No plans for a GoogleImplant, says Eric Schmidt

Paul Raven @ 04-10-2010

Eric Schmidt is becoming one of those guaranteed link-bait interviewees for big media venues; unlike a lot of corporate bigwigs, Google’s CEO isn’t afraid to speak his mind. This interview at The Atlantic [via SlashDot, FuturePundit and others] is packed full of pluckable gems, though nothing quite so controversial as his recent musings on unGooglable childhoods.

First up, your “no shit, Sherlock” quote of the day:

“The average American doesn’t realize how much of the laws are written by lobbyists” to protect incumbent interests, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Atlantic editor James Bennet at the Washington Ideas Forum. “It’s shocking how the system actually works.”

Naturally, Schmidt and company see that flaw as a business opportunity:

“Washington is an incumbent protection machine,” Schmidt said. “Technology is fundamentally disruptive.” Mobile phones and personal technology, for example, could be used to record the bills that members of Congress actually read and then determine what stimulus funds were successfully spent.

Later in the same interview,  there’s something of a minor disappointment for bleeding-edge early-adopter Google enthusiasts: there are no plans on the table for a hardwired Google brain implant.

When Bennet asked about the possibility of a Google “implant,” Schmidt invoked what the company calls the “creepy line.”

“Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it,” he said. Google implants, he added, probably crosses that line.

The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson, doubtless with a keen eye for irony, follows that revelation with this panopticon-esque nugget:

… Schmidt envisions a future where we embrace a larger role for machines and technology. “With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches,” he said. “We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

I’m not sure you see the “creepy line” as being in quite the same place as many of the general public, Mister Schmidt. 🙂

(PS – I’d totally beta test that implant idea for you.)


Nice people acquire power and are then corrupted by it

Paul Raven @ 16-08-2010

Once again, research results seem to reinforce the oldest aphorisms in the book… which would be more gratifying, perhaps, if they weren’t the aphorisms we tell to commiserate over the fundamental brokenness of the social and political systems we inhabit. It turns out that nice people are far more likely than nasties to ascend to a position of power and authority… but once they get there, that power corrupts them, and they become reckless, selfish and unpleasant [via BigThink]. Who knew?

“It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” Mr. Keltner says. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

Turns out it’s all about self-justification:

In a recent study led by Richard Petty, a psychologist at Ohio State, undergraduates role-played a scenario between a boss and an underling. Then the students were exposed to a fake advertisement for a mobile phone. Some of the ads featured strong arguments for buying the phone, such as its long-lasting battery, while other ads featured weak or nonsensical arguments. Interestingly, students that pretended to be the boss were far less sensitive to the quality of the argument. It’s as if it didn’t even matter what the ad said—their minds had already been made up.

This suggests that even fleeting feelings of power can dramatically change the way people respond to information. Instead of analyzing the strength of the argument, those with authority focus on whether or not the argument confirms what they already believe. If it doesn’t, then the facts are conveniently ignored.

Sound familiar? As in, remind you of pretty much every director or upper-echelon manager you’ve ever worked for, anywhere? Yeah, me too.

Now, how much of that is due to a Stanford Prison Experiment type of situation, i.e. people playing up to an arbitrary role as it is defined in the collective subconscious (we know bosses act like ass-hats, so when we’re told to play the boss, we act like an ass-hat), and how much of it is due to some genuine qualitative difference in perception that comes from being elevated into a more exclusive and powerful cadre or subsection of a social group?

[ The irony of this article appearing in the Wall Street Journal is almost palpable. I can just imagine loads of investment bankers reading it, tutting quietly and shaking their heads, doubtless reminded of someone that little higher up on the pyramid than themselves. Oh, how the mighty have fallen, hmm? ]


#WarLogs: the beginning of the end for nation-state secrecy?

Paul Raven @ 26-07-2010

Well, now I understand why I was seeing Julian Assange and Wikileaks everywhere last week. Unless you’ve been under our oft-referred-to yet hypothetical news-proof rock for the last 48 hours, you’ll be aware that The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel are busily publishing the contents of a massive batch of classified documents about the conflict in Afghanistan, which were apparently released to them by Wikileaks about a month back. It’s decidedly unpretty and embarrassing reading for the US government and other members of the “coalition of the willing”, but I think the saddest thing is how little of what’s being reported surprises me in the least. I think we all suspected it was happening that way, deep down; the only difference now is that denial and spin are weak options. The collective bluff has been called, and rather spectacularly.

As usual, I’m less interested in the leak itself than the larger implications. The next few months will be crucial in determining the shape of the political world to come, because Wikileaks have suddenly brought radical and deep transparency to the geopolitical process, and that cloak and dagger world has always thrived on the comparative ease with which it could obscure distant truths from the sight of its electorates. If Wikileaks and similar organisations cannot be squelched, and squelched quickly, dirty wars with hidden agendas are going to become much more politically risky… and it’s those wars and agendas that are the mainstay of the nation-state as power unit. I’m rather intrigued to see a pro-interventionist commentator like Thomas P M Barnett cautiously welcoming this new and uninvited transparency, even if not entirely approving of its source; either I’ve spectacularly misread his political stance – which is more than possible, I’ll grant you – or he’s seeing the same writing on the wall that I am. Other commentators seem to have been concluding that interventionism is all over bar the shouting, and that was before the leak; it’ll be interesting to watch the public approval ratings for overseas operations over the next few months.

I read somewhere (though I’ve lost the link) that Julian Assange is making a point of never sleeping in the same place two nights in a row; I suspect he’ll be spending as much time being publicly visible as possible, too, because he’s now the figurehead of something that is scaring the shit out of people whose long-term modus operandi has been the disappearing (or unvarnished assassination) of obstacles to their agendas. If they can bump him off and not get caught, the warning will have been sent: don’t lift the curtain, or the puppetmaster will rap your knuckles. If he stays free and alive, the warning goes in the other direction: we’re watching, and you can’t reliably stop us from doing so any more.That’s one hell of a responsibility to be walking around with – whatever you may think of Assange’s personal politics and motives, I think it’s safe to say the guy has solid brass balls.

It’s worth noting the language of the White House statement in response to the leak, with its talk of “threatening national security”. “National security” isn’t about the security of the nation’s population, it’s about the security of the nation-state as a political entity… and that is profoundly threatened by Wikileaks and the radical transparency it represents. This isn’t the end of the road for the nation-state, but it could well be the beginning of the end.

I can’t say I’m too sad about that, either.


Nation-state gives way to city-state?

Paul Raven @ 08-06-2010

More future politics, courtesy SlashDot: excerpts from a speech by John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (and former Grateful Dead songsmith), in which he states that the mechanics of national government in the US is failing because it’s swamped by too much data, and that a move back to the city-state model may be on the cards:

“The political system is broken partly because of Internet,” Barlow said. “It’s made it impossible to govern anything the size of the nation-state. We’re going back to the city-state. The nation-state is ungovernably information-rich.”

[…]

Barlow also said that President Barack Obama’s election, driven largely by small donations, has fundamentally changed American politics. He said a similar bottom-up structure is needed for governing as well.

“It’s not the second coming, everything won’t get better overnight, but that made it possible to see a future where it wasn’t simply a matter of money to define who won these things,” Barlow said. “The government could finally start belonging to people eventually.”

[…]

“There is a circle of fat around the Beltway that is incredibly thick” Barlow said. “We can no longer try to run this country from the center. We’ve got to run it, just like the Internet, from the edges.”

I expect Barlow’s quintessential hippie credentials will invalidate his ideas for some, but I think he’s on to something here. I’m no mathematician, but I suspect that the resources needed to maintain centralised control of any system will rise exponentially in proportion to the complexity and size of said system; in effect, we’re trying to run huge nations using software that can’t scale up effectively enough to cope.

However, I’m not naive enough to think that governments will be keen to devolve into federations of city-states; large systems gain a sort of momentum, and develop subroutines to protect their integrity and position of control. But perhaps the economic phase shift that some pundits are saying is just round the corner will leave them with little choice; at some point, it may simply be the path of least resistance (not to mention least resource expenditure) to let small communities hive off and self-manage within the loose framework of a (global? continental?) federal constitution. As Barlow points out, we have the technology to make such a world possible; it’s the lock-in compatibility issues of the current socio-politicall operating system that will prevent such a change from happening.

Related: responding to the UK government’s sudden embracing of transparency, Aditya Chakrabortty at The Guardian wonders whether it’s going to do as much good as its advocates hope:

Who could be against see-through government? After all, it feels so democratic and bipartisan (civil servants privately admit that they had already prepared the pay document for former Labour minister Liam Byrne), and it feels so modish and internet-friendly. But the mistake that is being made here is assuming that merely pumping out information is an end in itself, which doesn’t require context or any consideration of what it’s in aid of.

That might sound odd coming from a journalist, but it’s an argument that’s gaining traction in other quarters too. Last year, the American legal scholar Larry Lessig wrote an essay called Against Transparency. It made precisely the opposite case that you might expect from a stalwart of the transparency movement. In the face of all Barack Obama’s promises of greater openness, Lessig argued that more and more information released “unqualified or unrestrained by other considerations” would be harmful both to political debate and in the end to the ability of government to get things done (the example he used was campaign donations).

[ We talked about the Lessig article here at the time. ]

Beyond the bash-the-public-sector headlines, all this transparency is most helpful to those who are already able and willing to use it – that is, with the internet connections and time to sift through all the data. And, researchers have found, those tend to be the same relatively well-off and highly educated people who are already pretty well served by the public sector. As Tobias Escher at Oxford University puts it: “You end up giving more of a voice to those who already have pretty good representation.

There’s also another concern, namely the sizeable number of people who simply don’t care to find out how their government works, though one might argue that they’ve dug their own hole. But the point remains – transparency isn’t going to be a panacea to the problems of large-scale nation-state governance. If anything, it’s just providing greater amounts of evidence for the underlying problem: a system too large and complex for anyone to fully understand, let alone begin to fix. That said, I’d rather the data was available than not, even if it’s analysed primarily for pillorying the public sector for headline-worthy misdemeanours (while more complex but fundamental issues are ignored because they lack a narrative hook or easy non-partisan explanation).

The times, they are a-changin’


The Lights In The Tunnel: free ebook about automation economics

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2010

Martin Ford, much like many of us, has some concerns about the future. Unlike most of us, he’s written a book about it: The Lights In The Tunnel looks at the economic implications of the technological acceleration curve that Singularitarian cheerleaders are so fond of, and suggests it may be at the root of the current economic crisis as well as the ones yet to come. From the website blurb:

The book directly challenges nearly all conventional views of the future and illuminates the danger that lies ahead if we do not plan for the impact of rapidly advancing technology.  It also offers unique insights into how technology will intertwine with globalization to shape the twenty-first century and explores ways in which the economic realities of the future might be leveraged to drive prosperity and to address global challenges such as poverty and climate change.

I’ve had a review copy sitting in my to-be-read pile for ages, and hope to get to it eventually (though I’m not expecting a cheery life-affirming feeling as a result – this isn’t the sort of book you write in order to tell everyone how great the future is going to be). If you’re interested in what Ford has to say, however, there’s no need to lash out for the hardcopy – you can now download a PDF version for free at the book’s website, and the license has been tweaked so you’re perfectly at liberty to copy and share it with friends.

If you take a look, why not drop back here and let us know what you think. Is Ford just another doomsayer pundit, or is he onto something? Is he stating the obvious, or unearthing buried truths?


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