Enlightenment, what enlightenment?

Sam Moyn is not impressed by Steven Pinker’s new book – Enlightenment Now:

In laying out his vision of betterment in Enlightenment Now, Pinker confronts alternative trends and looming threats for progress only in order to brush them off. He does not take seriously the risk of major catastrophes, such as the collapse of a recent era of peace or the outbreak of a global pandemic, which he believes is easy to magnify beyond reason. As for environmental degradation, humanity will surely find a way to counteract this in time. “As the world has gotten richer,” Pinker explains, “nature has begun to rebound”—as if the failure of a few prophecies of ecological disaster to come to pass on schedule means the planet is infinitely resilient. Once he gets around to acknowledging that climate change is an actual problem, Pinker spends much of his time attacking “climate justice warriors” for their anti-capitalist hysteria.

Lots more in that sceptical vein. Worth reading in full.

Facebook’s sudden attack of modesty

One of the most illuminating things you can do as a researcher is to go into Facebook not as a schmuck (i.e. user) but as an advertiser — just like your average Russian agent. Upon entering, you quickly begin to appreciate the amazing ingenuity and comprehensiveness of the machine that Zuckerberg & Co have constructed. It’s utterly brilliant, with a great user interface and lots of automated advice and help for choosing your targeted audience.

When doing this a while back — a few months after Trump’s election — I noticed that there was a list of case studies of different industries showing how effective a given targeting strategy could be in a particular application. One of those ‘industries’ was “Government and Politics” and among the case studies was a story of how a Facebook campaign had proved instrumental in helping a congressional candidate to win against considerable odds. I meant to grab some screenshots of this uplifting tale, but of course forget to do so. When I went back later, the case study had, well, disappeared.

Luckily, someone else had the presence of mind to grab a screenshot. The Intercept, bless it, has the before-and-after comparison shown in the image above. They are Facebook screenshots from (left) June 2017 and (right) March 2018.

Interesting, ne c’est pas?

In surveillance capitalism, extremism is good for business

This morning’s Observer column:

Zeynep Tufecki is one of the shrewdest writers on technology around. A while back, when researching an article on why (and how) Donald Trump appealed to those who supported him, she needed some direct quotes from the man himself and so turned to YouTube, which has a useful archive of videos of his campaign rallies. She then noticed something interesting. “YouTube started to recommend and ‘autoplay’ videos for me,” she wrote, “that featured white supremacist rants, Holocaust denials and other disturbing content.”

Since Tufecki was not in the habit of watching far-right fare on YouTube, she wondered if this was an exclusively rightwing phenomenon. So she created another YouTube account and started watching Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’s campaign videos, following the accompanying links suggested by YouTube’s “recommender” algorithm. “Before long,” she reported, “I was being directed to videos of a leftish conspiratorial cast, including arguments about the existence of secret government agencies and allegations that the United States government was behind the attacks of 11 September. As with the Trump videos, YouTube was recommending content that was more and more extreme.”

Read on

Why scorning Trump didn’t work

While thinking about Trump this morning, I came on this astute observation by P.J. O’Rourke. He’s right: Establishment scorn of Trump was as toxic as Hillary Clinton’s reference to his supporters as “deplorables”. This lesson has still to be learned by many ‘Remain’ supporters in the UK.

Stephen Hawking RIP

I didn’t know Stephen Hawking personally, though I often saw him around and in my early years in Cambridge (late-1960s, long before he was famous) my lab was in the same complex of buildings in Mill Lane as the department where he worked. The buildings had no ramps for wheelchair access at that time, so sometimes I or my fellow-students would help his wife to lift his (non-motorised) wheelchair up the steps into the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP).

At the time, of course, we had no idea of how important he was destined to be. The only clue was when one went into the DAMTP tea-room at 10.30am or 3.30pm (scientific departments have a tradition of gathering for morning coffee and afternoon tea) his wheelchair was always surrounded by a group of devoted graduate students, some of whom acted as his interpreter and wrote the equations on a blackboard when he was giving a lecture. It was clear then that — at least in the rarefied world of cosmologists — he was already a real celebrity.

One of those students was Nathan Myhrvold, who went on to become the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft and a close colleague of Bill Gates. My hunch is that Nathan was the link that persuaded Gates to endow the Gates Scholars (which is Cambridge’s version of Oxford’s Rhodes Scholars scheme).

For me, the most striking moment in Hawking’s career was when he was elected to the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics. This was the professorial chair that had once been occupied by Isaac Newton, and it seemed an appropriate recognition of the significance of Hawking’s work.

Indeed, watching Hawking in public and marvelling at his astonishing and (to me) inaccessible brilliance, it was Newton who came to mind, and the statue of him in the chapel of Trinity College, of which Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude:

And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The Antechapel where the Statue stood
Of Newton, with his prism and his silent face,
The marble index of a Mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

Quote of the Day

”This is the president’s vision. My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters.”

Evidence-based policymaking, courtesy of Peter Navarro, Trump’s Trade Advisor as told to Bloomberg.

Book you ticket

From today’s Financial Times. Clearly they were so excited by the coup of landing Steve Bannon as a speaker that they omitted to employ a proof-reader.

Interesting also that the FT regards Bannon as an “influencer”. Just as Marine le Pen does, apparently.

How to stay sane on Twitter: ignore retweets

This morning’s Observer column:

When Twitter first broke cover in July 2006, the initial reaction in the non-geek community was derisive incredulity. First of all, there was the ludicrous idea of a “tweet” – not to mention the metaphor of “twittering”, which, after all, is what small birds do. Besides, what could one usefully say in 140 characters? To the average retired colonel (AKA Daily Telegraph reader), Twitter summed up the bird-brained frivolity of the internet era, providing further evidence that the world was going to the dogs.

And now? It turns out that the aforementioned colonel might have been right. For one of the things you can do with a tweet is declare nuclear war. Another thing you can do with Twitter is to bypass the mainstream media, ignore the opinion polls, spread lies and fake news without let or hindrance and get yourself elected president of the United States.

How did it come to this?

Read on