Pixar and the transhuman agenda

Paul Raven @ 18-05-2011

The intertubes are full of people who’ll try to convince you that [media organisation X] are trying to subversively promote [sinister civilisation-corroding sociopolitical agenda Y], and most of them are, to be frank, loonies. But you can make your own mind up about Kyle Munkittrick, who suggests that – deliberately or not – the Pixar animation house are preparing young minds for the ethical debate of the coming decades: that of non-human personhood.

Pixar has given those who would fight for personhood the narratives necessary to convince the world that non-humans that display characteristics of a person deserve the rights of a person. For every category there is a character: uplifted animals (Dug), naturally intelligent species (Remy and Kevin), A.I robots (WALL-E, EVE), and alien/monsters (Sully & Mike). Then there is the Incredible family, transhumans with superpowers. Through the films, these otherwise strange entities become  unmistakably familiar, so clearly akin to us.

The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.

I think there’s an element of agent provocateur and tongue-in-cheekness going on there, though some gloriously curmudgeonly comments suggest that taking it at face value makes stupid people quite angry… which is something of an added bonus. 🙂

(If you ask me, it’s all part of Steve Jobs’ masterplan to make the whole world as user-friendly and cutesy-poo as a MacOS icon. Gimme the grim Linux meathook future any day…. )


Narrative warfare: Operation Sockpuppet

Paul Raven @ 18-03-2011

It’s all coming out about Operation Sockpuppet, sorry, Operation Earnest Voice, the Pentagon’s online psyops software grab (which lends a certain level of extra credence to that HuffPo analysis of the HBGary fallout, of which I said at the time ‘my first reaction to reading that piece was “what took them so long?”’ – sometimes being right is no fun at all). I’ll look forward to the concise explanation of how this is totally different to the sort of state espionage upon civilians that goes on in China (which I expect will boil down to “it’s bad because it’s Them doing it”).

But you’ve little cause for alarm, as it’s honestly only going to be used on brown people who speak funny:

Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks said: “The technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US.”

He said none of the interventions would be in English, as it would be unlawful to “address US audiences” with such technology, and any English-language use of social media by Centcom was always clearly attributed. The languages in which the interventions are conducted include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.

Centcom said it was not targeting any US-based web sites, in English or any other language, and specifically said it was not targeting Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks, CentCom; it’s very comforting to take your word for it! Certainly more comforting than, ah, not doing so.

My favourite paragraph from the Guardian piece linked is this one, though (emphasis mine):

This month Petraeus’s successor, General James Mattis, told the same committee that OEV “supports all activities associated with degrading the enemy narrative, including web engagement and web-based product distribution capabilities”.

That’s pretty much an open admission that modern warfare is fought with stories for weapons. Granted, a close reading of history will show you that’s always been the case, but the internet provides unprecedented new opportunities for weaponizing narrative… which means we need to wrestle ownership of the world’s narrative back from those who want to write hackneyed and blood-spattered rise-of-the-Roman-Empire stories over and over again.


Climate propaganda not profitable

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

Ars Technica takes on a climate change denial shibboleth which I’ve always felt was more than adequately dealt with by Occam’s Razor. You know, the one that goes “of course the climate scientists are going to say things are getting worse; how else are they going to ride the government-money gravy train?” Perhaps I’m just lucky to have known enough scientists to make me aware of the fact that climate science – or indeed any science career – isn’t a route to fame, fortune and power (you’d be better off looking in the corridor labelled “politics” for those fringe benefits, AMIRITEZ?), but for everyone else, here’s the skinny:

Since it doesn’t have a lot of commercial appeal, most of the people working in the area, and the vast majority of those publishing the scientific literature, work in academic departments or at government agencies. Penn State, home of noted climatologists Richard Alley and Michael Mann, has a strong geosciences department and, conveniently, makes the department’s salary information available. It’s easy to check, and find that the average tenured professor earned about $120,000 last year, and a new hire a bit less than $70,000.

That’s a pretty healthy salary by many standards, but it’s hardly a racket. Penn State appears to be on the low end of similar institutions, and is outdone by two other institutions in its own state (based on this report). But, more significantly for the question at hand, we can see that Earth Sciences faculty aren’t paid especially well. Sure, they do much better than the Arts faculty, but they’re somewhere in the middle of the pack, and get stomped on by professors in the Business and IT departments.

This is all, of course, ignoring what someone who can do the sort of data analysis or modeling of complex systems that climatologists perform might make if they went to Wall Street.

“Ah, but what about the grant money, huh?”

Funding has gone up a bit over the last couple of years, and some stimulus money went into related programs. But, in general, the trend has been a downward one for 15 years; it’s not an area you’d want to go into if you were looking for a rich source of grant money. If you were, you would target medical research, for which the NIH had a $31 billion budget plus another $10 billion in stimulus money.

There’s more details there for them as wants ’em. Of course, if you’re already convinced that climate science is a liberal plot to make oil barons feel bad, you’ll probably not struggle to conclude that someone slipped Ars an envelope full of grubby grant dollars for their part in propping up the conspiracy… in which case I can only hope that believing so makes it easier for you to sleep at night, because that’s about the greatest utility that such a belief could possibly have.

Speaking of propaganda, here’s a site all about analysing and understanding the messages with which we are bombarded by governments, corporations and special interest groups [via BoingBoing]. Watch for the fnords, folks.


Gonzo Augmented Reality

Paul Raven @ 07-07-2010

Thomas Carpenter of Games Alfresco was pretty impressed by the AR app that superimposes an oil slick on any BP logo within the frame of its image capture, and started riffing on the idea of gonzo AR – a sort of “the world as seen by [x]” idea, taking the idea of reality being defined by personal perceptions right down to the granular level of individuals.

An unofficial game of object-association could make great interactive art, political rhetoric, or dystopic reinforcing world-view; depending on its implementation.  Wouldn’t you like to point your smartphone at everyday objects and find out how your favorite artists or celebrities view the world? Seeing how YoYo Ma, or the Dalai Lama or Bruce Campbell (the guy from the Evil Dead series) view the world could be liberating. Or since our own Bruce Sterling is the Prophet of AR, one of the AR browsers could do a “Bruce Layer” and show us what kind of world he sees when he’s looking around.

Maybe if Glenn Beck was your thing, you’d have a Nazi symbol pop-up when you pointed it at an Obama sticker.  Or if you were a former Bush-hater, you could see a Stalin-esque version of the W with your smartphone.   Propaganda could be all encompassing, blotting out all but the sanctioned viewpoints.

I think we can safely assume that AR (like any other media) will get pretty ugly when mainstream politics gets a hold of it… although, going on past form, that’ll probably happen a few years after everyone else has moved on to something more novel. Back to Mr Carpenter:

And maybe that’s what a gonzo-reality could bring to AR.  Instead of a mirror reflecting all of our beliefs into an ever-increasing sine wave, we might be privy to alternate views to our own.  Maybe even trying out how someone else sees the world.

Maybe.

Or maybe we couldn’t handle their viewpoint.  The overstimulating rush would make our realities spin around us until we puked it back out, losing all those alternate nutrients our world views could have used to grow.

And there you have it; new technology, same old spectre of confirmation bias. Still, if AR ends up as ubiquitous and packed with stuff as the existing internet, cognitive bias will at least be a whole lot of fun.


Hidden histories: Afghanistan

Paul Raven @ 04-06-2010

We all know about Afghanistan – a poor and predominantly Muslim nation that’s never really made it out of the Middle Ages, right?

Well, it turns out that’s simply not the case: retconning Afghanistan as a backward barbarian enclave has probably been useful for the global psyops propaganda machine (because what does one do with backward nations but export some much needed corporate democracy, in the hope of neutralising the threat that our earlier meddlings have created?), but as recently as the 1960s, Afghanistan was a modern progressive country… and to look at photographs from that era, you’d be hard pressed to tell at a glance that you weren’t looking at the science classrooms, record stores or factories of some Western nation [via MetaFilter].

Makes you wonder how much of our own national mythology has been carefully constructed retrospectively in order to tell a story we find comforting. For example, I’ve read quite a few books that suggest Britain’s “stiff upper lip” during World War Two was a long way from being as universal as we like to imagine. We’re also pretty fond of mentioning how we stopped the slave trade, but the fact that we played a large part in kickstarting that particular transAtlantic business model is usually left unvoiced…

So, a user-contribution opportunity for a Friday: share a conveniently glossed-over moment from the history of your preferred nation-state!


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