp / Quartz at Work / The New York Times / The Guardian

 

Wielding your pension fund for good

Some wise words in this article in The Guardian from Aditya Chakrabortty. Perhaps it’s my age, but I’m increasingly aware of the power that we have, collectively, around where and how we spend and save our money.

In big French companies, pension savers are offered the chance to invest 10% of their money in a fond solidaire, or solidarity fund, which supports unlisted social enterprises. In Britain, your average pension member doesn’t even get consulted on what values they’d like their money to support – whether fighting climate change or building social housing. Yet, rather than tackle those issues, the Labour party seeks to build a parallel finance system, in the form of a National Investment Bank, while other left economists talk about building a sovereign wealth fund, just as Norway has done with the proceeds of North Sea oil.

But we have a sovereign wealth fund already. It’s worth over £2tn and it’s called our pension funds. The big battle is to give us agency over our own savings, rather than leaving it all to some pinstriped manager on a fat commission.

I have several pensions (Teachers’ Pension, Local Government, personal, Moodle…) and, as much as I’m able, I ensure that the money is being ethically invested. There’s so many frontiers on which we can change the world, not all of them are super-exciting…

Source: The Guardian

 

The spectrum of work autonomy

Some companies have (and advertise as a huge perk) their ‘unlimited vacation’ policy. That, of course, sounds amazing. Except, of course, that there’s a reason why companies are so benevolent.

I can think of at least two:

  1. Your peers will exert downward pressure on the number of holidays you actually take.
  2. If there’s no set holiday entitlement, when you leave the company doesn’t have to pay for unused holiday days.

This article by Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian uses the unlimited vacation policy as an example of the difference between two ends of the spectrum when it comes to jobs.

And that, increasingly, is the dividing line in modern workplaces: trust versus the lack of it; autonomy versus micro-management; being treated like a human being or programmed like a machine. Human jobs give the people who do them chances to exercise their own judgment, even if it’s only deciding what radio station to have on in the background, or set their own pace. Machine jobs offer at best a petty, box-ticking mentality with no scope for individual discretion, and at worst the ever-present threat of being tracked, timed and stalked by technology – a practice reaching its nadir among gig economy platforms controlling a resentful army of supposedly self-employed workers.

Never mind robots coming to steal our jobs, that’s just a symptom in a wider trend of neoliberal, late-stage capitalism:

There have always been crummy jobs, and badly paid ones. Not everyone gets to follow their dream or discover a vocation – and for some people, work will only ever be a means of paying the rent. But the saving grace of crummy jobs was often that there was at least some leeway for goofing around; for taking a fag break, gossiping with your equally bored workmates, or chatting a bit longer than necessary to lonely customers.

The ‘contract’ with employers these days goes way beyond the piece of paper you sign that states such mundanities as how much you will be paid or how much holiday you get. It’s about trust, as Hinsliff comments:

The mark of human jobs is an increasing understanding that you don’t have to know where your employees are and what they’re doing every second of the day to ensure they do it; that people can be just as productive, say, working from home, or switching their hours around so that they are working in the evening. Machine jobs offer all the insecurity of working for yourself without any of the freedom.

Embedded in this are huge diversity issues. I purposely chose a photo of a young white guy to go with the post, as they’re disproportionately likely to do well from this ‘trust-based’ workplace approach. People of colour, women, and those with disabilities are more likely to suffer from implicit bias and other forms of discrimination.

The debate about whether robots will soon be coming for everyone’s jobs is real. But it shouldn’t blind us to the risk right under our noses: not so much of people being automated out of jobs, as automated while still in them.

I consume a lot of what I post to Thought Shrapnel online, but I originally red this one in the dead-tree version of The Guardian. Interestingly, in the same issue there was a letter from a doctor by the name of Jonathan Shapiro, who wrote that he divides his colleagues into three different types:

  1. Passionate
  2. Dispassionate
  3. Compassionate

The first group suffer burnout, he said. The second group survive but are “lousy”. It’s the third group that cope, as they “care for patients without sacrificing themselves on the altar of professional vocation”.

What we need to be focusing on in education is preparing young people to be compassionate human beings, not cogs in the capitalist machine.

Source: The Guardian

Survival in the age of surveillance

The Guardian has a list of 18 tips to ‘survive’ (i.e. be safe) in an age where everyone wants to know everything about you — so that they can package up your data and sell it to the highest bidder.

On the internet, the adage goes, nobody knows you’re a dog. That joke is only 15 years old, but seems as if it is from an entirely different era. Once upon a time the internet was associated with anonymity; today it is synonymous with surveillance. Not only do modern technology companies know full well you’re not a dog (not even an extremely precocious poodle), they know whether you own a dog and what sort of dog it is. And, based on your preferred category of canine, they can go a long way to inferring – and influencing – your political views.

Mozilla has pointed out in a recent blog post that the containers feature in Firefox can increase your privacy and prevent ‘leakage’ between tabs as you navigate the web. But there’s more to privacy and security than just that.

Here’s the Guardian’s list:

  1. Download all the information Google has on you.
  2. Try not to let your smart toaster take down the internet.
  3. Ensure your AirDrop settings are dick-pic-proof.
  4. Secure your old Yahoo account.
  5. 1234 is not an acceptable password.
  6. Check if you have been pwned.
  7. Be aware of personalised pricing.
  8. Say hi to the NSA guy spying on you via your webcam.
  9. Turn off notifications for anything that’s not another person speaking directly to you.
  10. Never put your kids on the public internet.
  11. Leave your phone in your pocket or face down on the table when you’re with friends.
  12. Sometimes it’s worth just wiping everything and starting over.
  13. An Echo is fine, but don’t put a camera in your bedroom.
  14. Have as many social-media-free days in the week as you have alcohol-free days.
  15. Retrain your brain to focus.
  16. Don’t let the algorithms pick what you do.
  17. Do what you want with your data, but guard your friends’ info with your life.
  18. Finally, remember your privacy is worth protecting.

A bit of a random list in places, but useful all the same.

Source: The Guardian

The punk rock internet

This kind of article is useful in that it shows to a mainstream audience the benefits of a redecentralised web and resistance to Big Tech.

Balkan and Kalbag form one small part of a fragmented rebellion whose prime movers tend to be located a long way from Silicon Valley. These people often talk in withering terms about Big Tech titans such as Mark Zuckerberg, and pay glowing tribute to Edward Snowden. Their politics vary, but they all have a deep dislike of large concentrations of power and a belief in the kind of egalitarian, pluralistic ideas they say the internet initially embodied.

What they are doing could be seen as the online world’s equivalent of punk rock: a scattered revolt against an industry that many now think has grown greedy, intrusive and arrogant – as well as governments whose surveillance programmes have fuelled the same anxieties. As concerns grow about an online realm dominated by a few huge corporations, everyone involved shares one common goal: a comprehensively decentralised internet.

However, these kind of articles are very personality-driven, and the little asides made the article’s author paint those featured as a bit crazy and the whole idea as a bit far-fetched.

For example, here’s the section on a project which is doing some pretty advanced tech while avoiding venture capitalist money:

In the Scottish coastal town of Ayr, where a company called MaidSafe works out of a silver-grey office on an industrial estate tucked behind a branch of Topps Tiles, another version of this dream seems more advanced. MaidSafe’s first HQ, in nearby Troon, was an ocean-going boat. The company moved to an office above a bridal shop, and then to an unheated boatshed, where the staff sometimes spent the working day wearing woolly hats. It has been in its new home for three months: 10 people work here, with three in a newly opened office in Chennai, India, and others working remotely in Australia, Slovakia, Spain and China.

I get the need to bring technology alive for the reader, but what difference does it make that their office is behind Topps Tiles? So what if the staff sometimes wear woolly hats? It just makes the whole thing out to be farcical. Which of course, it’s not.

Source: The Guardian