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Posts Tagged ‘algorithms

“The functionalist organization, by privileging progress (i.e. time), causes the condition of its own possibility”*…

Meet the new boss, painfully similar to the old boss…

While people in and around the tech industry debate whether algorithms are political at all, social scientists take the politics as a given, asking instead how this politics unfolds: how algorithms concretely govern. What we call “high-tech modernism”—the application of machine learning algorithms to organize our social, economic, and political life—has a dual logic. On the one hand, like traditional bureaucracy, it is an engine of classification, even if it categorizes people and things very differently. On the other, like the market, it provides a means of self-adjusting allocation, though its feedback loops work differently from the price system. Perhaps the most important consequence of high-tech modernism for the contemporary moral political economy is how it weaves hierarchy and data-gathering into the warp and woof of everyday life, replacing visible feedback loops with invisible ones, and suggesting that highly mediated outcomes are in fact the unmediated expression of people’s own true wishes…

From Henry Farrell and Marion Fourcade, a reminder that’s what’s old is new again: “The Moral Economy of High-Tech Modernism,” in an issue of Daedalus, edited by Farrell and Margaret Levi (@margaretlevi).

See also: “The Algorithm Society and Its Discontents” (or here) by Brad DeLong (@delong).

Apposite: “What Greek myths can teach us about the dangers of AI.”

(Image above: source)

* “The functionalist organization, by privileging progress (i.e. time), causes the condition of its own possibility–space itself–to be forgotten: space thus becomes the blind spot in a scientific and political technology. This is the way in which the Concept-city functions: a place of transformations and appropriations, the object of various kinds of interference but also a subject that is constantly enriched by new attributes, it is simultaneously the machinery and the hero of modernity.” – Michel de Certeau

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As we ponder platforms, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955 that the first computer operating system was demonstrated…

Computer pioneer Doug Ross demonstrates the Director tape for MIT’s Whirlwind machine. It’s a new idea: a permanent set of instructions on how the computer should operate.

Six years in the making, MIT’s Whirlwind computer was the first digital computer that could display real-time text and graphics on a video terminal, which was then just a large oscilloscope screen. Whirlwind used 4,500 vacuum tubes to process data…

Another one of its contributions was Director, a set of programming instructions…

March 8, 1955: The Mother of All Operating Systems

The first permanent set of instructions for a computer, it was in essence the first operating system. Loaded by paper tape, Director allowed operators to load multiple problems in Whirlwind by taking advantage of newer, faster photoelectric tape reader technology, eliminating the need for manual human intervention in changing tapes on older mechanical tape readers.

Ross explaining the system (source)

“You say you’re a pessimist, but I happen to know that you’re in the habit of practicing your flute for two hours every evening”*…

The Harrowing of Hell, Hieronymus Bosch

A couple of weeks ago, (R)D featured a piece by Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” in which Haidt critiqued, among others, Robert Wright and his influential book, Non-Zero. In the spirit of George Bernard Shaw (who observed: “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.“) Wright responds…

… There are three main culprits in Haidt’s story, three things that have torn our world asunder: the like button, the share button (or, on Twitter, the retweet button), and the algorithms that feed on those buttons. “Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people.”

I would seem uniquely positioned to cheer us up by taking issue with Haidt’s depressing diagnosis. Near the beginning of his piece, he depicts my turn-of-the-millennium book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny as in some ways the antithesis of his thesis—as sketching a future in which information technology unites rather than divides…

Well, two things I’m always happy to do are (1) cheer people up; and (2) defend a book I’ve written. I’d like to thank Haidt (who is actually a friend—but whom I’ll keep calling “Haidt” to lend gravitas to this essay) for providing me the opportunity to do both at once.

But don’t let your expectations get too high about the cheering people up part—because, for starters, the book I’m defending wasn’t that optimistic. I wrote in Nonzero, “While I’m basically optimistic, an extremely bleak outcome is obviously possible.” And even if we avoid a truly apocalyptic fate, I added, “several moderately bleak outcomes are possible.”

Still, looking around today, I don’t see quite as much bleakness as Haidt seems to see. And one reason, I think, is that I don’t see the causes of our current troubles as being quite as novel as he does. We’ve been here before, and humankind survived…

Read on for a brief history of humankind’s wrestling with new information technologies (e.g., writing and the printing press). Wright concludes…

In underscoring the importance of working to erode the psychology of tribalism (a challenge approachable from various angles, including one I wrote a book about), I don’t mean to detract from the value of piecemeal reforms. Haidt offers worthwhile ideas about how to make social media less virulent and how to reduce the paralyzing influence of information technology on democracy. (He spends a lot of time on the info tech and democracy issue—and, once again, I’d say he’s identified a big problem but also a longstanding problem; I wrote about it in 1995, in a Time magazine piece whose archival version is mis-dated as 2001.) The challenge we face is too big to let any good ideas go to waste, and Haidt’s piece includes some good ones.

Still, I do think that stepping back and looking at the trajectory of history lets us assess the current turmoil with less of a sense of disorientation than Haidt seems to feel. At least, that’s one takeaway from my argument in Nonzero, which chronicled how the evolution of technology, especially information technology, had propelled human social organization from the hunter-gatherer village to the brink of global community—a threshold that, I argued, we will fail to cross at our peril.

This isn’t the place to try to recapitulate that argument in compelling form. (There’s a reason I devoted a whole book to it.) So there’s no reason the argument should make sense to you right now. All I can say is that if you do ever have occasion to assess the argument, and it does make sense to you, the turbulence we’re going through will also make more sense to you.

Is Everything Falling Apart?@JonHaidt thinks so; @robertwrighter is not so sure.

Apposite: “An optimist’s guide to the future: the economist who believes that human ingenuity will save the world,” and “The Future Will Be Shaped by Optimists,” from @kevin2kelly at @TedConferences.

* Friedrich Nietzsche (criticizing Schopenhauer)

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As we look on the bright side of life, we might send darkly-tinted birthday greetings to Oswald Spengler; he was born on this date in 1880. Best known for his two-volume work, The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), published in 1918 and 1922, he was a historian and philosopher of history who developed an “organic theory” of history that suggested that human cultures and civilizations are akin to biological entities, each with a limited, predictable, and deterministic lifespan– and that around the year 2000, Western civilization would enter the period of pre‑death emergency whose countering would lead to 200 years of Caesarism (extra-constitutional omnipotence of the executive branch of government) before Western civilization’s final collapse. He was a major influence on many historians (including Arnold Toynbee and Samuel “Clash of Civilizations” Huntington).

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“What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture”*…

Nyan Cat meme, sold for $590,000 as an NFT (non-fungible token)

Before Christmas, the only uncertain-times-era art world innovations I could think of were online art fairs and anonymous Instagram callout accounts. Now more innovation has arrived, and it’s come from outside, from the spheres of online culture and cryptocurrency speculation. Crypto has its origins in a mistrust of authority in various forms, from government-backed fiat, to the banking system, to the financial industry. Now it’s also challenging art world elites…

Cryptocurrency’s exploding again. NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in particular. The Nyan Cat meme goes for $590,000. The “ape in a fedora” CryptoPunk goes for $1.54 million. An animated gif of Trump’s bloated, naked corpse by someone called “Beeple” goes for $6.6 million, setting a new record for any Millennial artist, dead or alive. Christie’s launches a two-week sale of one of his works. It closes tomorrow and has already broken the record again. Current bid: $9,750,000…

The old gatekeepers have been losing their power for a while now. In his New York Times profile of KAWS (Brian Donnelly), who’s just opened a major retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, Michael H. Miller writes, “One art reporter told me … that certain directors at Gagosian, the largest and most profitable gallery in the world, would automatically move anyone known to own a KAWS down on their waiting list to buy something.” Nevertheless KAWS is unstoppable. He has his career-defining homecoming museum show, his Peter Schjeldahl writeup, his many pages of coverage, his giant sculptures looming over Manhattan’s Park Avenue and Brooklyn’s Greenpoint waterfront, and, a couple years back, in 2019, he shocked the art establishment when his painting The Kaws Album (2005), a remake of The Simpsons’ remake of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $14.8 million. Images and sculptures are accruing value in new ways: KAWS came up making street art and toy collectibles, and Beeple (Mike Winkelmann) made his name through Instagram and concert visuals. They symbolise the return of populism to the arts. I recently wrote for the Spectator about the trend of bad figurative painting that occupies the bardo between content and art: paintings that are easy to enjoy, and also to post. With NFTs, we’ve made another leap from art that’s easy to post, to art that simply is the post.

The old ways of valuing an object at auction (backdoor dealings, price fixing, and clandestine, corrupt practices) are coming up against the new ways (wild speculative mania and hyperstition) and falling short, for now. Beeple and KAWS, who have dominated the year’s artistic discourse, are outsiders that made it to the top. But it’s a very boring sort of outsider art, made by nerds for other nerds…

So much of today’s culture is a poor-quality remake of something better and more compelling. KAWS bootlegs pop-cultural staples like Mickey Mouse, the Simpsons, Peanuts, and SpongeBob in his own depressive comic style, while Beeple takes Mickey, again, Pokémon and Shrek, plus politicians like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Kim Jong-un, and composites them into dystopian CGI montages. There are two paths for the golden-age American cartoon star: to be withdrawn, like the lascivious skunk Pepé le Pew, or, worse, to be reimagined as bad art, as childish and nostalgic art for those that don’t like ideas, or beauty…

There’s just too much of everything. There are too many different Oreos. 65 flavours in 8 years is too many. Too many Hot Chicken Wing Oreos, Waffle & Syrup Oreos, Jelly Donut Oreos, Supreme Oreos. There’s too much content that appears different but is the same. Too many identities are available to us. Too many manias. Too many hysterias. Examine nearly any aspect of society and you can see it’s gone too far. The reason so many flavours of Oreos are invented, according to the cookie’s brand director, is that this overabundance of choice reminds us of and drives us back to the original. It reminds us of how much we like the old Oreo, the Platonic ideal of the Oreos of childhood, the Proustian Oreo with the glass of cold milk. When there’s too much of everything however, at some point the original is lost, the memory is lost, and all that remains are faded, flat, hollowed-out derivatives…

The most popular series of NFT collectibles are algorithmically generated. And what they reveal, compared to the rest of culture, is a broader and more prevalent trend of art and entertainment that has the uncanny feeling of having been made by algorithm, even though it wasn’t. A painter and performance artist once told me, in the brutalist basement of the old Met Breuer, that Future had destroyed the future. Trap music has taken over the world, and it all sounds more or less the same now. It might be amazing, but it sounds the same. It’s supposed to sound the same. That’s the idea, what makes it so powerful. A talented producer can make a song in ten minutes on a live stream. A talented producer can make a song in less time than it takes to listen to. It’s never been quicker to write a song than now. Songs keep getting shorter and shorter. Records keep getting shorter and shorter. It’s a numbers game. I can write these columns pretty quickly now. This is an age of great speed and competition. We’re all looking for more popularity, new ways to find an edge; and yet, all this competition only seems to lead to blandness and mediocrity, rather than breakthroughs. Nor does it lead to collapse; even accelerationism doesn’t work. We want too much content, too fast, and it just leads to this endless algorithmic churning, this paint-by-numbers effect. You see it in art. In Netflix documentaries. Spotify playlists. Op-ed pages. The news. The latest manufactured outrage. Well-reviewed first-person novels about nothing. All so dreadfully banal and repetitive. This is what results when everything is forged in economies of dollars, of ether, of attention. Most culture now has the feeling of having been made by algorithm; and the reason for this, is that humans have begun to act like algorithms…

What non-fungible (which is to say, unique) tokens show us, is the absolute fungibility of culture today: its hazy, interchangeable meaninglessness. How it all belongs on a blockchain. How it all belongs on an infinite self-generating playlist ouroboros. It all belongs on a streaming service that slowly steals the hours and the heartbeats from inside you. When you look at the Discover Page Hotties, you look back into your own soul through a clouded mirror. “Online,” a mysterious anonymous cipher writes to you, “so much is dependent on an algorithmic matrix of mined data that the user’s identity is distilled so accurately that you can’t breach the identity that’s fed back to you via the screen. So no chance encounters, just a recurrent overlap of what you already are.” If life was once about chasing after a dream, it’s now about running away from the comfortable, hypnagogic lifestyles prescribed to you by the culture we create together, reflexively and imitatively. You’re living inside other people’s dreams; and these are not good dreams. So much of modern life is algorithmically scripted so as to exclude surprise or chance, and you must try to break free of this script every day. Rejecting all this post-death culture is a good place to begin…

The art world, disrupted by crypto: Dean Kissick (@deankissick) on why that’s a sad thing: “The Downward Spiral: Popular Things.”

See also “NFTs Weren’t Supposed to End Like This,” by Anil Dash, the co-creator of the NFT; further to which, this thread from Jonathan Zittrain.

And finally (as a cap on what’s turned out to be a trio of posts about scarcity, post-scarcity, and what matters in our economy; earlier here and here), “Red Bull, Elon Musk, and Matt Gaetz“… “post-scarcity is just another way of saying decadence.”

* Robert Hughes, writing presciently in 1989

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As we appraise art, we might spare a thought for an artist who, roughly a century ago, played an outsized role in revolutionizing the art world of his time, Pablo Picasso; he died on this date in 1973. Picasso is universally regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century; he is known for co-founding the Cubist movement, for the invention of constructed sculpture, for the co-invention of collage, and for the wide variety of styles that he helped develop and explore.

Picasso in 1908

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 8, 2021 at 1:01 am

“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 (Roughly) Daily

February 24, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”*…

 

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After the fall of the Berlin Wall, East German citizens were offered the chance to read the files kept on them by the Stasi, the much-feared Communist-era secret police service. To date, it is estimated that only 10 percent have taken the opportunity.

In 2007, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, asked that he not be given any information about his APOE gene, one allele of which is a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Most people tell pollsters that, given the choice, they would prefer not to know the date of their own death—or even the future dates of happy events.

Each of these is an example of willful ignorance. Socrates may have made the case that the unexamined life is not worth living, and Hobbes may have argued that curiosity is mankind’s primary passion, but many of our oldest stories actually describe the dangers of knowing too much. From Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge to Prometheus stealing the secret of fire, they teach us that real-life decisions need to strike a delicate balance between choosing to know, and choosing not to.

But what if a technology came along that shifted this balance unpredictably, complicating how we make decisions about when to remain ignorant? That technology is here: It’s called artificial intelligence.

AI can find patterns and make inferences using relatively little data. Only a handful of Facebook likes are necessary to predict your personality, race, and gender, for example. Another computer algorithm claims it can distinguish between homosexual and heterosexual men with 81 percent accuracy, and homosexual and heterosexual women with 71 percent accuracy, based on their picture alone. An algorithm named COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions) can predict criminal recidivism from data like juvenile arrests, criminal records in the family, education, social isolation, and leisure activities with 65 percent accuracy…

Knowledge can sometimes corrupt judgment, and we often choose to remain deliberately ignorant in response.  But in an age of all-knowing algorithms, how do we choose not to know?  Two scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development argue that “We Need to Save Ignorance From AI.”

* Daniel J. Boorstin

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As we consider closing our eyes, we might send discoverable birthday greetings to Tim Bray; he was born on this date in 1955.  A seminal software developer and entrepreneur, he is probably best known as the co-author of the original specifications for the XML and XML namespace, open standards that fueled the growth of the internet (by setting down simple rules for encoding documents in a format that is both human-readable and machine-readable), and as the co-founder of the Open Text Corporation, which released the Open Text Index, one of the first popular commercial web search engines.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

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