Diminished Reality: unsee the unpalatable

Paul Raven @ 16-10-2010

Interesting find at BoingBoing; a sort of inversion of augmented reality, in that rather than adding things that aren’t there to your field of vision, you take away things that are there.

Remarkably similar to another BB post from a week or so ago, namely the chap trying to develop a system that automatically removes corporate logos from video footage. Neither idea seems any more unlikely to be implemented than ‘traditional’ augmented reality, either, which effectively means that reality is destined to become an even more mutable concept than it already is.

Perhaps the world would be a more peaceful place if everyone could simply stop seeing the things that offend them? Somehow I don’t think it’ll work out like that…

The crap jobs of tomorrow

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2010

Via BoingBoing, the New York Times looks at a new breed of grim bottom-end employment in the digital age: Internet Content Reviewing. Main responsibilities include trawling through an endless river of text, images and video to ensure the removal of offensive content… and if you’ve more than a passing moment hanging out on the intertubes, you’ll have some idea of just how nasty some of that content might be.

With the rise of Web sites built around material submitted by users, screeners have never been in greater demand. Some Internet firms have tried to get by with software that scans photos for, say, a large area of flesh tones, but nothing is a substitute for a discerning human eye.

The surge in Internet screening services has brought a growing awareness that the jobs can have mental health consequences for the reviewers, some of whom are drawn to the low-paying work by the simple prospect of making money while looking at pornography.


David Graham, president of Telecommunications On Demand, the company near Orlando where Mr. Bess works, compared the reviewers to “combat veterans, completely desensitized to all kinds of imagery.” The company’s roughly 50 workers view a combined average of 20 million photos a week.

The compensation isn’t exactly awesome, either: wages peak out at US$12 per hour, and that’ll fall rapidly once someone gets a reliable outsource operation up and running. At least if you’re a sewer worker you can wash the stench off when you get home.

Leaving aside the extremity of the case in hand, though, it’s worth noting that this is essentially a gatekeeper/curation task – and we’ve already noted that curation is a growth industry thanks to the geometric expansion of content. Augmented reality will provide a whole new environment for this sort of work in the next few years… though I doubt the prospect of working outdoors will do much to ameliorate the essential unpleasantness and tedium of the task.

What other new (and shitty) jobs might our bright digital future provide?

Cleaning up for Street View

Paul Raven @ 15-03-2010

Google Street View camera arrayThe city of Windsor in Ontario, Canada has apparently requested Google reshoot some of its Street View footage in order to remove a murder scene (complete with Do Not Cross police tape barriers and bloody bandages) from the public record, prompting Mike Masnick of TechDirt to wonder

[… whether] towns and cities are going to start to “prepare” for Google Street View cars coming through and make sure that everyone is on their best behavior

Seems pretty likely, doesn’t it? [image by sfmine79]

The threat of being seen without one’s “make-up” on has always been around. For instance, I can still remember the way every school I ever attended spent a week gussying the place up and drilling the students in advance of the government inspectors, which was probably one of my earliest cognitive dissonance awakenings – what was the point of inspections if they only occurred after a metaphorical wash’n’brush-up? Why not just, y’know, improve things generally rather than making a last-minute effort once a year*?

This feeds into the idealistic notion that ubiquitous transparency is a good thing, I suppose: if every city (or school, or whatever) knew it could be inspected (or Street View’d) at any time without warning, then perhaps they’d be more likely to fix problems at the root cause instead of sweeping the problems under the rug before the visitors arrive.

Of course, that’s a massive oversimplification of a very complex issue, but the Windsor story is a harbinger of institutional panics yet to come; much as technology could enable nation-states to turn themselves into panopticons, the spotlight can also be pointed in the other direction. The next few decades will be all about the struggle between individuals and corporate or geo-political entities to filter and control their realities as presented to the rest of the world… which is why I’m fairly convinced that augmented reality will be the multi-planar battlefield of manifold and fractal ideological struggles between citizens, states and corporations.

[ * The answer is very obvious now, of course, with the benefit of experience (and the cynicism toward institutions and bureaucracy that it engenders), but for a naive and nerdy seven year old, it was a baffling condundrum. Pity my poor parents attempting to explain these moral grey areas and fundamental societal flaws to a child with no better an instinctive or empathetic grasp of human nature than the Borg… ]

Google threatens to pull out of China over hacking allegations

Paul Raven @ 13-01-2010

Well, this story’s everywhere this morning. After allegedly uncovering a “sophisticated and targeted” hacking attack, Google are now “reviewing the feasibility of their business operations in China”, which includes the controversial censorship systems they applied to Google.cn; here’s the official announcement, which is a beautiful example of legalese that says one thing, implies many others and leaves a lot of spaces uncharted. Chinese citizens are laying flowers outside Google’s Beijing office [via Jan Chipchase].

Beyond the glossy surface of the public announcements, however, we can’t be entirely sure what’s going on. The Wikileaks crew have tweeted a few revealing points:

gossip inside google China is gov hackers found infiltrating google source code repository; gmail attacks an old issue. #

Gossip from within google.cn is Shanghai office used as CN gov attack stage in US source code network. #

China has been quietly asking for the same access to google logfiles as US intelligence for 2-3 years now. #

Should be noted that Google keeps secret how many user’s records are disclosed to US intelligence, others. #

correction: the time of the Chinese requests/demands are not exactly known and are possibly in the last 12 months. #

Regardless of the exact causes and motivations behind Google’s threats to withdraw, it highlights the incredible bargaining power that a company of that size and influence has on the same stage as nation-states. It’s not entirely unimaginable to think that Google suspected something like this might have happened all along, and they were just waiting for the right moment to bring their leverage to bear – after all, China’s a big old market, and they’d probably far rather its citizens had full unfettered access to the web, if only so as to advertise to them more effectively. So why not agree to initial compromises, let the people get a taste for what they have to offer, and then threaten to take the toys home when the government makes an institutionally inevitable blunder?

It remains to be seen how seriously the Chinese government will take this threat – it’s not been a good few months for them as far as international publicity is concerned, and Google is a big economic player whose favour I suspect they’d rather not lose. But China’s people will be seriously miffed about it, and I that’s what makes me think that Google are far more cunning than they’re letting on. I’m not under the illusion that they’re interested in anything more than running a profitable business (though that whole “don’t be evil” thing is a pretty effective rule-of-thumb for achieving such), and bringing down totalitarian governments isn’t in their regular remit. But look at it this way: if you were running a business of that size and looking at a potential market that lucrative, and you saw a way to potentially open up the laws that currently restrict your business in that market by playing off the market’s citizens (and international public opinion) against the government, and you reckoned you could pull it off…

OK, so I’m hypothesising wildly here, but my point is that it’s by no means completely implausible. I’m reminded of Jason Stoddard’s points about the mythical bugbear of evil corporate hegemony:

A corporation doesn’t care if you’re living in a 300 square foot studio apartment or a 6000 square foot McMansion. They don’t want to wipe out the McMansion dwellers, or elevate the studio apartment owners. They only care about one thing: that you buy their stuff.

For everything they do, they’ll have justification. There’s no hidden business plan with a top-line mission statement of “Destroying Civilization As We Know It.”

But there will be hundreds or thousands of decisions, all based on maximizing profit. Substituting cheaper ingredients: maximize profit. Use low-income countries for labor: maximizing profit. Driving smaller competitors out of business: ensuring growth, which maximizes profit. Extending credit to anyone: maximizes profit.

If they can make a bigger profit selling you a “green” condo and a Prius rather than a McMansion and an Escalade, that’s exactly what they’ll do. If they think they’ll make an even larger profit renting you an apartment and leasing you a bike, that’s what they’ll do.

Google stand to make a lot of money if they can loosen the government leash in China, right? Right… so keep your eyes on the dollar signs. This story isn’t over yet, I suspect.

But is it art? Modern Warfare 2, computer games and morality

Paul Raven @ 12-11-2009

Modern Warfare 2 - box artSerendipity, yet again… Jonathan’s latest Blasphemous Geometries column on the moral dimension of modern computer game mechanics arrived in my inbox last weekend, and hence (unless he has contacts in the industry of which I am unaware), he’d have had no idea that this week would see a firestorm of controversy over a certain level in the newly released Modern Warfare 2 game. The level in question requires your character to inflitrate a terrorist group and, so as to maintain your cover story, participate in the shooting of innocent civilians; MetaFilter has a good round up of reviews and opinion pieces on the game, and the comment thread is full of interesting responses from both sides of the fence.

The predominant question seems to be whether this sort of gameplay can be considered “right” – yet another iteration of the “do computer games cause/encourage violence” debate, which itself rolled on from a similar public angst around the proliferation of graphic horror movies in the late eighties. There have been numerous surveys and research projects designed to accumulate evidence around this idea, but to the best of my knowledge there’s been nothing truly conclusive either way – though my instinct as a formerly rabid gamer (I don’t have the spare time to play often any more) suggests to me that computer games do no more to encourage violence than Saturday morning kid’s cartoons.

Indeed, it occurs to me that the rightness or wrongness of the “No Russian” level of Modern Warfare 2 – the hand-wringing over whether such a thing should be allowed to go on sale – is a false dilemma; the more pertinent question is that of what it says about the world in which it exists. Plenty of commentators are branding it tasteless, and I have a certain sympathy with that viewpoint – but there’s a lot of things out there that I consider tasteless, and I don’t believe that things should be made to go away just because I don’t approve of them. Censorship should start (and end) with your own finger on the off button, IMHO.

But thinking about the plot of the level (and of Modern Warfare 2 as a whole, from what I’ve been able to glean from reading reviews and opinion pieces about it) from a writer’s (and reader’s) point of view, it actually makes a lot of sense in the context of modern counter-terrorist narratives, with the result that it puts the player into a morally questionable situation that reflects the world beyond the game… though exactly how accurate that reflection may be is open to debate. Perhaps there is a valid argument to say that games like this might put ideas in people’s heads, and end up glorifying what they’re supposed to demonise (if there’s any real difference between those two words beyond one’s personal moral code), but I suspect that the sort of person who’d be encouraged to acts of random violence against innocent civilians by media of any sort is already psychologically predisposed to such an action. And if computer games are a nefarious way of seducing the impressionable with the power-trip of consequence-free violence, what then should we think about the United States Army, which has used the taxpayer-funded computer wargame America’s Army as a recruiting tool since 2002? Is it OK to encourage violence so long as it’s against the right targets?

[Related bonus item -did you see the article at Wired about the Libertarian-penned “2011: Obama’s Coup Fails” web-based strategy game? If nothing else, that demonstrates amply that when people encode a political or ideological subtext into a game to the detriment of plausibility, the end results are invariably laughable. And that’s not a partisan statement, either; I’m pretty sure that even were the boot on the other political foot I’d be equally amused by (and disgusted at) the incredible crudity of the sermonising, which reeks of the same childish mudslinging that’s currently packing UK news venues as the incumbent Labour government enters its final earth-bound tailspin and the vultures of opportunism don their bibs.

But then last night I watched an excellent documentary on the history of the Berlin Wall, and found myself laughing at the crudity of the archive propaganda from both sides of the Iron Curtain… before I remembered that, to be effective, propaganda only needs to be slightly more sophisticated than the average media literacy of its target audience.]

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