Is this crisis a turning point?

The era of peak globalisation is over. For those of us not on the front line, clearing the mind and thinking how to live in an altered world is the task at hand.

John Gray has written an essay in the New Statesman on Why this crisis is a turning point in history. He argues that the era of hyperglobalism is at an end and many systems may not survive the shift to something different. Many may think we will, after a bit of isolated pain, return to the good old expanding wealth, but the economic crisis that is now emerging may break that dream. Governments and nations may be broken by collapsing systems.

The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination.

Evgeny Morozov has crisp essay in The Guardina on how The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level. He argues that neoliberalist austerity cut our public services back in ways that now we see are endangering lives, but it is solutionism that constraining our ideas about what we can do to deal with situations. If we look for a technical solution we give up on questioning the underlying defunding of the commons.

There is nice interview between Natasha Dow Shüll Morozov on The Folly of Technological Solutionism: An Interview with Evgeny Morozov in which they talk about his book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism and gamification.

Back in The Guardian, he ends his essay warning that we should focus on picking between apps – between solutions. We should get beyond solutions like apps to thinking politically.

The feast of solutionism unleashed by Covid-19 reveals the extreme dependence of the actually existing democracies on the undemocratic exercise of private power by technology platforms. Our first order of business should be to chart a post-solutionist path – one that gives the public sovereignty over digital platforms.

Digitization in an Emergency: Fair Use/Fair Dealing and How Libraries Are Adapting to the Pandemic

In response to unprecedented exigencies, more systemic solutions may be necessary and fully justifiable under fair use and fair dealing. This includes variants of controlled digital lending (CDL), in which books are scanned and lent in digital form, preserving the same one-to-one scarcity and time limits that would apply to lending their physical copies. Even before the new coronavirus, a growing number of libraries have implemented CDL for select physical collections.

The Association of Research Libraries has a blog entry on Digitization in an Emergency: Fair Use/Fair Dealing and How Libraries Are Adapting to the Pandemic by Ryan Clough (April 1, 2020) with good links. The closing of the physical libraries has accelerated a process of moving from a hybrid of physical and digital resources to an entirely digital library. Controlled digital lending (where only a limited number of patrons can read an digital asset at a time) seems a sensible way to go.

To be honest, I am so tired of sitting on my butt that I plan to spend much more time walking to and browsing around the library at the University of Alberta. As much as digital access is a convenience, I’m missing the occasions for getting outside and walking that a library affords. Perhaps we should think of the library as a labyrinth – something deliberately difficult to navigate in order to give you an excuse to walk around.

Perhaps I need a book scanner on a standing desk at home to keep me on my feet.

How useful is AI in a pandemic?

DER SPIEGEL: What are the lessons to be learned from this crisis

Dräger: It shows that common sense is more important than we all thought. This situation is so new and complicated that the problems can only be solved by people who carefully weigh their decisions. Artificial intelligence, which everyone has been talking so much about recently, isn’t much help at the moment.

Absolutely Mission Impossible: Interview with German Ventilator Manufacturer, Speigel International, Interviewed by Lukas Eberle und Martin U. Müller, March 27th, 2020.

There are so many lessons to be learned from the Coronavirus, but one lesson is that artificial intelligence isn’t always the solution. In a health crisis that has to do with viruses in the air, not information, AI is only indirectly useful. As the head of production of the German Drägerwerk ventilator manufacturer company puts it, the challenge of choosing who to sell ventilators to in this time is not one to handed over to an AI. Humans carefully weighing decisions (and taking responsibility for them) is what is needed in a crisis.

The Machine Stops

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk — that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

Like many, I reread E.M. Forester’s The Machine Stops this week while in isolation. This short story was published in 1909 and written as a reaction to The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. (See the full text here (PDF).) In Forester it is the machine that keeps working the utopia of isolated pods; in Wells it is a caste of workers, the Morlochs, who also turn out to eat the leisure class.  Forester felt that technology was likely to be the problem, or part of the problem, not class.

In this pandemic we see a bit of both. Following Wells we see a class of gig-economy deliverers who facilitate the isolated life of those of us who do intellectual work. Intellectual work has gone virtual, but we still need a physical layer maintained. (Even the language of a stack of layers comes metaphorically from computing.) But we also see in our virtualized work a dependence on an information machine that lets our bodies sit on the couch in isolation while we listen to throbbing melodies. My body certainly feels like it is settling into a swaddled lump of fungus.

An intriguing aspect of “The Machine Stops” is how Vashti, the mother who loves the life of the machine, measures everything in terms of ideas. She complains that flying to see her son and seeing the earth below gives her no ideas. Ideas don’t come from original experiences but from layers of interpretation. Ideas are the currency of an intellectual life of leisure which loses touch with the “real world.”

At the end, as the machine stops and Kuno, Vashti’s son, comes to his mother in the disaster, they reflect on how a few homeless refugees living on the surface might survive and learn not to trust the machine.

“I have seen them, spoken to them, loved them. They are hiding in the mist and the ferns until our civilization stops. To-day they are the Homeless — to-morrow—”

“Oh, to-morrow — some fool will start the Machine again, to-morrow.”

“Never,” said Kuno, “never. Humanity has learnt its lesson.”

 

2020 Brings the Death of IT | I, Cringely

It’s the end of IT because your device will no longer contain anything so it can be simply replaced via Amazon if it is damaged or lost, with the IT kid in the white shirt becoming an Uber driver.

How many of us have laughed at The IT Crowd? I remember when I was in support at the University of Toronto and would advise people to turn their computer off and back on. Suprisingly that actually helped in some cases, as did wiggling the cable to the printer (back when there were lots of pins.) Robert X. Cringely, who is apparently not the only Cringely, has a prediction that 2020 Brings the Death of IT in his I, Cringely site. He predicts that all of us working at home in isolation is going to accelerate a computing paradigm called SASE (Secure Access Service Edge – pronounced “sassy”) where individual devices are connected to cloud-based services. IT will disappear because to fix something you will just order another from Amazon. There will be no fixing the local, just replacing it. The rest is all up in the cloud and maintained by someone like Google. Locally we just have appliances.

(Against) Virus as Metaphor

Our fondness for viruses as metaphor may have kept us from insisting on and observing the standards and practices that would prevent their spread.

Paul Elie in the New Yorker has a comment (Against) Virus as Metaphor (March 19, 2020) where he argues that our habit of using viruses as a metaphor is dangerous. He draws on Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor to discuss how using the virus as metaphor can end up both misleading us about what is happening on the internet with ideas and memes, but can also cast a moral shadow back onto those who have the real disease. It is tempting to blame those with diseases for moral faults that presumably made them more vulnerable to the disease. The truth is that diseases like viruses pay no attention to our morals. There is nothing socially constructed or deconstructed to the Coronavirus. It wasn’t invented by people but it has real consequences for people. We have to be careful not to ascribe human agency to it.

Continue reading (Against) Virus as Metaphor

Adventures in Science Fiction Cover Art: Disembodied Brains, Part I | Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations

Gerard Quinn’s cover for the December 1956 issue of New Worlds

Thanks to Ali I cam across this compilation of Adventures in Science Fiction Cover Art: Disembodied Brains. Joachim Boaz has assembled a number of pulp sci-fi cover art showing giant brains. The giant brain was often the way computing was imagined. In fact early computers were called giant brains.

Disembodied brains — in large metal womb-like containers, floating in space or levitating in the air (you know, implying PSYCHIC POWER), pulsating in glass chambers, planets with brain-like undulations, pasted in the sky (GOD!, surprise) above the Garden of Eden replete with mechanical contrivances among the flowers and butterflies and naked people… The possibilities are endless, and more often than not, taken in rather absurd directions.

I wonder if we can plot some of the early beliefs about computers through these images and stories of giant brains. What did we think the brain/mind was such that a big one would have exaggerated powers? The equation would go something like this:

  • A brain is the seat of intelligence
  • The bigger the brain, the more intelligent
  • In big brains we might see emergent properties (like telepathy)
  • Scaling up the brain will give us artificially effective intelligence

This is what science fiction does so well – it takes some aspect of current science or culture and scales it up to imagine the consequences. Scaling brains, however, seems a bit literal, but the imagined futures are nonetheless important.

Here’s the File Clearview AI Has Been Keeping on Me, and Probably on You Too – VICE

We used the California Consumer Privacy Act to see what information the controversial facial recognition company has collected on me.

Anna Merlan has an important story on Vice, Here’s the File Clearview AI Has Been Keeping on Me, and Probably on You Too (Feb. 28, 2020). She used the California privacy laws to ask Clearview AI what information they kept on her and then to delete it. They asked her for a photo and proof of identification and eventually sent her a set of images and an index of where they came from. What is interesting is that they aren’t just scraping social media, they are scraping other scrapers like Insta Stalkers and various right wing sources that presumably have photos and stories about “dangerous intellectuals” like Merlan.

This bring back up the question of what is so unethical about face recognition and the storage of biometrics. We all have pictures of people in our photo collections, and Clearview AI was scraping public photos – is it then the use of the images that is the problem? Is it the recognition and search capability.

When Coronavirus Quarantine Is Class Warfare

A pandemic offers a great way to examine American class inequities.

There have been a couple of important stories about the quarantine as symbolic of our emerging class structure. The New York Times has an opinion by Charlie Warzen on When Coronavirus Quarantine Is Class Warfare(March 6th, 2020)

That pleasantness is heavily underwritten by a “vast digital underclass.” Many services that allow you to stay at home work only when others have to be out in the world on your behalf.

The quarantine shows how many services we have available for those who do intellectual work that can be done online. It is as if we were planning to be quarantined for years. The quarantine shows how one class can isolate themselves, but at the expense of a different class that handles all the inconveniences of material stuff and physical encounters of living. We have the permanent jobs with benefits. They deal with delivering food and trash. We can isolate ourselves from diseases, they have to risk disease to work. The gig economy has expanded the class of precarious workers that support the rest of us.

Continue reading When Coronavirus Quarantine Is Class Warfare