The Interrogation: a brief tale of AI and revolution

Paul Raven @ 01-04-2011

Hat-tip to George Mokray for emailing me about this one; Global Voices Online is carrying a translation of a short story by the once-imprisoned Chinese dissident netizen known as Stainless Steel Mouse… who, as her nickname might suggest, is well into her science fiction. “The Interrogation” is pretty short, highly allegorical (or so I’m assuming), and probably loses a great deal in translation, but personally I’m pleased to see sf ideas being used as metaphors for social change, and Stainless Steel Mouse’s courage and persistence – and that of others like her – should be an example for those of us in the West complaining about our governments running amok over our freedoms. In the grand scheme of things, we’ve still got it pretty easy, and the best most of us can manage is ranting about it in the comment threads of internet news stories.


Janus Face(book)

Paul Raven @ 27-01-2011

When corporations get big, stuff starts getting weird. Facebook is now sufficently large and internationally ubiquitous to be playing a part (albeit a passive/enabling part) in the recent spate of revolutions in the Middle East… but that involvement puts them on the same playing field as nation-states.

For example, Tunisian Facebook users reported some account hacks, which led Zuckerberg’s people to block the government-ordered man-in-the-middle attack that was behind said hacks [via TechDirt]. Now, on one level that’s just a company looking after the interests and privacy of its client-base… but on another level, that’s a non-nation-state entity blocking a nation-state’s attempts to control its citizens. Not entirely unprecedented, of course (East India Companies, anyone?), but the post-geopolitical implications are… well, let’s just say a lot of old certainties have pretty much disappeared, especially for less-developed nations with a recent history of despotism, but increasingly for the old “first world” titans, too.

My inner cynic suspects that there’s more than a hint of good PR strategy involved, though; Facebook has suffered from the inevitable bad press that comes with becoming big news real fast, but they’ve earned much of that opprobrium fair and square… and largely through a cavalier attitude to the privacy of their userbase, ironically enough. Their latest we-opted-you-in-while-you-weren’t-looking move is a real doozy; take it away, Ars Technica:

Better go check your Facebook profile pic to make sure it’s suitable for advertising—the company has begun using real users’ postings in ads being shown to their friends. The effort is eerily similar to parts of the now-defunct Facebook Beacon, but Facebook is now calling them “sponsored stories,” and users won’t be able to opt out of their posts being used to advertise to friends.

The new “feature” started showing up quietly on Wednesday morning without any kind of fanfare from Facebook, but users began to notice it right away. Things posted by their friends; check-ins at businesses and “Likes” clicked from other websites started being highlighted in the right-hand column with the other ads, under the headline of “Sponsored Story.”

It’s the lack of opt-out that will rile people as this story gains traction (which, given similar stories last year, I fully expect it will). Furthermore, the Facebook T&C clickwrap now says that any content you post there – pictures, status updates, blog posts, whatever – becomes Facebook’s IP to do with as it pleases. Makes sense from a business point of view, enables them to keep the service free to use, and probably won’t bother the vast majority of people… but I’ll be switching off all my feed imports from now on. For me at least, Facebook’s utility is outweighed by my feeling that if my content’s worth anything to anyone, I should be getting some cut of the deal… but in countries hungry for political change, whose citizens find themselves with an unprecedented tool-set for self-organisation, the balances tip in the other direction.

How Facebook decides to wield this power will be worth watching closely. We spoke before about wanting to become “citizens of the Internet”; if we think of “the Internet” as a sort of federation of city-states, Facebook starts looking remarkably like a panopticon remix of Brave New World.


Tunisia, Egypt… where next?

Paul Raven @ 26-01-2011

All that talk over the last few years about the ubiquity of instability? Starting to look a lot less like cynical doomsaying, ain’t it?

Via BigThink, Le Monde Diplomatique gets all brow-furrowed and chin-strokey:

Put simply, global consumption patterns are now beginning to challenge the planet’s natural resource limits. Populations are still on the rise, and from Brazil to India, Turkey to China, new powers are rising as well. With them goes an urge for a more American-style life. Not surprisingly, the demand for basic commodities is significantly on the rise, even as supplies in many instances are shrinking. At the same time, climate change, itself a product of unbridled energy use, is adding to the pressure on supplies, and speculators are betting on a situation trending progressively worse. Add these together and the road ahead appears increasingly rocky.

Chickens coming home to roost… as the West’s privileged lifestyle begins its decline, the rest of the world finally starts demanding its cut of the cake. And this isn’t a religious backlash, or even a classic left-right political clash. It’s plebs versus politicos, the governed lashing back at the governers, and the intertubes are certainly playing their part… but they’re just the conduit, not the cause:

That protests so large in scale could be organized largely over the internet and independent of Egypt’s traditional opposition, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, should give Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak plenty of cause for concern, says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. It shows the extent to which regular Egyptians are fed up with authoritarian rule, and how quickly that frustration can spread—lending it shades of the uprising in Tunisia. “It’s not an Islamist-organized protest. This really is unprecedented. It’s just everyday Egyptians getting angry,” he says. “If I was a regime official, I’d be pacing in my room right now.”

John Robb is unsurprisingly enjoying a “told you so” moment, and suggesting routes forward for this new insurgency:

For an open source revolt to be successfully formed, it needs a plausible promise.  A meta issue around which all of the different factions etc. can form (remember, most of the groups and individuals involved in an open source revolt can’t agree on anything but some basic concepts).  A generic “day of revolt” doesn’t accomplish that. What could?

Using the multi-million scale No Mas FARC protests as an example and the critical ingredient in the Tunisian protests (extreme corruption that generated an endless wellspring of anger/frustration), a potential “plausible promise” for an Egyptian open source revolt is:

No More Corruption

Not only is a movement opposing corruption something the government will find hard to oppose, it is something every Egyptian deals with on a daily basis.  It also has the added benefit of directly harming the entrenched ruling elite, who are likely to become poster children of the very thing the movement is against.

Hey, kids – can you think of any nation closer to home where citizens have to deal with corruption on a daily basis? Places where budgets are being slashed, where the quality of life is tanking, but where the folk at the top of the pyramid are doing better than ever?

Yeah, me too. Interesting times ahead.


Did the Iranian “Twitter Revolution” actually happen?

Paul Raven @ 11-06-2010

You know, I’m always advising people not to believe everything they read, but I’m just as bad at doing it as anyone else – we all give credence to the stories we want to believe, I guess (and hell knows that media companies know how to exploit that).

So, remember the Twitter Revolution in Iran? That there was a revolution is not in question, but that the revolution was powered by social media? That’s not so clear [via MetaFilter]:

… it is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right. Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told the Washington Post last June, Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil. “Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz,” he said. “But once you look, you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.”

A number of opposition activists have told me they used text messages, email, and blog posts to publicize protest actions. However, good old-fashioned word of mouth was by far the most influential medium used to shape the postelection opposition activity. There is still a lively discussion happening on Facebook about how the activists spread information, but Twitter was definitely not a major communications tool for activists on the ground in Iran.

[…]

To be clear: It’s not that Twitter publicists of the Iranian protests haven’t played a role in the events of the past year. They have. It’s just not been the outsized role it’s often been made out to be. And ultimately, that’s been a terrible injustice to the Iranians who have made real, not remote or virtual, sacrifices in pursuit of justice.

I’m starting to wonder if a faith in the hierarchy-corrosion of modern communications systems isn’t becoming a core plank of what, for want of a less contentious or partisan label, we might call the postmodern progressive liberal platform. Maybe because we feel ourselves to have been liberated from something by the internet (even though we’re not sure what it is that we’ve been liberated from), we think that it can deliver liberation to others from things that are far more oppressive and powerful (at least at the level of curtailment of individual freedoms) than we have the context and experience to understand? That political revolution can be as safe, easy (and fun!) as our spare time whiled away on social media? (See also: the illusion of participation produced by slacktivism.)

Or maybe it’s just old-fashioned and fallacious Golden Age pulp technophilia: “Twitter is the future! The future is something we progress toward! Democracy in Iran would be progress! Therefore Twitter will help create progress toward democracy in Iran!”

I’m having a weird week; I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how we make pretty much everything into a story that reflects what we already believe to be true. The trouble with dwelling on that for a while is that you reach a point where you realise that, if that assumption is true, then that assumption is also part of a narrative that’s reinforcing itself through you. Which is a pretty weird psychological and philosophical paradox… not to mention being remarkably unconducive to getting anything practical done.


Chris Anderson on the “new industrial revolution” of bespoke manufacturing

Paul Raven @ 27-01-2010

Wired ed-in-chief Chris Anderson emerges from the back rooms once again with a lengthy piece lauding what he calls “the next industrial revolution” – which is, in essence, the imminent explosion of small companies using modern fabrication equipment and outsourcing techniques whose agility and low overheads will enable them to sweep away the old guard of corporate giants. [image by oskay]

That’s the theory, anyway, and it should be fairly familiar to regular Futurismic readers: we’re talking consumer-price-point 3D design software; 3D printing and fabrication; outsourced manufacturing; garage-industry electronics assembly techniques; open-source designs; hardware and software hacking; crowdsourcing for ideas, designs and feedback. You should read the whole thing, but here’s a slice that captures the spirit:

Here’s the history of two decades in one sentence: If the past 10 years have been about discovering post-institutional social models on the Web, then the next 10 years will be about applying them to the real world.

This story is about the next 10 years.

Transformative change happens when industries democratize, when they’re ripped from the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks. The Internet democratized publishing, broadcasting, and communications, and the consequence was a massive increase in the range of both participation and participants in everything digital — the long tail of bits.

Now the same is happening to manufacturing — the long tail of things.

The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3-D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit. Anybody with an idea and a little expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop. A few days later, a prototype will be at their door, and once it all checks out, they can push a few more buttons and be in full production, making hundreds, thousands, or more. They can become a virtual micro-factory, able to design and sell goods without any infrastructure or even inventory; products can be assembled and drop-shipped by contractors who serve hundreds of such customers simultaneously.

Today, micro-factories make everything from cars to bike components to bespoke furniture in any design you can imagine. The collective potential of a million garage tinkerers is about to be unleashed on the global markets, as ideas go straight into production, no financing or tooling required. “Three guys with laptops” used to describe a Web startup. Now it describes a hardware company, too.

From a globalist perspective, it’s pretty optimistic – as you might expect from the guy who came up with the concept of the Long Tail. That said, it’s not what the big corporations want to hear… and that’s probably the main stumbling block between the here and now and Anderson’s entreprenurial utopia. It’s become embarassingly obvious how much of a hold corporate America has over the engines of policy, and it probably won’t take much effort to spin Anderson’s vision into a dark and unpatriotic future where American manufacturing jobs are sent overseas (to those sneaky Chinese, no less!), garage makers are enemies of freedom (and probably a glass fiber’s breadth from becoming terrorists), and the people’s right to not be shafted by those who already hold all the aces is swept under the carpet so as to maintain a precarious economic status quo.

OK, so I’m overstating for effect, there… but you can see where I’m going with this, I hope. Given the staggering levels of obfuscation and deceit involved with the US healthcare reforms, I can’t see Anderson’s revolution happening without some serious back-room dealing and political psy-ops from those who stand to lose the most from it. And I doubt it will be a uniquely American problem, either; the government to which I pay my taxes is just as compromised, albeit in slightly different ways, and the richer countries of the Old World are all in the same boat.

What remains to be seen is whether Anderson’s maker revolution is an economic inevitability or an avoidable alternative. It’ll come as no surprise to most of you who read here regularly that I’d like nothing more than to see the bloated corporate behemoths of the world get their shoes wet while doing a King Canute impersonation, but only time will tell. This is one story where we can’t just skip to the last page to find out the ending; let’s just hope we don’t get squashed by the plot mechanics, eh? 🙂


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