Category Archives: society

Did fake news on social media sway the election?

No U.S. election has ever been so highly swayed by news and ‘fake news’ filtered through online social media. The New York Times documented the many instances of hoaxes, fake news and misinformation on Election Day — arising from social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as printed fliers and inaccurate election guides sent to voters. Media companies have been slow to rise to this challenge.

I predicted this Echo Chamber Effect long ago, in my novel Earth (1989): “The problem wasn’t getting access to information. It was to stave off drowning in it. People bought personalized filter programs to skim a few droplets from that sea and keep the rest out. For some, subjective reality became the selected entertainments and special -interest zines passed through by those tailored shells.”

An analysis by Buzzfeed news found that viral fake news stories outperformed real news, resulting in more engagement of readers on Facebook than election news from nineteen major news sites combined. Merrimack Professor Melissa Zimdars has compiled a list of fake or misleading news sites that warrant caution. Some are merely click-bait; some unreliable or biased; a few may even be satire. The toxic Infowars by the ever-angry Alex Jones is an obvious offender.

John Pavley, Sr. Vice President at Viacom, takes this thought farther in his posting: Trolls Are USA, talking about how these new media are causing social breakdowns. moreover, this lobotomization is familiar, from history.

fake-news-electionRemember, the first effect of the printing press was to exacerbate intolerance… till printed books later empowered people to fight against it. Or ponder the way 1930s radio first wrought fanaticism and horror before it fostered empathy. Likewise, Pavley talks about how monsters are using the new media more effectively, before they can increase our reasoning ability and empathy:

“The broadcast technologies of the pre-social media world coerced us into consensus. We had to share them because they were mass media, one-to-many communications where the line between audience and broadcaster was clear and seldom crossed. Then came the public internet and the World Wide Web of decentralized distribution. Then came super computers in our pockets with fully equipped media studios in our hands. Then came user generated content, blogging and tweeting such that there were as many authors as there were audience members.

“Here the troll was born…. Every time you share a link to a news article you didn’t read (which is something like 75% of the time), every time you like a post without critically thinking about it (which is almost always), and every time you rant in anger or in anxiety in your social media of choice, you are the troll.”

trump-facebookMax Read argues in New York Magazine that our ‘echo chamber’ mentality, to gather in likeminded swarms online, may have been a crucial factor this year. Polemically fervid-uniform ’nuremberg rallies”… and there are (yes) some on the left, too.

“All throughout the election, these fake stories, sometimes papered over with flimsy “parody site” disclosures somewhere in small type, circulated throughout Facebook: The Pope endorses Trump. Hillary Clinton bought $137 million in illegal arms. The Clintons bought a $200 million house in the Maldives. Many got hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of shares, likes, and comments; enough people clicked through to the posts to generate significant profits for their creators. The valiant efforts of Snopes and other debunking organizations were insufficient; Facebook’s labyrinthine sharing and privacy settings mean that fact-checks get lost in the shuffle.”

Yes to much of that. Fretful over how social media are being blamed for the Echo Chamber Effect, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a response to accusations that “fake news” on Facebook influenced the outcome of the U.S. election, and helped Donald Trump to win. On NPR, Aarti Shahani points out a fundamental discrepancy: “He (Zuckerberg) and his team have made a very complex set of contradictory rules — a bias toward restricted speech for regular users, and toward free speech for “news” (real or fake).”

Faced with increasing criticism, both Facebook and Google have announced changes in their oversight of fake news sites. Google said that it would prohibit fake news sites from using its online advertising service. Similarly Facebook recently updated its policy about placing ads on sites that display misleading content. In a The New York Times article, Jim Rutenberg writes, “The cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism.” And of course, you get what you pay for.

For modern journalism is being undermined by one flaw in today’s internet. By the net’s astonishing over-reliance on advertising to pay the bills. By sucking away the revenue source of old-fashioned, fact-centered investigative news media, this business model has harmed us all. In a series on Evonomics, I’ve made out a case for a micropayment system to effectively fund online content: Advertising Cannot Maintain the Internet and the follow-up: Beyond Advertising: Will Micropayments Sustain the New Internet?

We live in a tsunami of information. The problem is to avoid drowning in it. As citizens, we need to hone our skeptical skills to better sort truth from dross. And we need reliable methods to ensure accountability and trustworthiness for our news sources.

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Sousveillance is the answer to surveillance

       When people complain about surveillance society being bad, what ideal alternative do they imagine? This is the best question I’ve been asked on Quora, all year. I have been asking it since 1995, when I started writing The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 
         First, let’s be clear. I respect the many brave and smart Paladins of Freedom out there, from the ACLU to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to countless journalists, activists and – yes – some politicians and business folk, who are deeply concerned that a surveillance state could lead to Big Brother. They have this reflex in part because of our enlightenment traditions of independence and freedom… but also because of dire warnings told by science fiction! (See my essay: George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy.)
big-brother-surveil       They all know that if elites monopolize the power to watch and surveil common folk, Big Brother is almost inevitable. Some fret he’ll come from aristocrats and faceless corporations, some from academia and faceless government bureaucrats. All share the same legitimate(!) fear!
          And all but a very few are reacting in ways that are stunningly dim-witted and myopic. Because they then conclude that our best option to prevent Big Brother is to hide from him! To skulk to protect our secrets. To make “cyberpunk” our romantic image of resistance. To whine and holler “Don’t look at me!”

Across 25 years I have never heard a single one of these activists explain how that can be accomplished.

        Nor heard them cite a single example, from history, when anything like it happened. They proclamations are always, always vague and near term. (Now, some near-term “privacy codes” are tactically helpful, I openly avow. But none will work across a ten year frame. Not one ever proposed.

        There is – however – a way out. A way to protect freedom and prevent tyranny and oppression by elite, staring eyes. It happens to be the way we got this narrow window of freedom in the first place. Not by cringing and cowering from elites, but by stripping them of that MONOPOLY on vision! By stripping the mighty naked. By dividing power into smaller, mutually-competing chunks. By looking back at power.

SOUSVEILLANCE-SURVEILLANCE        It is called sousveillance… look it up. It is how we got our freedom. It is assertive, aggressive, militant, and the only thing that can even conceivably work. It is the only way to hold elites accountable. Accountability is key. We must be able to watch the watchers.

        Think. It does not matter what elites KNOW about you, so long as we all know enough about them to supervise, so that they cannot DO anything to you.

        Epistemologically, you can never verify that someone else does not know something! But you can verify that they are not DOING something. If you can see.

        In The Transparent Society – and somewhat in EARTH – I go much deeper. But the essential is that we must not hide. We’ll have some privacy! Because if we can see, then we’ll catch the peeping toms!

        But above all, to be both safe and free, we must be able to see.

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Cop Cams and Transparency

          Should We See Everything a Cop Sees? In a vivid article in The New York Times, McKenzie Funk describes the wide cast of characters in Seattle who are grappling with a problem, how to comply with a court order to make police camera footage available to the public.
see-cop
          It is a giant can of worms, because the department is also legally required to redact or blur personal details such as faces or identifiable voices, for the sake of privacy. While Funk’s article makes for entertaining reading, the story is murky about the context for it all. That context is a proliferation of cameras, getting smaller, faster, cheaper, better, more numerous and mobile at rates much faster than Moore’s Law.  (Indeed, this has been called Brin’s Corollary.)
          This myopia is common to every single person I have seen weigh in – even very bright folks – on this issue.  Sure, a few of us predicted all this back in the 20th Century – e.g. in EARTH (1989) and The Transparent Society (1997) – yet the very notion of lifting the gaze beyond this month, following trend lines instead for three or five, or ten years ahead, seems impossible even for intelligent and critical observers like McKenzie Funk.
          Regarding just the zoomed dilemmas of 2016, Funk’s article does a good job of showing us the trees (the dilemmas faced by police, prosecutors, attorneys and citizens in adapting to these court decisions), without even noticing the forest. The context of why this is all happening and how this is – for all the tsuris and aggravation – a huge victory for our kind of civilization.
RightToRecordPolice          I have called it the most important civil liberties matter in our lifetimes — certainly in thirty years — even though it was hardly covered by the press. In 2013 both the U.S. courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be “settled law” that a citizen has the right to record his or her interactions with police in public places.
          No single matter could have been more important because it established the most basic right of “sousveillance” or looking-back at power, that The Transparent Society is all about. It is also fundamental to freedom, for in altercations with authority, what other recourse can a citizen turn to, than the Truth.
          Sousveillance — looking back — is the opposite of surveillance. Watching the watchers is our only method of achieving accountability over the actions of those in power.
          But the forest is rapidly changing! Next year, the same scene that was today only visible on a cop-cam’s footage will have been covered also by the suspect’s auto-record phone app, or a passerby’s dashcam. Or a store’s security system, or chains of cheap button cams stuck on lamp posts by activist groups, or even hobbyists. Follow the price curve a bit farther and you have the sticker cameras that I describe in EXISTENCE, stuck to any surface by 9-year olds who peel them from great, big rolls, each with its own code in IPV6 cyberspace and powered by trickles of sunlight.
          In that context, not a single issue wrangled-over in the NY Times’s hand-wringing article will seem anything but archaic – even troglodytic – just half a decade from now. If there was ever an era in desperate need of the Big Perspectives of science fiction….

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A defense of liberalism

 

Lest the media’s obsession with bad news suggest that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, Harvard Professor of Psychology  Steven Pinker argues in an interview that things have actually gone a lot better over recent centuries, and at an accelerating pace:

“A shift in the summum bonum, or the highest good, towards loose humanism, where life is better than death, education better than ignorance, health better than sickness,” he says, “is what I believe we are seeing currently.”

Pinker’s historic and statistical analysis that violence is on a continuing downward trend is expanded upon in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, where he discusses factors such as globalization, a shift in value systems, the increased quality of life, particularly for women and children, as well as the profound driving force of the rational ideas of the Enlightenment.

And yet, Pinker notes, “Since we are tribal creatures, there is always the temptation to backslide.” A temptation we must resist.

Progress-happensProgress has happened and continues to happen… in our attitudes toward the environment, toward racial discrimination, toward equal rights for women, toward greater awareness of LGBTQ issues… and gradually toward leveling economic inequality.

Yet so many wallow in nostalgia. Often nostalgia for a past that never was. America was built by men and women who dreamed and built, who believed – and believe – in something called progress, in negotiating positive solutions for a better future. For all.

Why do more highly educated people veer toward liberalism? The Pew Research Center recently released a study showing that nearly a third of those who went to graduate or professional school maintain liberal views on social, economic and environmental matters, whereas this is true for just one in 10 Americans generally. “An additional quarter of postgrads have mostly liberal views. These numbers reflect drastic change: While professionals have been in the Democratic column for a while, in 1994 only 7 percent of postgrads held consistently liberal political opinions,” reports Neil Gross in The New York Times.

This might have been interesting as the introduction to an article about the topic. But the article failed to explore this thread in more depth. Though one thing is clear — highly educated people are more cognizant of time horizons that encompass a recognition of change.

altruistic-horizonsWhen the ambient fear level is high, as in civil war riven Syria, loyalties are kept close to home. Me against my brother. My brother and me against my cousins. We and our cousins against the world. Alliances merge and are broken quickly, along a sliding scale that appears to be remarkably consistent.

The general trend seems to be this: the lower the ambient fear level declines, the more broadly a human being appears willing to define those tribal boundaries, and the more generous he or she is willing to be toward a stranger. See this explored in my earlier article: Altruistic Horizons: Our tribal natures, the ‘fear effect,’ and the end of ideologies.

Michael Shermer has expanded in more detail upon the profound influence of rising levels of rationality and reasoning on our morality in his book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Shermer, the founder and director of The Skeptics Society, argues powerfully that we are living in the most moral and just period of our entire history, largely as a result of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason and their impact on human society. The expansion of this moral sphere has led to widespread democracy, civil rights, and greater justice for more of humanity. (As well as rising standards of living and improved health and sanitation.)

change-nostalgia-1The world was different in the past. That is not just a reason for nostalgia but also for recognition that change will continue. That change must continue. (The kind  of disruptive change that makes science fiction by far the most pertinent literature of our era.)

Liberalism is an attempt to harness and steer change. Hence it is not leftist per se… Marx thought that steering history was futile!  It is this belief that we can refashion ourselves and society using tools of discourse and/or science that makes the educated liberal.

Well… yes… compassion and empathy, too. But it is no accident that free enterprise, markets, entrepreneurship – all desiderata that supposedly the right cares about – do far better when liberals are managing the state.

Sorry, it is a blatant and overwhelming fact, Jack.

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Is there room for compromise?

Our political landscape has been deliberately polarized so that the mere concept of “negotiation” toward possible positive-sum — or win-win — solutions is simply inconceivable in the minds of average Americans. I’ll put aside whom I blame — it’s not equal, though both sides contribute. And the fact that complex issues have automatic “sides” is part of the problem.

Gun control is an archetype for how desperately stupid the situation has become. On the face of it, we have facts:

  1. Almost no one is calling for removal of personal weapons from American life – an absurd prospect that would be impossible and any attempt would likely cause revolution.
  2. After years in which white males deemed gun ownership to be their (romantically envisioned) recourse to some day use insurrection against any future-hypothetical government oppression, they now see non-whites taking up precisely that recourse… arming themselves and using weapons in insurrection against what they perceive as current and palpable government oppression.
  3. Moderates have long pointed to the great American success story, putting potentially lethal devices filled with explosive chemicals and potential to do harm into the hands of millions, even teenagers, who then use these devices with stunning care, diligence and statistical safety. Motor vehicles. Sure, they kill approximately the same number of Americans each year as firearms. But they are used – in close proximity to other people – roughly 100,000 times as frequently as firearms. Per capita-hours.

The proposal that has been long on the table is to treat firearms exactly like motor vehicles. In fact, if you look at the vehicle codes in most states, you could squint and imagine just doing a global from “cars” to “firearms” and you’d almost be there. Licensing, registration and – above all – insurance have worked with autos… with higher levels required for commercial vehicles, trucks etc. … and why not the same thing for assault rifles?

There is one and only one response from NRA types and that is the Slippery Slope Argument (SSA). Once the government has a list of licensees and registrations, ‘the government” could then go to every address and demand personal weapons be handed over.

It may surprise you to know that I have some sympathy for this argument! Certainly such things have happened in the past. As a science fiction author, I am willing to ponder far-out scenarios, especially those that have some historical precedent. And while it seems 99% likely that any such program of confiscation would spark the very revolution it was meant to prevent… and most of those assigned to carry it out would refuse… nevertheless, this is where we get to the place where our divide is partly the fault of the left.

JeffersonRifeHow ironic that liberals seem unable to discuss with their neighbors the notion of a Jeffersonian Insurrectionary Recourse… the notion that the citizenship should retain the right and ability to rebel against tyranny. During the outrageous Bushite years, I know many who simmered, and some who started arming themselves. Yet the party line meant they could not say it, out loud.

Is the Insurrectionary Recourse merely romantic twaddle, in an age of drones and smart bombs and nukes? Is it likely that a city filled with angry rebels could stand up against the US Army? In fact, the answer is yes, because the Army is made up of citizens who would likely rebel if ordered to carpet bomb American cities… which is ironic because they’d also refuse to go around collecting guns. Sorry NRA fellahs, you can’t have it both ways.

I go into this in much more detail here: Brin Classics: “The Jefferson Rifle”

… including my suggestion for how to get out of this mess. Because the NRA guys are ignoring one, final major flaw in their position. One major fact:

  1. The Second Amendment is stunningly weak. It is by far the weakest amendment. And just yelling that it’s strong will not make it strong.

“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Sure, the gun guys proclaim that we can ignore the entire first half of that wording. And maybe courts today will agree with them. But a day will come when a frightened public and/or a new court will turn to those first 13 words, especially the first four, and let the state “regulate” away. Stop yammering that it can’t happen. It not only can. It will. And you know it.

In my other paper I offer up a win-win. A way that the insurrectionary recourse might be retained and bolstered by a better amendment! 

How about… Setting aside one kind of weapon from all future registration or awareness by anyone… in exchange for treating all the others exactly like cars. It is sensible. It gives all sides what they need.

What’re the chances, you suppose?

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Privacy vs Omniveillance

Media discussions of privacy, freedom and the information age are starting to get more interesting, as folks finally start to realize a core truth… that everything eventually leaks. That the reflex of whining and demanding shadows to hide-in will never work. The data we entrust to banks and retail chains? The trade secrets that companies rely on for competitive advantage? The cherished spy programs of our governmental professional protector caste (PPC)? If these do not leak because of hackers, or accidents, then would-be (or self-styled) whistle-blowers will see to it, sooner or later.

OMNIVEILLANCE-PRIVACYIt has long been pointed out that information is not like other commodities. It can duplicate itself at virtually zero cost, and those copies can escape even without you noticing it’s happened. That is Fact Number One. Everything eventually leaks.

Fact number two is one I’ve tried to point out for decades. That this is fundamentally a clash of values and civilizations. The Western Enlightenment (WE) has always been the rebel and underdog, versus the 99% standard human (and zero-sum) pattern of top down control by hierarchs. (There was never much functional difference between leftist-communist oligarchies and right-wing wealth-inheritance oligarchies; both hewed to the endlessly-repeated feudal model.) In contrast, the positive-sum WE has many disadvantages and instabilities, though it is also vastly more creative, successful and productive. The one trait that tips the balance, though, is Fact Number Two:

All enemies of the WE are lethally allergic to light. Go ahead and name one. If it is not allergic to light, then it probably is not an “enemy” at all, but a peaceful rival that can easily be incorporated into the diversity-friendly WE. (Indeed, the “western” part is already fading away.)

Which provokes our core question… is the world of information leakage one that we should (at a fundamental level) be fighting against… at all? Or actively encouraging?

Let’s suppose we do decide to support an ongoing secular trend toward a world of accountability and light. Yes, this end-goal will stymie almost all bad guys. But does that mean we must bare ourselves overnight? Or completely? Especially, must we do it before the other guy does?

Suppose we choose a path of moderate-pragmatic, incremental, gradually-increasing transparency… what are our options?

== Fretful oversimplification ==

privacy-commodityLet’s start with an extensive article on : The Death of Privacy in the Guradian, by Alex Preston, on the psychological, social and cultural repercussions of loss of privately secret space:

“While outposts of civilization fight pyrrhic battles, unplugging themselves from the web – “going dark” – the rest of us have come to accept that the majority of our social, financial and even sexual interactions take place over the internet and that someone, somewhere, whether state, press or corporation, is watching.”

Preston continues: “Perhaps the reason people don’t seem to mind that so much of their information is leaking from the private to the public sphere is not, as some would have it, that we are blind and docile, unable to see the complex web of commercial interests that surround us. Maybe it’s that we understand very clearly the transaction. The internet is free and we wish to keep it that way, so corporations have worked out how to make money out of something we are willing to give them in return – our privacy. We have traded our privacy for the wealth of information the web delivers to us, the convenience of online shopping, the global village of social media.”

Death-privacyAll of this is true… and misleading and shrill. Because it buys into zero-sum thinking, which is the fundamental enemy of everything the WE stands for. The dismal (but deeply human) notion that every gain must have a paired loss. That a “trade-off” between security and freedom, or between privacy and all that cool-stuff available online, cannot be evaded, and therefor we must choose the painful righteousness of the writer’s simplistic prescription.

Let me reiterate. The Enlightenment’s fecundity at problem solving came from refusing dichotomies… like the insane “left-right axis” that has lobotomized politics everywhere.Only people who decide that we can have our cake and eat it and share it with the poor and see the cake thereupon grow… only such people will come up with enough innovative approaches to get any cake at all.

Only they will save the world.

==Giving up Privacy==

In one of life’s ironies, I am “Mister Transparency…” yet I believe some privacy can and should be preserved. A whole chapter of The Transparent Society is about how the only way we can preserve a little secluded intimacy or confidential sharing may be if we live in a society where most of the people know most of what’s going on, most of the time. Only such openness will stand a chance of deterring snoops and busybodies and peeping toms.

But some folks are far more transparency-radical! They “get” that all of our enlightenment innovations — like science, democracy, markets, justice, art and personal freedom thrive best in light… so they demand that it ALL be laid bare! As a moderate pragmatist (though perhaps a militant one) I find such zero-sum passion unnerving. But such people merit our attention.

In one extreme example…

Noah Dyer, a professor at Tempe’s University of Advancing Technology, wants to “live without privacy for a full year” by paying a camera crew to film him at all times. “The way I see it is that we’re going to lose our privacy, but that’s going to be awesome. The society that most quickly embraces not having any privacy is going to have the biggest evolutionary advantage. All of their citizens are going to be able to act in their own best interest based on totally accurate information.” ( Why We Care About Privacy.)

Dyer is getting a lot of press for a hackneyed and simplistically predictable stunt that we’ve actually seen before… posting online absolutely everything about his life, from his email passwords to bathroom breaks and sex.

Pardon me for yawning, but if you expect “Mr. Transparency” to get excited about this, either way, sorry about that. Likewise the frantic, “danger, Will Robinson!” hysterics of this reporter who writes about Dyer, in the Atlantic. Please.

== More zero-sum contempt ==

TheCircleMuch attention has also been given to Dave Eggers’s book — The Circle — portraying a future in which Dyer’s view is dominant and the plot-propelling oppressive nosiness comes not from a single Big Brother state but from millions of insatiably nosy little brothers, nagging and judging and chivvying those who seem reluctant to “share everything.” Most people don’t realize that this failure mode… and not an orwellian state … is the scenario taking place in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” In the Eggers book, his heroes desperately seek a little privacy or space to be themselves, to be unique and autonomous human beings.

Of course, this zero-sum, either-or kind of thinking is poisonous. It is just as oversimplifying as any would-be tyrannical system, clothing itself in sanctimony, by portraying an “opposite” that can be nothing but vile. A strawman that Eggers sets up in order to be knocked down.

In fact, We do not have to choose between triplet fangs: Big Brother surveillance or stripped-naked little-brother coveillance, or (heaven forbid) the MYOB (mind your own business) rage of privacy “defenders” who just play into Big Brother’s hands, by denouncing cartoon versions of transparency.

In fact, the society of nosy jerks portrayed in The Circle will not happen, because your neighbors would hate it just as much as you hate the thought of it! Eggers’s portrayal of his fellow humans and citizens is depressing not because it might come true, but because Eggers and the critics who praise him actually seem to believe (in their sanctimony) that their neighbors would put up with such a world… instead of using transparency and openness to catch the voyeurs and say “hey man! Back off.”

Well, well. Perhaps they are members of a different species than you and me.

== More shallow privacy articles ==

Is there anyone out there even slightly interested in probing this important matter with nuance and a positive-sum frame of mind? Maybe suggesting ways we that can win-win?

Jacob Morgan’s rather shallow article in Forbes suggests that “Privacy Is Completely And Utterly Dead, And We Killed It” — without contemplating at all whether there are types of privacy, and whether some kinds might be protected, even enhanced, in a mostly transparent world, wherein we are empowered to watch the watchers and to catch the peeping toms.

As I mentioned, in the Guardian, Alex Preston falls into the same zero-sum thinking: “Google knows what you’re looking for. Facebook knows what you like. Sharing is the norm, and secrecy is out. But what is the psychological and cultural fallout from the end of privacy?”

At least a little better than those dismal jeremiads… read the article: Why We Care About Privacy. And yes, my positive-sum temperament makes me believe we can gain the advantages of a transparent society without going this far, still, it is a refreshing contrast against the usual zero sum reaction to the info-age… railing laments and demands for levels of privacy that only ever existed in our minds, plus shrilly silly-unrealistic demands that the mighty “stop looking at me!”

As if such wailings ever stood the slightest chance of working. We will never blind the eyes above us. But we still have a chance to strip them naked. And look back.

== Can we see what’s watching us? ==

mann-computer-visionTo illustrate how pervasive omni-veillance is becoming…. Computer vision is embedded in toilets, urinals, hand- wash faucets, as well as those domes in the ceilings that monitor you in buildings like banks and casinos (and soon everywhere.) Now, sousveillance maven and Toronto professor Steve Mann has a fascinating paper describing methods to easily reveal the scanning field of such visual sensing systems: The Sightfield: Visualizing Computer Vision, and seeing its capacity to “see:”

“Moving a wand through space, while tracking its exact 3D position, makes visible the otherwise invisible “rays of sight” that emanate from cameras. This capacity to sense, measure, and visualize vision, is useful in liability, insurance, safety, and risk assessment, as well as privacy/priveillance assessment, criminology, urban planning, design, and (sur/sous)veil lance studies.”

Mann concludes, “The device may be used cooperatively, e.g. by a user or owner of a surveillance system to visualize the efficiency of their own cameras, or uncooperatively, as a video “bug sweeper” which uses video feedback to detect a hidden surveillance or sousveillance.”

There is hope. If we insist on a general ability to see, that will include the ability to spot voyeurs. If we start designing systems right, then we will be able to do what assertively brave humans have always been able to do, when some busybody stares. Tell them: “Hey bub…. back off.”
POSTSCRIPT: Following up from last time.

America’s police departments need greater accountability—and it must come from outside the forces.

Yes… though with less sanctimony. Do this progressively, pragmatically, irresistibly, with some sympathy for the 85% of cops who are sincerely trying to do a really, really hard job.

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Glimpses of a rapidly changing world

== An alternative to both Bicoin and fiat money ==

DIGITAL-CURRENCY-REPUTATIONA Digital Currency Based on a Person’s Reputation – J. Chris Anderson wants to create a new kind of digital coin that could replace government “fiat” money or nerd-crypto money like Bitcoin, by going to the most human fundamental — reputation.

I admit, I’ve toyed with that concept for a very long time. In both fiction and some of my patents, I have suggested ways that reputation management might move up from the stone and middle ages. In this case, Anderson’s Document Coin will rely on personal reputation to keep all transactions in order. And each unit of currency created using Document Coin could have different values in different situations. “‘For example, the coin my disco singer friend created and gave me at my barbeque might be what gets me past the rope at the club,’ Anderson says. A coin minted by tech pundit Tim O’Reilly might be highly prized in Silicon Valley circles, but of little interest to musicians. ‘It’s a bit like a combination of a social network with baseball trading.’”

Indeed, very interesting.  The article is rather vague on many points.  It appears as if the coin is based on only upon the original issuers reputation but –like a gold-backed currency — something of real value.  The issuer’s promise to let you into the club, for example. Or my promise to name a character after you in a book.

great-explosionThis makes the coin like an “ob” or an “obligation” from an Eric Frank Russell novel, in which person A owes person B a favor, but person Be owes person C, so B hands the Ob over to C and now person A must help C in some way.  If the coin system were truly massive, some farmer who is paid with a pile of these Ob-Reputation coins would let his computer find the folks out there who most want to be named in my book and who most want to attend a gig at the club, and the ons would finally come around, full circle and be paid in something tangible (or in fiat-money).

With sufficiently smart web computing, such a system might work, if the reputation system were VERY good so that I could issue naming right as currency to pay any debt, even my gas bill, because the gas company would know that the circle will eventually close.

It is something being tried in reality… that is the stuff of a sci fi novel.

On the other hand… this may be the dawning of the Age of….

The DEA is now asking the Food and Drug Administration to remove marijuana from its list of the most dangerous and harmful drugs. And early tentative outcomes from Colorado’s legalization of MJ seem positive. An important trend, which is happening (so far) only in Blue States. The greatest benefit of all will be the undermining of the prohibition-driven underground economy in illegal cannabis. We need to get the same effect – though more carefully and with calibrated innovations – to wipe out illicit markets for other, far worse drugs. (See one reason: Pablo Escobar’s hippos are now running wild in Colombia.

While any tapering if the insane Drug War is welcome, this glowing article may be overlooking the one problem that I forecast long ago. There is one unambiguously well-proved harmful effect of marijuana. It should be on our minds and on our lips, when we talk to our kids. Except in very controlled moderation… it is an antidote to ambition.

== Fun Cinema == 

Lego-movieI liked the LEGO Movie. It seemed time to finally see it, since our son now works (for the summer) at Legoland. Many rave about the snappy dialogue, which I found amusing and above average… though not epochal. The visuals were cool and cute, of course, and the story diverting enough to hold onto all ages.

As many of you know, my own little obsession, in critically appraising cinema, has to do with whether the drama is tritely simplistic or somewhat original… e.g. featuring a villain whose motives are at least contextually understandable… or whether the story is just one more “idiot plot” – based on the tedious assumption that civilization is futile and our fellow citizens are sheep. Refreshingly, the LEGO Movie starts with the notion that – despite problems like excess conformity, and villainous conformity-promoters – people and society aren’t hopeless.

SOA-ROCYes, yes, the “be original” and “be suspicious of authority” (SoA) and “rejection of conformity” (RoC) messages are pretty darn common in media — so common that most of you probably never notice them and think you invented SoA, instead of growing up steeped in SoA. Still, to see the Lego Company mock their own Instruction Manual Culture, in praise of free-form creativity, was kinda cool. And I always get a kick out of it when – as happens in every Spiderman flick – average citizens take on a vital and major plot-role in saving the day.

Just remember — everything is awesome!

== Items! ==

1. “An interesting development in the chess world of recent years is that human-computer teams, in which a grandmaster is aided by a program, have tended to be stronger than either humans or computers playing alone.”  — Are Killer Robots the Next Black Swan?

changing-culture-map

2 See Humanity’s cultural spread, illustrated in video mapping births & deaths, over centuries.

3. Supernatural collective nouns: a clamor of clones, a clangor of robots, a yard-sale of androids…the Borg.

4. Ten scientific images that changed how we look at the world.

5. Hilariously well-done urban rebel-art pasted into select spots on the London Underground. I am stodgy enough to dislike a few of these handsomely official-looking signs… those that might confuse a rider and make her miss a stop. But the rest are marvelous. Punishable, of course. But guerrilla art is about willingness to pay for it.

== on target humor ==

HADramamine — the miracle drug we all need! See why.

For insight into the science of humor, see HA! The Science of Why We Laugh and Why? by Scott Weems.

Okay, maybe its a guy thing… and these fellows had too much time on their hands.  But I’m proud of em!

Funny! What if movies had been made earlier, with different stars? Movies Reimagined for another time and place: Volume 1. If you enjoy that, try Volume 2 and Volume 3.

Assholes: The Theory: Philosopher (not-proctologist) Aaron James presents a theory of the asshole.James proposes a theory of assholes (a person is an asshole when his sense of entitlement makes him immune to complaints from other people) that explains not only why assholes are a vital part of human society, but also how to recognize them and coexist with them.”

==The Fourteenth Year==

FEAR-FOUR Michael Nelson – one of the unsung heroes of our Internet Age – wrote to me with a story that riff’d off my article about the “Fourteenth Year”… my assertion that the last several centuries began exhibiting their true themes on 14 years after their calendar beginnings.

Said Mike: “I was talking to a Chinese-American woman. She asked, “Why is the world falling apart?” I said, “1914, 1814, etc.” She told me that makes a lot of since to her. Apparently, to the Chinese, the number 14 is considered at least as unlucky as 13 is in Western cultures. In Chinese, the word for “fourteen” sound like the phrase “sure dead.” Some Chinese buildings don’t have a 14th floor, or fourth floors, for that matter.”

It’s called tetraphobia. And it shows that some take seriously my assertion that all changes with the 14th year.

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Will the “true 21st century” bring us back to feudalism?

Exactly a century ago, a lone gunman set in motion events that transformed the world — ending the lives of millions and shattering empires. With that anniversary in mind, I pondered the clear fact that the last three centuries all seemed to start on their FOURTEENTH YEAR. The brutal arc and themes of the 20th Century – a concave pit that hit its nadir in 1943 – all of it started with shots fired in Sarajevo in June 1914. And 1714 and 1814 were years of similar, transforming portent.

Century-Begin-2014 See my explanation… along with speculation where we might be heading, if 2014 proves to be the “real beginning” of the 21st Century. And sure… that great, over-arching, 21st Century theme might turn out to be pragmatic, adult problem-solving, science and reason! Heck, throw in the Age of Aquarius! I’m for all of that.

But let’s be frank, the odds have always been against those traits ever getting the upper hand for long. Too many deep, animal drives have propelled most human cultures toward slumping into pyramids of hierarchy and domineering privilege. And rationalization, as portrayed in this poignantly sarcastic piece in the Onion.

Conniving cheaters and their lickspittle excuse-makers will always be an anchor on our ankles, dragging us backward.

== Traitors to the Enlightenment ==

How far does it go? Corey Pein takes on (and eviscerates) one extreme cult — the New Feudalism — a weird and deeply sick new type of mind-herpes that has infected some of our worst indignation junkies out there — resentful fanatics who love drawing attention by declaring hatred of democracy, egalitarian justice and science, pledging fealty instead to rule by a new lordly caste.

Neoreactionary-brinLike a parody of evil techie libertarians, theses fellows would be funny, if they weren’t potentially dangerous. See my own take on this “movement,” which declares hatred of all the things that brought us the richest, wisest, gentlest, most productive, insightful, generous, creative, artistic, scientific and enlightened era of all time. Indeed, delusional rationalization is the greatest human talent, and the one gift in which pathetic under-achievers truly excel.

See the root cause of all this, in my talk: “Indignation, Addiction and Hope: Does it help to be “Mad as Hell?”  Follow along with the slides on Slideshare!

Mr. Pein may go a bit too far by interpolating and extrapolating similar views that he attributes to Silicon Valley libertarian-investor Peter Thiel. Thiel likes to poke at a very wide horizon of concepts and he is entitled, even if some of those what-if experiments border on silliness. I can hardly throw stones at that trait! And Thiel has done enough pragmatic delivery of genuine goods and services that he is no under-achiever. Again, if he wants to poke at our heads with provocative ideas — he’s entitled.

indignation-junkiesAs for the others? Facts will not stall indignation junkies, even when nearly all of their assertions prove diametrically opposite to actual truth. It is the Rapture of the Ingrates.

Oh, one final, amusing thing about the neo-feudalists? Their hilarious adoration of Vladimir Putin.

== Putin… the expected one? ==

I kid you not. Track the admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is lavish and open among the neo-feudalists but only softens a little — to “grudging admiration” —among the pundits at Fox. And why not? Everything now happening in Russia suits the Fox Design, as does the Putin narrative. Religion, hierarchy, inherited status, venerated values, top-down monopolies organized around families…

During the Crimea takeover, President Putin derided Western notions of tolerance and universal rights as “barren and neutered.” Said Putin, it is time to resist this scourge of “diversity” creeping in from the West. “More and more people in the world support our position on defending traditional values.”  He asserted Russia’s role to “prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.”

UnlikelinessPositiveSumSocietyI do not blame him for saying this! It is, after all, exactly (almost word-for-word) the dismissal that zero-sum thinkers — even very bright ones — always come up with, when faced with the stunning successes of the Enlightenment West. Our wealth and productivity and power and freedom and joys must have come at a cost! Something precious must have been sacrificed in a “tradeoff.”

Osama, Stalin, Hitler, even the Civil War Confederates… all said the same thing in various ways. Western/Northern decadence must have been purchased at cost of our “soul”… or manhood, or grit, or resilience, or style, or willingness to sacrifice.

Zero-summers must believe this! The only alternative, when staring jealously at our innumerable successes, would be to admit “those people in the scientific-tolerant West know a better way to live.” And rather than utter those words, they would rather die, or else make up a good story.

Every generation of Americans, especially, has had to disprove the Zero Sum Canard, sometimes at great cost. In comparative terms, we got off easy with 9/11. The grit and determination exhibited by New Yorkers, who stood atop the rubble and shouted “Is that all you got?” was capped by the courageous rebellion of the passengers on flight UA93, who reacted within minutes and showed what resilience and grit truly mean. No zero-sum society would ever see common citizens react with such rapid agility or guts.

Positive-Sum-GameI do not blame the zero-summers for not understanding the Positive Sum Game. Zero-sum thinking is deeply rooted in human nature. But understanding why they go back, again and again, to the same dreary rationalization does not mean we must put up with it. Because it always forces us into a position of pain, having to prove, yet again, that we have (figurative) cojones.

We cannot surrender our method — our positive sum revolution. Not even while merchants of fear on both the left and the right are yammering at us to give up and give in to despair.

== Speaking of ingrates… ==

With just a few exceptions, the states whose politicians most-loudly preach small government tend to be much more reliant on it than other states. Red States by far are more dependent on the federal government and are poorer. In aggregate, these states take back much more from the federal government than they put in. More of their gross domestic product comes from direct and indirect government outlays. This turns the takers vs makers debate on its head as those pushing that message represent the end they portend to despise.

Quality-life-america-countyAnd more — a composite ranking (map) differentiates those counties where Americans are healthy and wealthy, educated and thin… versus struggling, poor and obese.

Sorry. The left has its haters of the enlightenment, too. But our biggest problem, right now, is the New Confederacy. Instead of seceding, this time, they think they have a better plan. They are tearing it all down from within.

 

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Media Challenge FAA Drone Ban — and drones conveying beauty?

MEDIA-DRONE-BANDrones have already been used on several occasions in the US to document the news. Last week, a storm chaser in Arkansas used a drone to record the havoc wrought by a tornado. But the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been very slow to adopt rules for private and corporate drone use and has taken a draconian zero-tolerance policy on its interim ban on almost all such uses. Now, a number of media companies, including The New York Times and The Associated Press, accused the Federal Aviation Authority of violating the First Amendment.

Is this a difficult problem? Sure! Just imagine a future city scape abuzz with irritating mechanical vultures — delivery owls and snoopy eye-spies, swooping about, colliding with buildings and each other and power lines, causing blackouts and raining shattered, glowing parts on all below… at minimum city use should involve devices capable of situational awareness and detection of collision hazards and minimum separation rules. But dig it – we will only get there if the experiments can proceed in a few cities to see what really happens!

Start with Houston. They don’t give a darn anyway….

== Drones, androids and robots bring you the news! ==

ROBOTS-NEWSWill human journalists become obsolete? I participated in an online (HuffPost) panel discussion about the latest trend… robotizing the news media.  Here are just a few examples of the trend.

Japan Unveils  It’s First Android Newscaster. Not exactly uncanny, yet.  But they’re busy. With an expected 7% drop in population, their interest in automation is very high.

AP Will Use Robots to Write Some Business Stories.   – 4000 robo stories in the time it takes human writers to do 300.

Shades of Max Headroom! The following couch discussion of this is… fluffy and made me want to replace the panel with robots!  Another News Outlet Is Using Robots To Write Stories

Apparently most sports stories have come to us this way for several years.  (I suspect decades, even generations.)

== And more drones…  ==

Drones… everywhere!  Illustrating what has sometimes been called Brin’s Corollary to Moore’s Law… that cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, more numerous and more mobile faster than ML. Now… watch how the flying cams are getting far more rugged, using a simple gimbal in a cage approach!  Watchbirds here we come, yippee.

Oh, but see the very end of this blog for one of the best links you’ll ever click, brought to you by a drone.

== The insurrectionary recourse? ==

citizen-uprisingAll the ructions and revolutions overseas raise an earnest question: could it happen here? Dialing in closer: is it still even theoretically possible for a mass citizen uprising to topple the government of the modern, western state? Mr. Harry Bentham makes an earnest effort and raises a few interesting points in “Does Modern Tech Render the 2nd Amendment Redundant?

Alas, his appraisal winds up being rather shallow, simply reiterating his arm-waved and evidence-free assertion that a mass uprising, armed with civilian rifles, could naturally and easily overcome forces of the modern state. Mr. Bentham leaves aside any discussion that:

– Any mass civil ruction will likely feature as many armed civilian “tories” as “rebels.”

– Local police have lately been heavily up-armed to close to military levels. Their loyalties in a crisis would complicate matters.

Jefferson-rifle   – Everything depends upon the morale and attitudes of the troops. If they retain strong connectivity and identification with the populace, they will be unreliable instruments of repression.

These and other factors were discussed in my own treatment on this issue — The Jefferson Rifle: Guns and the Insurrection Myth — where I appraise whether modern westerners — and Americans in particular — still retain an “insurrectionary recourse.”

And why attachment to that ideal is THE driver behind the refusal of the Gun Lobby to consider even modest compromises.

 

Fireworks== Finally… drones and sheer beauty 

I cannot recall when last an item of media so delighted me. I am… for once… speechless. Though proud to live in …
oh, just click this. Full screen. 

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Brilliant innovators – hopeful signs

First a reminder that two of my TED style talks are up. THE FUTURE IS HERE Science meets Science Fiction Imagination, Inspiration and Invention was a lavish event last May in Washington DC, presented by the Smithsonian Magazine in collaboration with the UC San Diego Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. Here’s a link to my talk: Otherness: will we supply our own new diversity? (Follow along with the slides on Slideshare!)

Also “Indignation, Addiction and Hope: Does it help to be “Mad as Hell?” My talk at TEDxUCSD finally offers a public version of this disturbing notion I’ve been discussing for years — that an unseen addiction is destroying our civilization.  (Follow along with the slides on Slideshare! )

== Innovation will save us ==

Dean-kamen-slingshot-waterYou cynics out there had better not read this article about one of the heroes of our age, Dean Kamen, whose new water-distillation machines may provide healthy supplies to hundreds of millions of needy people, slashing disease rates and even preventing war. Kamen’s knack for making money while attacking “impossible problems” goes way back. His FIRST Robotics League has made nerdy inventiveness cool and high-status and fun on thousands of high school campuses. Guys like him — and Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and others — prove that it’s not about left-vs-right. It is about deciding to be confident problem solvers, helping us all to win the positive sum games.

What was the federal government’s role in starting the shale-gas revolution? There is much ado in the press over the arrival (long expected by some of us) of cheap natural gas and renewed supplies of domestic petroleum, developed inside North America. The prospect of U.S. and Canadian energy independence is shaking up political dynamics all over the globe and (among other effects) helping to fuel a new renaissance in American manufacturing.

What seems bizarre is how this has become a crowing point for the Right. The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal regularly runs opinion pieces that criticize federal efforts to advance energy technologies and their commercialization… and completely ignore the past federal role in research and stimulation and infrastructure, that made the shale boom possible. See this piece in Physics Today. Can you spell h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y?

The gas industry itself has spoken on behalf of federal research efforts. “The DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it,” said Mitchell Energy’s former vice president Dan Steward. “You cannot diminish DOE’s involvement.”

== Inheritance of acquired… nervousness? ==

My colleagues Greg Bear and Mark Anderson have been among those who for years have suggested that Darwinian puritanism blinds us to certain ways that Lamarck might have been at least a little bit right. That some acquired characteristics can be passed to the next generation. Now comes experimental validation of their suspicion… in a way that many of us always knew in our gut. That trauma can get passed down the generations.

FEAR-PARENTSSee this report: Can We Inherit Fear From Our Parents? In a laboratory experiment, traumatized mice appeared to mature normally. It was only when researchers subjected them to behavioral tests that differences became apparent. The traumatised mice appeared to be reckless, wandering into bright, open spaces that mice usually avoid. Yet they also appeared to be depressed. When placed in a tank of water they gave up and floated instead of trying to swim to safety. 

“When males from the traumatised litters fathered offspring, their pups displayed similar abnormal behaviour even though they had never experienced trauma. The pups’ insulin and blood glucose levels were also lower than in normal mice – a symptom of early life stress. The offspring seemed to have inherited the effects of their fathers’ trauma. Furthermore, the next generation, that is the grandchildren of the original stressed mice, also showed abnormal behaviours. How could trauma be transmitted down the generations?

“The researchers analysed the traumatised fathers’ brain tissue, specifically in a region called the hippocampus, where memories are formed. They noticed larger than normal quantities of tiny RNA molecules called microRNA. Like tiny switches, these molecules are known to turn the activity of genes on or off.

“An abundance of this microRNA was also detected in the traumatised fathers’ sperm and in the brain tissue of their offspring. Could it be that the microRNA was somehow imprinted with the experience of the trauma, transmitting the memory to the offspring? To answer this, the researchers extracted the microRNA from the sperm of traumatised mice and injected it into embryos. The pups that developed from these embryos displayed the same behavioural and metabolic abnormalities as the traumatised fathers, while pups injected with RNA from un-traumatised fathers did not. It was strong support for the hypothesis that the sperm RNA was transmitting the experience of trauma.”

== More science ==

Thorne-Zytkow-neutron-starA red supergiant that contains, in its bowels, a neutron star? The existence of such an object was first proposed by (my friend) Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Anna Zytkow, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK. Now there is a strong candidate to be an observed Thorne-Zytkow object. Amazing.

Goodbye High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP). Conspiracy theorists have accused the program of doing everything from mind control to global communications jamming. Now bulldozers await as the research program (on interesting things, not mind control) wraps up.

Exobiologists surveyed more than 1,000 planets for planet density, temperature, substrate (liquid, solid or gas), chemistry, distance from its central star and age. They developed and computed the Biological Complexity Index (BCI) suggesting 1 to 2 percent of the planets showed a BCI rating higher than Europa, a moon of Jupiter thought to have a subsurface global ocean that may harbor forms of life. With about 10 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, the BCI yields 100 million plausible planets. At a glance, it seems a shallow conclusion, in part because Kepler results skew heavily toward massive planets orbiting close to their stars. And because Europa-style moons have no need for a Goldilocks Zone and hence may be pervasive.

Neuroscientists have suspected for some time that the brain has some capacity to direct the manufacturing of new neurons. Now generative neurons that stimulate stem cell production of more neurons have been found.

See the “raptor” two legged robot that can speed faster than a man.

TheGapIn The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals. Psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provides a “definitive account of the mental qualities that separate humans from other animals, as well as how these differences arose.” Says Ray Kurzweil: “Drawing on two decades of research on apes, children, and human evolution, he surveys the abilities most often cited as uniquely human—language, intelligence, morality, culture, theory of mind, and mental time travel—and finds that two traits account for most of the ways in which our minds appear so distinct: Namely, our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on scenarios, and our insatiable drive to link our minds together. These two traits explain how our species was able to amplify qualities that we inherited in parallel with our animal counterparts; transforming animal communication into language, memory into mental time travel, sociality into mind reading, problem solving into abstract reasoning, traditions into culture, and empathy into morality.”

Let Phil Plait show you (and explain) the stunning and strange surface of Saturn’s moon, Phoebe.

== Amazing, if true. ==

HP’s new computer technology can manage 160 petabytes of data in a mere 250 nanoseconds.

‘There is something about the brains of high-IQ individuals that prevents them from quickly seeing large, background-like motions.’ Very interesting re differences in brain function. Interesting grist for deep pondering… or else (as I’ve seen)… we’ll see this used by dogmatists proclaiming “see? Smart people must be stupid!”

Papyrus-plant-bookA fascinating article in Salon, from the book Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars” by John Gaudet, describes how the papyrus plant gave ancient Egyptians the ability to make boats and use their water world.

Finally, a glimpse at male-female vocabulary differences showing we still have a way to go.

 

 

 

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