The dream of augmentation

This morning’s Observer column:

Engelbart was a visionary who believed that the most effective way to solve problems was to augment human abilities and develop ways of building collective intelligence. Computers, in his view, were “power steering for the mind” – tools for augmenting human capabilities – and this idea of augmentation has been the backbone of the optimistic narrative of the tech industry ever since.

The dream has become a bit tarnished in the last few years, as we’ve learned how data vampires use the technology to exploit us at the same time as they provide free tools for our supposed “augmentation”…

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Conspiracy theories, the Internet and democracy

My OpEd piece from yesterday’s Observer:

Conspiracy theories have generally had a bad press. They conjure up images of eccentrics in tinfoil hats who believe that aliens have landed and the government is hushing up the news. And maybe it’s statistically true that most conspiracy theories belong on the harmless fringe of the credibility spectrum.

On the other hand, the historical record contains some conspiracy theories that have had profound effects. Take the “stab in the back” myth, widely believed in Germany after 1918, which held that the German army did not lose the First World War on the battlefield but was betrayed by civilians on the home front. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the theory was incorporated in their revisionist narrative of the 1920s: the Weimar Republic was the creation of the “November criminals” who stabbed the nation in the back to seize power while betraying it. So a conspiracy theory became the inspiration for the political changes that led to a second global conflict.

More recent examples relate to the alleged dangers of the MMR jab and other vaccinations and the various conspiracy theories fuelling denial of climate change.

For the last five years, my academic colleagues – historian Richard Evans and politics professor David Runciman – and I have been leading a team of researchers studying the history, nature and significance of conspiracy theories with a particular emphasis on their implications for democracy…

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We already know what it’s like to live under Artificial Intelligences

This morning’s Observer column:

In 1965, the mathematician I J “Jack” Good, one of Alan Turing’s code-breaking colleagues during the second world war, started to think about the implications of what he called an “ultra-intelligent” machine – ie “a machine that can surpass all the intellectual activities of any man, however clever”. If we were able to create such a machine, he mused, it would be “the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control”.

Note the proviso. Good’s speculation has lingered long in our collective subconscious, occasionally giving rise to outbreaks of fevered speculation. These generally focus on two questions. How long will it take us to create superintelligent machines? And what will it be like for humans to live with – or under – such machines? Will they rapidly conclude that people are a waste of space? Does the superintelligent machine pose an existential risk for humanity?

The answer to the first question can be summarised as “longer than you think”. And as for the second question, well, nobody really knows. How could they? Surely we’d need to build the machines first and then we’d find out. Actually, that’s not quite right. It just so happens that history has provided us with some useful insights into what it’s like to live with – and under – superintelligent machines.

They’re called corporations, and they’ve been around for a very long time – since about 1600, in fact…

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Are humans smarter than frogs?

This morning’s Observer column:

And then the penny dropped (I am slow on the uptake). I realised that what I had been doing was adding to a dataset for training the machine-learning software that guides self-driving cars – probably those designed and operated by Waymo, the autonomous vehicle project owned by Alphabet Inc (which also happens to own Google). So, to gain access to an automated service that will benefit financially from my input, I first have to do some unpaid labour to help improve the performance of Waymo’s vehicles (which, incidentally, will be publicly available for hire in Phoenix, Arizona, by the end of this year).

Neat, eh? But note also the delicious additional irony that the Captcha is described as an “automated Turing test”. The Turing test was conceived, you may recall, as a way of enabling humans to determine whether a machine could respond in such a way that one couldn’t tell whether it was a human or a robot. So we have wandered into a topsy-turvy world in which machines make us jump through hoops to prove that we are humans!

The strangest aspect of this epochal shift is how under-discussed it has been…

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The perniciousness of online EULAs

(That’s those click-to-agree buttons that users of free services invariably accept.)

“In theory, contract law enables and ought to enable people, first, to exercise their will freely in pursuit of their own ends and, second, to relate to others freely in pursuit of cooperative ends. In practice, electronic contracting threatens autonomy and undermines the development of meaningful relationships built on trust. Optimised to minimise transaction costs, maximise efficiency, minimise deliberation, and engineer complacency, the electronic contracting architecture nudges people to click a button and behave like simple stimulus-response machines.”

Brett Frischmann, co-author of Re-engineering Humanity in an interview with the Economist.

Our new bi-polar world

This morning’s Observer column:

What the Chinese have discovered, in other words, is that digital technology – which we once naively believed would be a force for democratisation – is also a perfect tool for social control. It’s the operating system for networked authoritarianism. Last month, James O’Malley, a British journalist, was travelling on the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train when his reverie was interrupted by this announcement: “Dear passengers, people who travel without a ticket, or behave disorderly, or smoke in public areas, will be punished according to regulations and the behaviour will be recorded in individual credit information system. To avoid a negative record of personal credit please follow the relevant regulations and help with the orders on the train and at the station.” Makes you nostalgic for those announcements about “arriving at King’s Cross, where this train terminates”, doesn’t it?

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Cognitive Dissonance in Silicon Valley? Or maybe they know something we don’t?

Very interesting NYT piece by Nellie Bowles:

The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari worries about a lot.

He worries that Silicon Valley is undermining democracy and ushering in a dystopian hellscape in which voting is obsolete.

He worries that by creating powerful influence machines to control billions of minds, the big tech companies are destroying the idea of a sovereign individual with free will.

He worries that because the technological revolution’s work requires so few laborers, Silicon Valley is creating a tiny ruling class and a teeming, furious “useless class.”

But lately, Mr. Harari is anxious about something much more personal. If this is his harrowing warning, then why do Silicon Valley C.E.O.s love him so?

He has a hunch:

“One possibility is that my message is not threatening to them, and so they embrace it?” a puzzled Mr. Harari said one afternoon in October. “For me, that’s more worrying. Maybe I’m missing something?”

Could it be that they’re not that concerned about his warnings that digital tech is dangerous for democracy because, basically, they’ve given up on it?

Zuckerberg’s monster

Here’s an edited version of a chapter I’ve written in a newly-published book – Anti-Social Media: The Impact on Journalism and Society, edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, Abramis, 2018.

Ponder this: in 2004 a Harvard sophomore named Zuckerberg sits in his dorm room hammering away at a computer keyboard. He’s taking an idea he ‘borrowed’ from two nice-but-dim Harvard undergraduates and writing the computer code needed to turn it into a social-networking site. He borrows $1,000 from his friend Eduardo Saverin and puts the site onto an internet web-hosting service. He calls it ‘The Facebook’.

Fourteen years later, that kid has metamorphosed into the 21st-century embodiment of John D Rockefeller and William Randolph Hearst rolled into one. In the early 20th century, Rockefeller controlled the flow of oil while Hearst controlled the flow of information. In the 21st century Zuckerberg controls the flow of the new oil (data) and the information (because people get much of their news from the platform that he controls). His empire spans more than 2.2bn people, and he exercises absolute control over it — as a passage in the company’s 10-K SEC filing makes clear. It reads, in part…

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Tech stasis and planned obsolescence

Like most of my peers in the tech-commentary business, I generally tune into the twice-yearly events at which senior Apple executives reveal the latest wonders to emerge from the creative imagination of Jony Ive. Part of the entertainment value of these gabfests is seeing grown billionaires talking like teen tech worshippers (everything is ‘incredible’ or even ‘fantastic’; the company exists to help customers to enhance their innate ‘creativity’ with new products that we will all ‘just love’, etc). But usually, buried in the superheated hoopla there’s the odd genuinely interesting new thing.

But this week’s event — which was held in New York rather than San Francisco (itself a first, I think) — was strangely dull. There’s a new MacBook Air, but actually it’s hard to see why it’s needed. The new one has a Retina screen, but I can’t see why anyone would get excited just about that when the underlying hardware is much the same as before. And, overall, Apple’s laptop lineup looks strangely incoherent. The two big announcements, to judge from the presentations, were a substantially enhanced Mac Mini and a new iPad Pro. The new Mini is welcome because for many of us it’s the most useful little workhorse that Apple has ever produced. And the new iPad is clearly a a serious upgrade of a product that’s already way ahead of the competition.

But here’s the rub. I’ve had an iPad Pro since the product was first launched, and it’s the most useful — and usable — device I’ve ever owned. In combination with the Apple Pencil it has entirely replaced the paper notebooks that I’ve always used up to now. It goes everywhere with me, does exactly what I need a tablet to do, and does it very well. So no matter how fancy the new iPad ( and its enhanced Pencil) is, I have no rational reason to consider upgrading.

(And much the same applies to all the other Apple kit I own and use on a daily basis. My four year old MacBook Pro is still a terrific workhorse. My iPhone 6 has been re-energised by a new battery and IoS12. And the watch does what I want it to do, even if it could use a longer battery life.)

These big Apple events are often — and justly — ridiculed for being just revivalist meetings for the Church of Apple. Tim Cook & Co are always preaching to the choir. And, since I’m a long-term Apple user, I could be regarded as one of the above. But if even a hardened user can find no reason to upgrade, what’s the point of all the hoopla?

My friend Charles Arthur — he of the wonderful Overspill and an acute observer of these things — thinks that people like me were not the intended audience for this week’s event. It was, he wrote in an email, “one of those events where they’re not speaking to people who already have them – it’s those who haven’t found a need to cross the gap to doing more work on the iPad. USB-C would be interesting to quite a lot of photographers, perhaps.”

Perhaps. But maybe we’ve arrived at what Charles calls — “a sort of tech stasis”. Many of the things we have are now Good Enough, and so despite Moore’s Law and the wonders of computational photography, etc. we don’t need to upgrade them every year, or every two years.

If that’s indeed what’s happening, then what are the implications for tech companies that are hooked on planned obsolescence to a degree that even General Motors in its heyday couldn’t dream of?

Gab, Gab, Gab

From ArsTechnica:

Gab, a “free speech” alternative to Twitter that’s popular with the far right, has been shut down after losing service from a number of mainstream technology platforms, including PayPal, Joyent, Medium, and GoDaddy.

“Gab is under attack,” the company’s home page now reads. “We have been systematically no-platformed by App Stores, multiple hosting providers, and several payment processors.” Gab is working to get back online using new service providers.

The attacks on Gab follow revelations that the man accused of Saturday’s deadly mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh appeared to be a regular Gab user. An account with his name was “rife with anti-refugee, anti-Semitic and white supremacist posts,” according to The Washington Post. One post complained about a “kike infestation.”

Here’s the aforementioned front page:

Note the claim about “80% of normal everyday people”. This is typical of the alt-right strategy of always claiming victimhood when challenged or banned. In an interesting Vanity Fair piece, Tina Nguyen quotes some of the posts that appeared on Gab celebrating what the alleged killer (Robert Bowers) had done. For example:

“I can’t wait to hear about how many lampshades the alleged synagogue shooter made out [sic] these jews in Pittsburg,” wrote @EmilyAnderson, followed by three laughing cat emojis; another user predicted that Bowers’s statement—“All these Jews have to die”—would “be a meme as long as the Internet lives. Which wont [sic] be long after this LOL.”

This is so utterly revolting that it beggars description. But it will not only continue — and will probably increase. As Nguyen observes,

the existence of Gab reflects a larger trend on the right, wherein those banished from mainstream social-media sites create evermore extreme platforms on which to express themselves. Fox News initiated this trend more than two decades ago: the cable channel was explicitly founded to offer a conservative take on the news, while Andrew Breitbart built his namesake site to cater to an even more conservative audience. The bigger the Internet has become, and the lower the cost of entry, the more likely sites like Gab.com and those further afield will proliferate—not just as social hubs, but as an alternate Internet with its attendant-support networks.

The deeper problem here is about what the Internet has revealed about humans. I’ve argued for a long time that one way of interpreting it is to think of the network as holding up a mirror to human nature. Much of what we see in it is uplifting, informative, inspirational and/or banal — unproblematic, in other words. But the mirror also reflects many of the ugliest sides of human nature, and the technology gives expression to that in ways that has real-world effects. Which is why the riposte that all those ugly sides of human nature already existed in the pre-Internet age rather loses its force: in earlier times, this ugliness was more localised and generally had limited traction (though of course there were genocidal exceptions). Now it can find expression anywhere.

It’s also strange how the technology seems to lead some people inexorably towards more and more extreme views — and then to action. Take the mail-bomb suspect, Cesar Altieri, whose social-media activities were usefully chronicled by the New York Times:

Until 2016, Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr.’s life on social media looked unremarkable. On his Facebook page, he posted photos of decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games — the stereotypical trappings of middle-age masculinity.

But that year, Mr. Sayoc’s social media presence took on a darker and more partisan tone. He opened a new Twitter account and began posting links to sensational right-wing news stories, adding captions like “Clinton busted exposed rigging entire election.” On Facebook, his anodyne posts gave way to a feed overflowing with pro-Donald Trump images, news stories about Muslims and the Islamic State, far-fetched conspiracy theories and clips from Fox News broadcasts.

By the time he was arrested in Florida on Friday, charged with sending pipe bombs to at least a dozen of President Trump’s critics, Mr. Sayoc appeared to fit the all-too-familiar profile of a modern extremist, radicalized online and sucked into a vortex of partisan furor. In recent weeks, he had posted violent fantasies and threats against several people to whom pipe bombs were addressed, including Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. His vehicle, a white van plastered with right-wing slogans, came to resemble a Facebook feed on wheels.

So he went from posting pictures of women, real estate, dining and cars to posting pictures of ISIS, guns and people in jail — and then to posting mail-bombs to prominent Democrats.