Sunday 13 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.

  • George Orwell, 1945.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Glenn Gould plays Haydn Piano Sonata no.60 in C major (13 minutes)


It will take more than attacks on Huawei to win the tech cold war

My Observer column this morning. Banning the Chinese giant from using US components won’t stop a company that’s too big for China to allow it to fail.

Nobody knows how this attempt to strangle Huawei will pan out. The company is too big and too dominant in China to fail – and it’s unlikely the Chinese state would let it go down anyway. After all, Huawei still has a huge domestic market and non-aligned countries will still buy its mobile networking gear. But if one of the motives behind the American assault was to reduce the chances that China would replace the US as the global tech hegemon then it’s unlikely to work.

All that’s happened is that the campaign has highlighted the extent to which semiconductor design and manufacturing capacity have become key strategic assets. The Chinese understand this and there’s no reason that they can’t build that strategic capacity: all it needs is money and brains and they have plenty of both. And when they finally achieve tech parity, the US – and hopefully the rest of the world – will have learned a new slogan: the technological is not just political, it’s geopolitical.

Trevor Paglen has a fascinating, sobering new exhibition on the history of photography and its relationship to state surveillance.

His work brilliantly illustrates how artists can sometimes critique tech much more effectively — and efficiently — than we academics. He was the guy behind ImageNetRoulette, for example, a digital art project and viral selfie app that exposed how biases are intrinsic in facial-recognition technology. Here’s how the NYT reported in 2019.

When Tabong Kima checked his Twitter feed early Wednesday morning, the hashtag of the moment was #ImageNetRoulette.

Everyone, it seemed, was uploading selfies to a website where some sort of artificial intelligence analyzed each face and described what it saw. The site, ImageNet Roulette, pegged one man as an “orphan.” Another was a “nonsmoker.” A third, wearing glasses, was a “swot, grind, nerd, wonk, dweeb.”

Across Mr. Kima’s Twitter feed, these labels — some accurate, some strange, some wildly off base — were played for laughs. So he joined in. But Mr. Kima, a 24-year-old African-American, did not like what he saw. When he uploaded his own smiling photo, the site tagged him as a “wrongdoer” and an “offender.”

“I might have a bad sense of humor,” he tweeted, “but I don’t think this is particularly funny.”

As it turned out, his response was just what the site was aiming for.

An immodest proposal

Nice essay by Samuel Weber, meditating on the ageism intrinsic in mask refusal.

He starts by reminding us of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” for alleviating the shortage of food facing the growing Irish population. The essay, published in 1729, suggested that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food to rich people. This satirical hyperbole mocked heartless attitudes towards the poor, as well as British policy toward the Irish in general.

Samuel Weber has used this satirical lens as a way of thinking about contemporary attitudes towards the pandemic. The virus, he writes,

has one distinctive quality that might have appealed to Swift’s satiric talent: in attacking above all the poor and the elderly, it can be seen to be a kind of Malthusian force striving to rid “society” of its unproductive elements. This is especially relevant to the elderly persons “parked” in “nursing” or “old-age homes.” In French there is a good word that describes the reality of many of these institutions, even if it does so brutally: mouroir. It is a place people are sent to die, when there is no one willing or able to care for them in a less institutional manner. The spread of dementia, in its various forms, collected often under the name “Alzheimer,” has only increased this tendency of contemporary societies to dispose of the elderly by removing them to invisible institutional settings, more or less well-equipped depending on the financial resources of those subjected to them.

If he’d been around today, Weber writes, Swift would have had to modify his satirical proposal.

No one is proposing to eat the poor and the elderly. It is enough to dispose of them, just as society has tried to exclude them from public view by parking them in “homes” or in segregated housing “projects” where they are free to assassinate each other in a scramble for the profits of a socially imposed “drug trade.”

Not cannibalism today — that would be too crude. Today’s “immodest proposal” is being made practically if implicitly by all those who have decided that the extra effort involved in wearing masks, distancing, etc., is simply not worth it, since it only affects “others” and not oneself. This attitude and behavior should not surprise anyone, since it simply builds on the invisibility that is already a characteristic of most of the societies affected by this pandemic. Such invisibility — which sustains thoughtlessness and unconcern about structural injustice — has long been a “preexisting condition” of these societies. COVID-19 has only cast a fresh and harsh light on this — but it is a light that conceals more than it reveals.

I love these sharp perspectives on current events. Swift’s modest proposal also made a lot of people think — though perhaps not the right people.

Haven’t we come far

No comment needed.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!