Tuesday 23 March, 2021

Homeward bound

The path back to our hotel in Norfolk. One Summer’s evening long ago.

Quote of the Day

“Well, I made the wave, didn’t I?”

  • Ernest (Lord) Rutherford, in answer to the jibe: “Lucky fellow, Rutherford, always on the crest of the wave”.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free | Billy Taylor Trio


Long Read of the Day

Gene editing: A potentially catastrophic policy decision

A thoughtful essay by Patrick Holden, an organic farmer and founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, a body that works to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable food systems. He suspects that the regime now in charge of ‘Global Britain’ wants to remove the current regulatory barriers (probably represented as ‘Brussels red tape’) to gene editing.

Thanks to Janet Cobb for the link.

What if it was all a con?

Here’s a disturbing thought for us critics of the tech industry: are we unduly credulous about the capabilities of the technology? An example would be the widespread conjectures that attribute the election of Trump and the Brexit vote to social media and its capacity for targeted advertising? (I’ve argued before many times that anyone who attributes political earthquakes on that scale just to tech companies hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been happening in democratic countries since the 1970s.) But the drum-beat of angst about what networked technology and surveillance capitalism are doing — or are capable of doing — to civilisation as we have known it, continues.

We’re beginning, though, to see interesting indications of a rethink, or at any rate a reconsideration, of these questions. Lee Vinsel, Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Virginia Tech, for example, has a really nice essay, “Notes on Criticism and Technology Hype” on Medium.

“Recently”, he writes,

I’ve become increasingly aware of critical writing that is parasitic upon and even inflates hype. The media landscape is full of dramatic claims — many of which come from entrepreneurs, startup PR offices, and other boosters — about how technologies, such as “AI,” self-driving cars, genetic engineering, the “sharing economy,” blockchain, and cryptocurrencies, will lead to massive societal shifts in the near-future. These boosters — Elon Musk comes to mind — naturally tend to accentuate positive benefits. The kinds of critics that I am talking about invert boosters’ messages — they retain the picture of extraordinary change but focus instead on negative problems and risks. It’s as if they take press releases from startups and cover them with hellscapes.

Vinsen points to a nice piece in Scientific American  by the veteran science writer John Horgan in which he argues that “Debates about whether to “improve” our mind and body often exaggerate the feasibility of doing so.” For years, Horgan writes,

I’ve grumbled to myself about an irritating tendency in science punditry. I haven’t written about it before, because it’s subtle, even paradoxical, and I couldn’t think of a catchy phrase to describe it. One I’ve toyed with is “premature ethical fretting,” which is clunky and vague. I’m venting now because I’ve discovered a phrase that elegantly captures my peeve: wishful worries.

The problem arises when pundits concerned about possible social and ethical downsides of a technology exaggerate its technical feasibility. This happens in discussions of psychopharmacology, genetic engineering, brain implants, artificial intelligence and other technologies that might, in principle (that wonderful, all-purpose fudge factor), boost our cognitive and physiological abilities. Warnings about what we should do often exaggerate what we can do.

These are what the technology historian David Brock called “wishful worries” — ie “problems that it would be nice to have”. For example:

“As biotechnology affords dramatically longer human lifespans, how will we fight boredom? With neurotechnology-augmentation rendering some of us essentially superheroes, what ethical dilemmas will we face? How can we protect privacy in an age of tech-enabled telepathy?”

Then there’s Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet, a fascinating book by Tim Whang in which he argues that digital advertising – the core business model of the Web – is at risk of collapsing, and that its potential demise bears an uncanny resemblance to the housing crisis of 2008. Evidence he cites includes the unreliability of advertising numbers, the unregulated automation of advertising bidding wars and the fact that online ads mostly fail to work. The link with the 2008 banking crisis is that in the current online economy the value of consumers’ attention is wildly misrepresented — much as subprime mortgages were in the years leading up to 2008. If online advertising does implode, Hwang maintains, the Web and its ‘free’ services will suddenly be accessible only to those who can afford it.

Fanciful? Hysterical? Not necessarily. One of the most interesting developments of the past year is to see serious outfits like the UK Competition and Markets Authority launching a major investigation into the hidden, high-speed advertising auctions run by the social media platforms. This suggests to me that there’s something rotten in there because the claims of the companies are, basically, too good to be true.

So maybe history may be repeating itself, this time as farce. In the years preceding the banking crash, the bankers took the world for a ride and screwed us all. Maybe the surveillance capitalist crowd have been doing just the same to us.

And the question we will ask when the penny finally drops? Will their bosses escape gaol just as the bankers did?

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  •  I Captured the Iceland Volcano Eruption from Up Close. Astonishing photographs. Shot by a professional landscape photographer, Iurie Belegurschi, with a Sony a7R IV camera and a DJI drone equipped with a Hasselblad 20MP camera. (We photographers are interested in these details.) Link H/T to Charles Arthur, who spotted it.

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