Software as a black box

From Good Morning Silicon Valley

In what has become an increasingly familiar ritual, Google said this week that it was “appalled and genuinely sorry” after its new Google Photos image-recognition software labeled a Brooklyn computer programmer and his friend — both of them black — as “gorillas.”

What the Greeks should do

Paul Krugman thinks that the Greeks should vote “No” on Sunday, for three reasons :

First, we now know that ever-harsher austerity is a dead end: after five years Greece is in worse shape than ever. Second, much and perhaps most of the feared chaos from Grexit has already happened. With banks closed and capital controls imposed, there’s not that much more damage to be done.

Finally, acceding to the troika’s ultimatum would represent the final abandonment of any pretense of Greek independence. Don’t be taken in by claims that troika officials are just technocrats explaining to the ignorant Greeks what must be done. These supposed technocrats are in fact fantasists who have disregarded everything we know about macroeconomics, and have been wrong every step of the way.

This isn’t about analysis, it’s about power — the power of the creditors to pull the plug on the Greek economy, which persists as long as euro exit is considered unthinkable.

So it’s time to put an end to this unthinkability. Otherwise Greece will face endless austerity, and a depression with no hint of an end.

Krugman is right: this is about power. It is also about what happens when democracy collides with the power of the financial system. In that sense, I’m reminded of the 2006 elections to the Palestine Authority. The West clamoured for these ‘democratic’ elections. But when Hamas won, suddenly the game changed. The Palestinians had delivered the ‘wrong’ result. Same happened when the Lisbon Treaty was put to the Irish people for ratification in a referendum. My countrymen voted it down. Again, wrong result, so the question was put again, and one had the feeling that the government would have continued putting it to the vote until an exhausted populace eventually caved in.

Which of course neatly illustrates the profoundly undemocratic nature of the European project as it has evolved. There may be all kinds of good, bad and pragmatic reasons for wanting to be in the EU, but democracy ain’t one of them.

Ethnic and gender ‘diversity’ in Silicon Valley

From today’s New York Times:

When Facebook released its workplace diversity numbers on Thursday, the company included a somewhat heartening message.

“It’s clear to all of us that we still aren’t where we want to be,” Maxine Williams, Facebook’s global head of diversity, wrote. “There’s more work to do.”

But it was almost exactly the same thing Ms. Williams said a year ago. “We have more work to do — a lot more,” she wrote in 2014.

Facebook’s tone is hardly singular. “Like our peers, we have a lot of work to do,” Twitter said in a diversity report it posted last year. Pinterest has said, “We’re not close to where we want to be, but we’re working on it.”

Google’s 2014 statement, which came before those of other companies, seems to have been the template. “Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity,” Laszlo Bock, its senior vice president for people operations, wrote at the time.

It is as if these large tech companies are all reading from the same public relations playbook, delivering slight variations on the same self-effacing message. But while they all seem to acknowledge that there is much improvement to be made, the repetition of the statements like Facebook’s last week provides a reminder that there has been little progress so far.

Well, well.

Technological hubris


Note this schmuck’s claim to be creating “a history of the world” at a time when nobody has yet preserved digital material for more than, say, 70 years. The truth is more likely to be that most of the public record for our time — or at any rate the part of it that is digitally encoded — is likely to vanish into a black hole.

Quote of the Day

Thomas Piketty on the cynicism implicit in neoliberal dismissal of the capabilities of the state:

“We are told constantly that states can’t do anything, that it’s impossible to regulate the Cayman islands and the other tax havens because they are too powerful, and all of a sudden we send a million soldiers 10,000km from home to allow the emir of Kuwait to keep his oil.”

Financial Times, 27/28 June, 2015.

So why are Internet users resigned to being surveilled?

This morning’s Observer column:

It would be patronising to assume that every internet user – except for the occasional geek – is a mug. Some people do read the terms and conditions to which they have to agree when signing up to use “free” internet services. They fully realise that “if the service is free then you are the product”. And yet they persist in using it. Why?

One possible reason is that they place a value on those “free” services. Various studies have tried to estimate what that value might be. A study by the consultancy company McKinsey, for example, asked 3,360 consumers in six countries what they would pay for 16 internet services that are now largely financed by ads. The conclusion was that households would pay €38 (£27) a month on average for those services. From this, McKinsey estimated that “free” internet services generate €32bn of consumer surplus in America and €69bn in Europe.

These calculations are music to the ears of Facebook and Google executives, who interpret them as proof that consumer tolerance of corporate surveillance is really evidence of “rational” economic behaviour. People put up with companies spying on them because they get a good deal out of it.

Into this comforting ointment, three academics have just implanted a number of flies…

Read on