Sentiers No.27

Facebook. Fixes. Centaurs. Half a planet. China.


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I’m not sure yet how the Easter long weekend will turn out with travel or not so I’m not sure if No.28 will get to you then or later. However, I’m really intent on not talking about Facebook as much as in this issue. Promise.


Facebook 💩
12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech
This by Anil Dash is adjacent to Facebook but broader and well thought out. A good way to gain some perspective and context. Although I’d caveat his “Most people in tech sincerely want to do good” with Beware The Pretty People by Jon Evans (from three years ago!). Make sure to read through to items 9 and 10 “The economic model of big companies skews all of tech.”

Technology isn’t an industry, it’s a method of transforming the culture and economics of existing systems and institutions. …

When software encourages us to take photos that are square instead of rectangular, or to put an always-on microphone in our living rooms, or to be reachable by our bosses at any moment, it changes our behaviors, and it changes our lives. …

Companies that follow this new model can grow much larger, much more quickly, than older companies that had to rely on revenue growth from paying customers. But these new companies also have much lower accountability to the markets they’re entering because they’re serving their investors’ short-term interests ahead of their users’ or community’s long-term interests. …

Even as technology opens up new challenges for society, lawmakers lag tremendously behind the state of the art when creating appropriate laws.

Yonatan Zunger thread on Twitter about Facebook, ethics, and computer science.

I didn’t come up in computer science; I used to be a physicist. That transition gives me a rather specific perspective on this situation: that computer science is a field which hasn’t yet encountered consequences.

The real scandal isn’t Cambridge Analytica. It’s Facebook’s whole business model.

From that perspective, the real scandal is that this wasn’t a data breach or some egregious isolated error on Facebook’s part. What Cambridge Analytica did was, in many ways, what Facebook was optimized for—collating personal information about vast numbers of people in handy packets that could then be used to try to sell them something.

Also see Facebook’s Surveillance Machine by Zeynep Tufekci with similar ideas and comments.


Fixes
Silicon Valley Has Failed to Protect Our Data. Here’s How to Fix It
Paul Ford at Bloomberg suggesting the creation of a new agency for the digital. Excellent idea. Chances of this happening under 45? …

Let’s make a digital Environmental Protection Agency. Call it the Digital Protection Agency. Its job would be to clean up toxic data spills, educate the public, and calibrate and levy fines.

“This is a serious moment for the web’s future. But I want us to remain hopeful…” (Tim Berners-Lee)

General rules for us all: Any data about me, wherever it is, is mine and mine alone to control. If you are given the right to use data for one purpose, use it for that purpose alone.


How To Become A Centaur
Could we say the AI can then be seen as a super specialist and the centaur combination as being better served by a human generalist who can make connections to other specialities? Beyond coding and maths, I’m quite intrigued by the future roles in creating AIs. The teachers, the people / teams working on ethics, balance, values, and behaviours we transmit to these systems but also what the roles of users / collaborators will look like.

So, when you think of augmenting human intelligence with AI, think less of assimilating into The Borg, and more of a spirited conversation between Kirk & Spock — a mix of intuition and logic that surpasses either one alone.

++ Uber Halts Autonomous Car Tests After Fatal Crash in Arizona. One “centauric” combination that failed.


Cities
Empty half the Earth of its humans. It’s the only way to save the planet
Kim Stanley Robinson (by way of EO Wilson) briefly presenting the case for emptying half the planet of humans. I like the world he’s describing even though it sounds more like fiction than an actual plan. Also, we don’t need to empty half the planet, we need to empty half of what we are using; the human compatible parts, and greatly reduce our impact on the rest.

We have only this planet, and have to fit our species into the energy flows of its biosphere. That’s our project now. That’s the meaning of life, in case you were looking for a meaning.


China 🇨🇳
China will ban people with poor ‘social credit’ from planes and trains
Plenty of mentions of Black Mirror when this came out and I’d say that yes, overall such a system is ripe for abuse and another step towards total surveillance. But, I’ll also say that most of us don’t know much about China, or at least don’t properly grasp the context for various announcements. I can’t vouch for the poster below but it’s one example of context and digging a bit deeper:
Ian Goodrum on Twitter: “Some tweets about China’s social credit system, how it isn’t actually Black Mirror and how you should stop using facile pop cultural references to demonize countries you haven’t bothered to understand.”
Though, again, who’s that guy and where are the text shots even from?

China’s Face-Scanning Craze

When a camera mounted above one of 50 of the city’s busiest intersections detects a jaywalker, it snaps several photos and records a video of the violation. The photos appear on an overhead screen so the offender can see that he or she has been busted, then are cross-checked with the images in a regional police database. …

at KFC China’s “smart restaurant” in Beijing, customers stand in front of a screen, have their face scanned (again, Baidu is part of the joint endeavor), and receive menu suggestions based on their age, sex, and facial expression

I’m quite aware that most of what I post concerning China is the dystopic stuff bubbling up in Western media. I appreciate any pointers to good English or French “China watchers” out there. (I’m already aware of The Magpie Digest.)


An Open Approach to Scholarly Reading and Knowledge Management
Sadly I haven’t had time to dig into this but a couple of friends created the Rebus Foundation and worked on this report. Their plans and thinking are very very promising and built on years of experience and reflection so pay close attention to the report and foundation.


Milieu
‘Catastrophe’ as France’s bird population collapses due to pesticides
Seems like these kinds of discoveries are announced almost every week. Major initiatives to counter this destruction? Not so much.

The museum described the pace and extent of the wipe-out as “a level approaching an ecological catastrophe”.

++ MIT’s new invention can pull drinking water from desert air

Unlike traditional systems that require upwards of 50 percent humidity, as well as cooling methods, pumps, and compressors that consume additional energy and need maintenance, MIT’s invention can draw water from air with 10 percent humidity and run passively off power from a solar panel.

++ “Ever wonder where plastic ends up?I have a story I’d like to share.”. As I said on Twitter, we are such arseholes and so screwed. 😭

++ A ghost island in the middle of the Indian Ocean“Ross Island, an abandoned British settlement in the remote Andaman archipelago, is being taken over by its rightful owner: nature.”


Miscellany