(Roughly) Daily

“We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it”*…

 

algorithm

 

There is a growing sense of unease around algorithmic modes of governance (‘algocracies’) and their impact on freedom. Contrary to the emancipatory utopianism of digital enthusiasts, many now fear that the rise of algocracies will undermine our freedom. Nevertheless, there has been some struggle to explain exactly how this will happen. This chapter tries to address the shortcomings in the existing discussion by arguing for a broader conception/understanding of freedom as well as a broader conception/understanding of algocracy. Broadening the focus in this way enables us to see how algorithmic governance can be both emancipatory and enslaving, and provides a framework for future development and activism around the creation of this technology…

From a pre-print of John Danaher‘s (@JohnDanaher) chapter in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on the Philosophy of Technology, edited by Shannon Vallor: “Freedom in an Age of Algocracy “… a little dense, but very useful.

[image above: source]

* William Faulkner

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As we meet the new boss, same as the old boss, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that telephone and television signals were first relayed in space via the communications satellite Echo 1– basically a big metallic balloon that simply bounced radio signals off its surface.  Simple, but effective.

Forty thousand pounds (18,144 kg) of air was required to inflate the sphere on the ground; so it was inflated in space.  While in orbit it only required several pounds of gas to keep it inflated.

Fun fact: the Echo 1 was built for NASA by Gilmore Schjeldahl, a Minnesota inventor probably better remembered as the creator of the plastic-lined airsickness bag.

200px-Echo-1 source

 

Written by LW

February 24, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I installed a skylight in my apartment… the people who live above me are furious”*…

 

Monster-Building_6_Heritage_zolima-citymag

 

It’s easy to see how the Monster Building got its nickname. Located where King’s Road curves around the base of Mount Parker [in Hong Kong], this 19-storey goliath dominates an entire city block. Its façade is pockmarked by air conditioners, drying laundry and corrugated metal awnings, but when the evening sun hits it from the west, casting it in a soft umber glow, it looks beautiful in its own monstrous way.

There’s nothing official about the moniker, although it is common enough that when local coffee chain % Arabica opened a new shop in one of the building’s two courtyards, it referred to it as its “Monster Mansion location.” The name seems to have emerged after the building was featured in two Hollywood blockbusters, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Ghost in the Shell, which turned it into a social media destination…

Together, the five blocks that make up the building contain 2,443 flats, and illegal huts soon filled up the rooftop space. [Lee Ho-yin, head of the University of Hong Kong’s architectural conservation program] estimates the building is home to roughly 6,840 people – a conservative estimate based on Hong Kong’s average household size of 2.8 people. Considering it occupies just 11,000 square metres of space, he says, “the Monster Building is surely the densest spot on earth.”…

So what is it like to live inside a monster? Eva Ho, who works as an administrator at an educational centre, has spent her entire life in the building. “It’s just a normal living place for me,” she says. At its best, the building offers unparalleled convenience, with grocery stores and a wet market on the ground floor, and two courtyards ringed by restaurants. At its worst, Ho says the building can feel “moody,” with a half-century’s worth of grime, poor ventilation and no views to speak of. “What I can see from the windows are the other buildings,” she says…

The remarkable tale in toto at “Hong Kong’s Modern Heritage, Part VII: The Monster Building.”

* Steven Wright

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As we love our neighbors, we might recall that it was on this date in 1903 that Cuba granted the United States a perpetual lease on Guantánamo Bay.  The U.S. had established a presence there during the Spanish-American War; when that conflict ended with the Treaty of Paris of 1898 and Spain ceded Cuba its freedom, the U.S. stayed– first informally, then with the backing of Congress…

In 1901 the United States government passed the Platt Amendment as part of an Army Appropriations Bill. Section VII of this amendment read:

That to enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the government of Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points to be agreed upon with the President of the United States..

After initial resistance by the Cuban Constitutional Convention, the Platt Amendment was incorporated into the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba in 1901. The Constitution took effect in 1902, and land for a naval base at Guantánamo Bay was granted to the United States the following year.  [source]

Gitmo_Aerial source

 

 

Written by LW

February 23, 2020 at 1:01 am

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret”*…

 

Privacy

A monitor displays the Omron Corp. Okao face- and emotion-detection technology during CES 2020

 

Twenty years ago at a Silicon Valley product launch, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy dismissed concern about digital privacy as a red herring: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.

“Zero privacy” was meant to placate us, suggesting that we have a fixed amount of stuff about ourselves that we’d like to keep private. Once we realized that stuff had already been exposed and, yet, the world still turned, we would see that it was no big deal. But what poses as unsentimental truth telling isn’t cynical enough about the parlous state of our privacy.

That’s because the barrel of privacy invasion has no bottom. The rallying cry for privacy should begin with the strangely heartening fact that it can always get worse. Even now there’s something yet to lose, something often worth fiercely defending.

For a recent example, consider Clearview AI: a tiny, secretive startup that became the subject of a recent investigation by Kashmir Hill in The New York Times. According to the article, the company scraped billions of photos from social-networking and other sites on the web—without permission from the sites in question, or the users who submitted them—and built a comprehensive database of labeled faces primed for search by facial recognition. Their early customers included multiple police departments (and individual officers), which used the tool without warrants. Clearview has argued they have a right to the data because they’re “public.”

In general, searching by a face to gain a name and then other information is on the verge of wide availability: The Russian internet giant Yandex appears to have deployed facial-recognition technology in its image search tool. If you upload an unlabeled picture of my face into Google image search, it identifies me and then further searches my name, and I’m barely a public figure, if at all.

Given ever more refined surveillance, what might the world look like if we were to try to “get over” the loss of this privacy? Two very different extrapolations might allow us to glimpse some of the consequences of our privacy choices (or lack thereof) that are taking shape even today…

From Jonathan Zittrain (@zittrain), two scenarios for a post-privacy future: “A World Without Privacy Will Revive the Masquerade.”

* Gabriel García Márquez

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As we get personal, we might send provocatively nonsensical birthday greetings to Hugo Ball; he was born on this date in 1886.  Ball worked as an actor with Max Reinhardt and Hermann Bahr in Berlin until the outbreak of World War I.  A staunch pacifist, Ball made his way to Switzerland, where he turned his hand to poetry in an attempt to express his horror at the conflagration enveloping Europe. (“The war is founded on a glaring mistake, men have been confused with machines.”)

Settling in Zürich, Ball was a co-founder of the Dada movement (and, lore suggests, its namer, having allegedly picked the word at random from a dictionary).  With Tristan Tzara and Jan Arp, among others, he co-founded and presided over the Cabaret Voltaire, the epicenter of Dada.  And in 1916, he created the first Dada Manifesto (Tzara’s came two years later).

 source

 

Written by LW

February 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Design is the intermediary between information and understanding”*…

 

graphic design manuscripts

Pages depicting flasks of urine for diagnosing disease, from The Twenty Jordans (MS. Ashmole, 1413). The pictures run across facing pages, so that you can compare samples easily (courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

 

Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries examines the how the creation of early English books, from their hand-written language to the bindings themselves, can be viewed as pioneering graphic design. Whether a hunting manual with ages of deers described through illustrations of antler growth, or an elegant 15th-century copy of The Canterbury Tales where borders and titles guide the reader through the text, these manuscripts grappled with engaging their readers through their visual design.

“We’ve deliberately used the term ‘design’ which wasn’t used in our sense during the Middle Ages,” Dan Wakelin, professor of medieval English paleography and curator of Designing English, told Hyperallergic. “First, the term ‘design’ helps us appreciate the creativity of the past. Medieval craftspeople left us few records of their own thought processes, so we often need to use our own terms when we try to reconstruct them. The term ‘design’ brings to light aspects of the thoughtfulness and ingenuity behind medieval manuscripts and artifacts which we might otherwise miss.”…

How early English authors and scribes worked to communicate: “How Medieval Manuscript Makers Experimented with Graphic Design.”

* Hans Hofmann

###

As we lay it out, we might recall that it was on this date in 1878 that the first telephone directory was issued. Consisting of a single piece of cardboard, it listed 50 individuals, businesses, and other offices in New Haven, Connecticut that had telephones.  There were, as readers will note on the photo below, no numbers, as callers had to be connected by an operator.

oldphone source

 

Written by LW

February 21, 2020 at 1:01 am

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”*…

 

Pope AI

Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953

 

Nobody but AI mavens would ever tiptoe up to the notion of creating godlike cyber-entities that are much smarter than people. I hasten to assure you — I take that weird threat seriously. If we could wipe out the planet with nuclear physics back in the late 1940s, there must be plenty of other, novel ways to get that done…

In the hermetic world of AI ethics, it’s a given that self-driven cars will kill fewer people than we humans do. Why believe that? There’s no evidence for it. It’s merely a cranky aspiration. Life is cheap on traffic-choked American roads — that social bargain is already a hundred years old. If self-driven vehicles doubled the road-fatality rate, and yet cut shipping costs by 90 percent, of course those cars would be deployed…

Technological proliferation is not a list of principles. It is a deep, multivalent historical process with many radically different stakeholders over many different time-scales. People who invent technology never get to set the rules for what is done with it. A “non-evil” Google, built by two Stanford dropouts, is just not the same entity as modern Alphabet’s global multinational network, with its extensive planetary holdings in clouds, transmission cables, operating systems, and device manufacturing.

It’s not that Google and Alphabet become evil just because they’re big and rich. Frankly, they’re not even all that “evil.” They’re just inherently involved in huge, tangled, complex, consequential schemes, with much more variegated populations than had originally been imagined. It’s like the ethical difference between being two parish priests and becoming Pope.

Of course the actual Pope will confront Artificial Intelligence. His response will not be “is it socially beneficial to the user-base?” but rather, “does it serve God?” So unless you’re willing to morally out-rank the Pope, you need to understand that religious leaders will use Artificial Intelligence in precisely the way that televangelists have used television.

So I don’t mind the moralizing about AI. I even enjoy it as metaphysical game, but I do have one caveat about this activity, something that genuinely bothers me. The practitioners of AI are not up-front about the genuine allure of their enterprise, which is all about the old-school Steve-Jobsian charisma of denting the universe while becoming insanely great. Nobody does AI for our moral betterment; everybody does it to feel transcendent.

AI activists are not everyday brogrammers churning out grocery-code. These are visionary zealots driven by powerful urges they seem unwilling to confront. If you want to impress me with your moral authority, gaze first within your own soul.

Excerpted from the marvelous Bruce Sterling‘s essay “Artificial Morality,” a contribution to the Provocations series, a project of the Los Angeles Review of Books in conjunction with UCI’s “The Future of the Future: The Ethics and Implications of AI” conference.

* Voltaire

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As we agonize over algorithms, we might recall that it was on this date in 1872 that Luther Crowell patented a machine for the manufacture of accordion-sided, flat-bottomed paper bags (#123,811).  That said, Margaret E. Knight might more accurately be considered the “mother of the modern shopping bag”; she had perfected square bottoms two years earlier.

source

 

“There are old bikers and there are bold bikers, but there are no old, bold bikers”*…

 

film-the-wild-one-with-brando-on-a-bike-opening-scene

 

Harley knows what it’s future looks like with, perhaps by as soon as next year, more sales internationally than in the U.S., the continuation of a long-term trend. It’s desperately trying to prop up U.S. sales, but the LiveWire hasn’t been selling great, and its core demo is aging out. Revenue numbers for 2019 released today were also a lot worse than expected.

Let’s go to Reuters first off for some of the numbers:

Motorcycle revenue fell an annual 8.5% to $874.1 million in the December quarter, faster than a 3.4% fall predicted by analysts in a Refinitiv survey.

Its shares, after falling as much as 7%, pared losses to trade 2.5% lower at $33.96 on Tuesday afternoon…

Its bike sales in America last year were the lowest in at least 16 years. Falling sales in the past 12 quarters have forced the company to tighten the supply of its bikes to prevent price discount pressure and protect profit.

In 2019, the shipment volume of its bikes in the United States was the lowest in at least two decades. Global shipments were the lowest since 2010.

In a reflection of the demographic headwind, the motorcycle maker’s stock price has declined by 44% in the past five years. By comparison, the S&P 500 Index .SPX has gained 63%…

Most worryingly for Harley, they are posting falling sales numbers at a time when the economy is strong…

Tough times for an American icon: “Harley-Davidson’s Slow Decline Is Getting Hard To Watch.”

[TotH to RW]

[Image above, from The Wild One: source]

* Evel Knievel

###

As we downshift, we might recall that it was on this date in 1864 that The Knights of Pythias– the first fraternal organization to receive a charter under an act of the U.S. Congress– was formed in Washington, D.C.  There are over 2,000 Pythian lodges in the United States and around the world; it’s members have included William Jennings Bryan, Louis Armstrong, and Nelson Rockefeller.  During the “Golden Age of Fraternalism” in the early 1920s, the order had nearly a million members; its current count is around 50,000.

Knightsofpythias source

 

“Who are you?”*…

 

Detail-of-Francois-Vase-side-B-Theseus-and-the-11-Athenian-Youths-8522828050_d7f4aea77f_o

Detail of the François kratēr: the ship of Theseus (fragment from vase) source

 

In the metaphysics of identity, “the ship of Theseus” (legendary Greek hero and founder of Athens) is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object.  One of the oldest concepts in Western philosophy, it was discussed by the likes of Heraclitus and Plato by ca. 500-400 BC; it first appeared in written form in Plutarch:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same…

Vita Thesei, 22-23

Philosophers and theorists of identity still wrestle with the questions it raises…

Suppose that the famous ship has been kept in a harbor as a museum piece, and as the years went by some of the wooden parts began to rot and were replaced by new ones; then, after a century or so, all of the parts had been replaced.   The question then is if the “restored” ship is still the same object as the original.

If it is then supposed that each of the removed pieces were stored in a warehouse, and after the century, technology developed to cure their rotting and enabled them to be put back together to make a ship, then the question is if this “reconstructed” ship is still the original ship.  And if so, then what of the restored ship in the harbor?

Explore the puzzle at “The Ship of Theseus and the Question of Identity, ” “This thought experiment will have you questioning your identity,” “Identity, Persistence, and the Ship of Theseus,” and “Ship of Theseus.”

And for nifty list of appearances by the paradox in pop culture, see here.

* Peter Townsend and The Who

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As we interrogate identity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1856 that Millard Fillmore was nominated for the Presidency by the (altogether-accurately named far right nativist) Know-Nothing Party.  Fillmore, who had been elected Vice President in 1848 had ascended to the presidency in 1850, when Zachary Taylor died, but then failed to get his own party’s– the Whig’s– nomination to run for re-election in 1852.  In 1856, Fillmore turned to the Know-Nothings in (an ultimately unsuccessful) attempt actually to be elected to the highest office.

He was finally trumped by Gerald Ford, who was not even elected– but was appointed in 1973 by Richard Nixon– to the Vice-Presidency, then assumed the top job on Nixon’s resignation in 1974.  Ford beat back a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan to win the Republican nomination in 1976, but lost to Jimmy Carter.

Millard Fillmore, by Matthew Brady (1850)

 

Written by LW

February 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

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