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Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Dehumanization: Surrendering to the Death of Democracy

 

Greetings, Teeming Brainers. I’m just peeking in from the digital wings, amid much ongoing blog silence, to observe that many of the issues and developments — sociocultural, technological, and more — that I began furiously tracking here way back in 2006 are continuing to head in pretty much the same direction. A case in point is provided by the alarming information, presented in a frankly alarmed tone, that appears in this new piece from Scientific American (originally published in SA’s German-language sister publication, Spektrum der Wissenschaft):

Everything started quite harmlessly. Search engines and recommendation platforms began to offer us personalised suggestions for products and services. This information is based on personal and meta-data that has been gathered from previous searches, purchases and mobility behaviour, as well as social interactions. While officially, the identity of the user is protected, it can, in practice, be inferred quite easily. Today, algorithms know pretty well what we do, what we think and how we feel — possibly even better than our friends and family or even ourselves. Often the recommendations we are offered fit so well that the resulting decisions feel as if they were our own, even though they are actually not our decisions. In fact, we are being remotely controlled ever more successfully in this manner. The more is known about us, the less likely our choices are to be free and not predetermined by others.

But it won’t stop there. Some software platforms are moving towards “persuasive computing.” In the future, using sophisticated manipulation technologies, these platforms will be able to steer us through entire courses of action, be it for the execution of complex work processes or to generate free content for Internet platforms, from which corporations earn billions. The trend goes from programming computers to programming people. . . .

[I]t can be said that we are now at a crossroads. Big data, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and behavioral economics are shaping our society — for better or worse. If such widespread technologies are not compatible with our society’s core values, sooner or later they will cause extensive damage. They could lead to an automated society with totalitarian features. In the worst case, a centralized artificial intelligence would control what we know, what we think and how we act. We are at the historic moment, where we have to decide on the right path — a path that allows us all to benefit from the digital revolution

Oh, and for a concrete illustration of all the above, check this out:

How would behavioural and social control impact our lives? The concept of a Citizen Score, which is now being implemented in China, gives an idea. There, all citizens are rated on a one-dimensional ranking scale. Everything they do gives plus or minus points. This is not only aimed at mass surveillance. The score depends on an individual’s clicks on the Internet and their politically-correct conduct or not, and it determines their credit terms, their access to certain jobs, and travel visas. Therefore, the Citizen Score is about behavioural and social control. Even the behaviour of friends and acquaintances affects this score, i.e. the principle of clan liability is also applied: everyone becomes both a guardian of virtue and a kind of snooping informant, at the same time; unorthodox thinkers are isolated. Were similar principles to spread in democratic countries, it would be ultimately irrelevant whether it was the state or influential companies that set the rules. In both cases, the pillars of democracy would be directly threatened.

FULL ARTICLE: Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?

Of course, none of this is real news to anybody who has been paying attention. It’s just something that people like me, and maybe like you, find troubling enough to highlight and comment on. And maybe, in the end, Cipher from The Matrix will turn out to have been right: Maybe ignorance really is bliss. Because from where I’m sitting, there doesn’t appear to be anything one can do to stop this streamrollering, metastasizing, runaway train-like dystopian trend. Talking about it is just that: talk. Which is one reason why I’ve lost a portion of the will that originally kept me blogging here for so many years. You can only play the role of Cassandra for so long before the intrinsic attraction begins to dissipate. Read the rest of this entry

Teeming Links – July 18, 2014

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William Binney, the ex-NSA code-breaker and whistleblower, says the NSA’s ultimate goal is total population control: “Binney recently told the German NSA inquiry committee that his former employer had a ‘totalitarian mentality’ that was the ‘greatest threat’ to US society since that country’s US Civil War in the 19th century.”

“New research finds having a mobile device within easy reach divides your attention, even if you’re not actively looking at it.” (This explains a lot about an increasing number of my daily interactions with people who literally cannot maintain interpersonal attention for more than 30 seconds.)

There just has to be a Ligottian corporate horror story buried somewhere in this: Financial Times reports that businesses are increasingly using big data, including social media footprints, plus complex algorithms to make hiring decisions.

You can still be a passionate reader, but it’s getting ever harder to make a career of it: “A less-heralded casualty of the digital age is the disintegration of the lower rungs of the [publishing] ladder that have long led young, smart readers into the caste of professional tastemakers.”

Steven Poole says that, whereas the disciplined cultivation of spontaneous, effortless action along the lines of Taoism’s wu wei is a great thing, the counterfeit cult of consumer “spontaneity” encourages psychological and social chaos and numbs us to morally reprehensible sociopolitical conditions.

John Michael Greer lays out, in his characteristic elegant prose and with his characteristic lucidity, a vision of the deindustrial dark age that may await us.

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli argues cogently that science, philosophy, and the humanities in general all need each other: “Restricting our vision of reality today to just the core content of science or the core content of the humanities is being blind to the complexity of reality, which we can grasp from a number of points of view.”

Astrophysicist, author, and NPR science blogger Adam Frank reflects on the “science vs. religion” debate in light of Eastern philosophy.

If you “hear voices,” is it brain disease, communication from discarnate spirits, or perhaps the very voice of God? Tanya Luhrmann and three co-authors of a new study observe the profound impact of cultural assumptions on the subjective experience of voice hearing.

The ancient history of dream interpretation points to humanity’s insatiable hunger for the divine. For the ancients, every slumber held the promise of the numinous.”

Speaking of dreams, a recent study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping finds that psychedelic mushrooms put the brain in a waking dream state, with profound worldview-altering effects: “[T]he mushroom compounds could be unlocking brain states usually only experienced when we dream, changes in activity that could help unlock permanent shifts in perspective.”

David Luke reflects on psychedelics, parapsychology, and exceptional human experience: “Psychedelic researchers since the time of Huxley and Osmond have been fascinated by exploring the apparently parapsychological affects of these drugs. Rightly so, because the implications of such research for understanding our capabilities as a species and for understanding reality itself are deeply profound.” (I’m happy to report that David will be contributing an article on the relationship between drugs and the paranormal to my paranormal encyclopedia.)

Finally, it looks like my adolescence (and also a significant portion of my twenties) wasn’t so egregiously misspent after all, since Dungeons and Dragons has now influenced a generation of writers: “As [Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot] Díaz said, ‘It’s been a formative narrative media for all sorts of writers.’ ”

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – June 6, 2014

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MUST READ: Tom Englehardt’s hypothetical commencement address to the class of 2014 about the Big Brotherness of the world into which (and in which) they’re graduating: “That bright and shiny world of online wonders has — as no one could have failed to notice by now — also managed to drop the most oppressive powers of the state and the corporation directly into your lap, or rather your laptop, iPad, and smartphone. You — yes, I mean you with that smartphone in your pocket or purse — are a walking Stasi file.”

But remember, they’re not “Generation Y,” they’re Generation Omega, and they didn’t create the current disaster; they’re just inheriting it: “Stories about Millennials’ character flaws aren’t just wrong; they’re cover for the real perpetrators of crimes against the future. . . . The world we’ve inherited is rotten, and it’s getting rottener. We are living in the twilight of a world order on the brink of economic, ecological and ethical collapse. We are the last generation who will live in this version of the world.”

The Anxieties of Big Data: “Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us.”

Lewis Lapham observes that the word “revolution” is everywhere in America now but seems to apply only to new techno-gadgets, since America’s spirit of rebellion has been swallowed by a culture of bread and digital circuses: “Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change? All is not lost, however, for the magic word that stormed the Bastille and marched on the tsar’s winter palace; let it give up its career as a noun, and as an adjective it can look forward to no end of on-camera promotional appearances with an up-and-coming surgical procedure, breakfast cereal, or video game.”

And speaking of revolutionary, check out these mindblowing new jobs of the digi-media-fied future!!! “Our venture-funded vertical-driven content prosumer phablet platisher is rapidly growing and we need to add some Ninja Rockstar Content Associates A.S.A.P. See below for a list of open positions!” (My personal favorite from the list: Neologizer: “Reimaginatorialize the verbalsphere! If you are a slang-slinger who is equahome in brandegy and advertorial, a total expert in brandtech and techvertoribrand, and a first-class synergymnast, then this will be your rockupation!”)

The Exorcists Next Door: On the Christian “deliverance” ministry of two North Texas suburbanites. “Pastors and Christian mental-health professionals from all over the country quietly refer clients they just can’t help to the Pollards, after trying everything. In the 15 years or so since the Pollards started their ministry, there has been no shortage of tortured souls.”

The Entity: The True Accounts of Doris Bither: A nicely balanced consideration of the details and different possible interpretations surrounding the most famous modern-day case of paranormal assault.

The Unlimited Mind of Dr. John C. Lilly: “[H]e is perhaps most famous for his experiments with psychoactive drugs and the isolation tank, which he invented at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland in 1954. . . . He is capturing the imagination of a new generation of internet savvy alternatives and conscious hipsters — a younger crowd who are enthusiastically embracing the work and do-it-yourself ethic of eccentric 20th century notables such as Nikola Tesla, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Phillip K. Dick, Alan Watts, Ram Dass and Terrence McKenna.”

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – April 11, 2014

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Apparently, the whole of West Virginia has now become a sacrifice zone for the coal industry.

Did you know there’s an average of one train derailment every single day in America? This is why the oil transport industry is basically a giant, horrible, environmentally apocalyptic accident just waiting to happen.

You know all that propaganda in the past handful of years that scornfully dismisses warnings about peak oil and fossil fuels because of a “new oil boom”? Don’t be fooled: the era of world-changing energy transition is indeed upon us.

In light of the above, here’s a caution, clarification, and reality check: futurologists are almost always wrong, especially when they sound like techno-utopians and/or doomsday preachers.

Welcome to the new Gilded Age: “We haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to ‘patrimonial capitalism,’ in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.”

Welcome to the end of night: “An eternal electric day is creeping across the globe, but our brains and bodies cannot cope in a world without darkness.”

Beware modern medicine, which decreases our chance of a good death: “Death used to be a spiritual ordeal; now it’s a technological flailing. We’ve taken a domestic and religious event, in which the most important factor was the dying person’s state of mind, and moved it into the hospital and mechanized it, putting patients, families, doctors, and nurses at the mercy of technology.”

If you keep planning, but failing, to ditch Facebook and other social media, maybe this explains: “It is hard to resist a technology that is also a tool of pleasure. The Luddites smashed their power looms, but who wants to smash Facebook — with all one’s photos, birthday greetings, and invitations? New digital technologies, particularly social media, make money by encouraging us to spend our lives on their platforms.”

Worried about the rise of Big Data? Then good news! The whole field may be total bullshit: “At worst, according to David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge university, [the major claims about Big Data] can be ‘complete bollocks. Absolute nonsense.'”

Check it out: a fascinating examination of psychedelic, shamanic, and magickal themes in video game culture.

My first publication in print form came in the 2002 Del Rey horror anthology The Children of Cthulhu, where I was honored to share book space with many authors whom I had long admired. Among these was Alan Dean Foster, some of whose earlier work, including several of his Star Wars novels and the story basis he provided for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, played an important part in my science fiction education during adolescence. Then in 2011 I had the distinct pleasure of meeting and chatting with him at MythosCon.  So he’s always on my radar, and that’s why it’s nice to come across some high praise for his classic novelization of Alien, which is now out in a 35th Anniversary Edition.

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – August 2, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I invite you to peruse today’s offering of necessary and recommended reading under the overarching emotional/conceptual rubric of this recent rumination about the extreme value of ambivalence and undecidedness amid our present sociocultural circumstance of frenetic and manipulative opinion-peddling and belief-mongering:

We live in a society in which opinions, options, and information are everywhere proliferating, and ambivalence is on the rise. Persuasive arguments are available on either side of nearly every choice. What should I think or feel about fast food, nuclear energy, or euthanasia? Which of these 15 brands of toothpaste do I prefer and why?

Yet because it goes largely unmeasured and undetected, ambivalence is undervalued. Uncertainty is interpreted as weakness, even though certainty takes us blundering into wars and financial crashes. Facebook turns our analogue emotions into binary oppositions: You either “like” something or you don’t. Management books valorize decisiveness; self-help books command us to be happy; politicians pitch to one side or the other. The ambivalents are trapped in a culture that prizes univalents.

If we are to find a way to break out of our current deadlocks, we need a little more respect for ambivalence. After all, an ambivalent sensibility is a creative one. . . .

When you are in a state of mind in which things aren’t resolved into their conventional categories, you are more likely to see new possibilities.

Isn’t it time we stood up for ambivalence as a valid and necessary mode of comprehending the world?

Then again, maybe that’s a terrible idea.

— Ian Leslie, “Ambivalence Is Awesome,” Slate, June 13, 2013

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The New Circulations of Culture (Berfrois)
“We might imagine Facebook, YouTube, Last.fm, Flickr, Instagram, Twitter and so on, as vast archives of cultural data. As things stand, culture is being radically transformed by the recursive circulations of digital by-product data, yet we have little understanding of how this is happening or what the consequences might be.”

Thinking in Network Terms (Edge)
Physicist and network theorist Albert-lászló Barabási on human societies in the age of Big Data, when Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc., are the richest troves of human information on the planet. “One of the shocking things that I discovered through my son is that from a very young age, I kept saying ‘Do you want to be an astronomer? Do you want to go to the moon?” Always he always said, “No, I don’t want to go.’ But he would like to go to work for Google, he would like to go to work for Facebook.’ We have a generation that is growing up for whom the traditional goals of going to the moon, of flying to faraway stars, don’t exist anymore. That’s not what excites them.”

Why the Internet is Ground Zero in the Global Consciousness War (AlterNet)
By Daniel Pinchbeck. Quoted here three years ago but well worth revisiting or reading for the first time. “The established forces that want to control consciousness and manage perception face the new challenges of outsider perspectives that the internet makes available.”

The Internet As We Know It Is On Its Deathbed (AlterNet)
“The original vision of the Internet, where information and media is freely shared, without one’s computer strokes and searches being metered, tracked, traced, archived, dissected, marketed and warehoused in government data banks, is dead. And that’s what’s being lost by mainstream media in the ongoing Edward Snowden coverage. . . . Snowden’s revelations are the end of a vision of unfettered Internet freedom.”

In Praise of Pessimism (New Statesman)
Will Self on the virtues of negative expectations. “The optimist lives in fear of a future that she endeavours, futilely, to control. For the pessimist, it’s simply a matter of shit happens, but until it does, make hay.”

Not Even Silicon Valley Escapes History (The Atlantic)
A revolution began here. And this is what is left over. “What we see now is a surreal imitation of the suburban industrial parks and commercial spaces of yesteryear. They’re built atop the past’s mistakes, erasing them from our maps and eyes.”

How to keep Millennials in the church? Let’s keep church un-cool (The Washington Post)
“Christianity has become too obsessed with how it is perceived. Just like the Photoshop-savvy Millennials she is so desperate to retain, the church is ever more meticulously concerned with her image, monitoring what people are saying about her and taking cues from that. . . . As a Millennial, if I’m truly honest with myself, what I really need from the church is not another yes-man entity enabling my hubris and giving me what I want. Rather, what I need is something bigger than me, older than me, bound by a truth that transcends me and a story that will outlast me.”

The Brilliant, Troubled Legacy of Richard Wagner (Smithsonian.com)
“Those who have immersed themselves in Wagner’s full operas — lengthy and demanding, yet flowing and churning like a great river of thought and feeling — often experience a sense of awe. ‘It’s so rich and deep — it’s like a drug sometimes. If you give up and let go, it really drags you into a mysterious world,’ Jonas Kaufmann, the celebrated German tenor, said on NPR in February.”

Science fiction is creeping into more mainstream films (The Guardian)
Science fiction isn’t all “talking squids in space”. And its creep into mainstream cinema is everywhere from Never Let Me Go to Midnight in Paris.

Harlan Ellison Isn’t Dead Yet (Vulture)
“Endings remain very much on his mind. ‘I have led what others call the good life,’ he said on the phone a few weeks ago. ‘I’ve done what I love all my life and I’m still doing it. Working hard is the only thing I know.'”

Stephen King’s Family Business (The New York Times)
“The family now boasts five novelists, four of whom have books out this year. . . . The closest comparison would have to be the Brontës, and even they maxed out at a paltry three published novelists, plus one dissipated poet.”

Mutilated Cows Found at Missouri Farm, Police Not Ruling Out the Possibility of Aliens (CBS St. Louis)
The last half of the headline is misleading, but the story is quite interesting. There’s a long history of this thing in Missouri (my home state), by the way. “Who would cut the tongues and take the reproductive organs from several cows? That’s the mystery police in a small town 90 miles away from Kansas City are dealing with.”

The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary (Smithsonian.com)
From tribal cultures to modern circuses to Poltergeist, Heath Ledger’s Joker, and Pennywise from Stephen King’s It, “Clowns, as pranksters, jesters, jokers, harlequins, and mythologized tricksters have been around for ages.”