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Pity Would Be No More: Google The Human Abstract

The public relations profession was created to repair the reputations of the 1%. The robber barons who consolidated control over industry in the United States needed to boost their numbers in the polls, and thus began the professional publicizing of acts of charity. The technology industry and its titans have finally taken that lesson to heart.

Fighting tooth and nail, then threatening to leave San Francisco for more accommodating tax havens, technology companies have negotiated big tax breaks. They're special. Not the sense that they need an extra helping hand to get their business of the ground. It's just that they want to use every piece of leverage they have over the city. When what they've wrought becomes plain for everyone to see, the oldest public relations plan in the book is trotted out. They'll participate in the community, but only on their terms. Here it comes, sweet charity.

Instead of public services coming organically through our tax base and distributed through a public political process, the tech company decides what cause gets money and how much. The money they donate creates capacity within the public budget which is then redirected to other needs. In a few years when the corporations stop giving and the public budget can't accommodate the programs, they're eliminated. What seems to be a windfall is really a death sentence.

Criticism of charitable acts is a rare thing. That's why it's a classic public relations play for the 1%. Google funds a transportation program for low-income youth, Facebook buys a police officer, etc. PR firms are paid big bucks to make sure we all know about it. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

William Blake wrote “The Human Abstract” as part of his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Put this poem on the “experience” side of the ledger. His criticism of pity and charity continue to ring true. Out of the pity of the technology giants comes charity for the poor and disadvantaged. Blake shows us that it's not “pity” and “charity” you want to put up on a pedestal. It's a difficult case to make, but Blake does it. These virtues are symptoms, born of inequalities.




by William Blake

Pity would be no more

If we did not make somebody poor,

And Mercy no more could be

If all were as happy as we.


And mutual fear brings Peace,

Till the selfish loves increase;

Then Cruelty knits a snare,

And spreads his baits with care.


He sits down with holy fears,

And waters the ground with tears;

Then Humility takes its root

Underneath his foot.


Soon spreads the dismal shade

Of Mystery over his head,

And the caterpillar and fly

Feed on the Mystery.


And it bears the fruit of Deceit,

Ruddy and sweet to eat,

And the raven his nest has made

In its thickest shade.


The gods of the earth and sea

Sought through nature to find this tree,

But their search was all in vain:

There grows one in the human Brain.


Singularly Technical Judgements

Driving down the freeway in the rain, my iPhone was playing a discussion about Clarence Thomas and the Supreme Court. Justice Thomas has been notable for being the dog who didn't bark in the night. During his tenure on the court he has never asked a question or made a comment during oral arguments. Recently his silence has become so deafening that a few pundits have been compelled to speak out about it. Thomas's position is that when lawyers appearing before the Supreme Court are laying out their arguments, one ought to listen.

Supreme Court justices are appointed for life. To some it seems odd that Thomas might serve for the rest of his life without saying a word. To be clear, he writes opinions and speaks publicly quite a bit outside the court. I'm not bothered by his selective silence, but this focus on the court did cause me to think about the ideological bent of the current court. The purer the ideology of a Supreme Court Justice the easier it would be to replace the judge with an algorithm that takes decisions based on an ideological formula. And if the appointed Justice was truly dedicated to an ideology, wouldn't it make sense for use a computational algorithm in place of his or her own judgement. If the law is simply a matter of “calling balls and strikes” as Chief Justice Roberts has said, then by employing slow-motion replay and a rulebook one ought to be able to make perfect rulings each time.

And to extend a little more, let's say that we achieve some subset of the goals of the singularity movement and Justice Clarence Thomas decides to upload his consciousness into a cloud computing environment. We expect our Justices to take care of their health, and many serve well into their 80s. In this thought experiment, Justice Thomas has just extended his life by many years–possibly infinitely. As he has been appointed for life, he will have established a permanent ideological position on the Supreme Court for as long as the court exists.

If presented with the option to serve forever, what would it mean to decline to be uploaded? What would it mean to decline to use a computer algorithm to make sure you correctly expressed the tenets of your ideology?


They Never Were Ecosystems: distributed machine parts

We like to call them “ecosystems.” Perhaps there's an appeal to nature there, as though somehow they really are like coral reefs. Technology companies are rated on the robustness of their “ecosystems.” At bottom the difference is that ecosystems don't have an underlying operating system that controls all of the elements built on top of it. We call technical infrastructure an “ecosystem” to erase the element of corporate ownership. For a while it gives us the illusion of freedom, then later, a sense of betrayal.


Ten Observations Around 2013


These observations are in no particular order and are obviously incomplete.

Big Data, Big Error and Certainty

The more we use big data to justify decisions, more certain we become. This is despite the fact that big data findings are expressed as probabilities. The more certain we become the more we open ourselves to big errors. The size of these errors and the size of our certainty will be roughly equivalent.

Networked Social Streams are just Television

What looked like a new medium turns out to be an evolution of television. The large social and search hubs have taken the place of the Networks. The business model of sponsored commercial messages in the stream remains roughly the same.  The major innovation is that now when you talk back to the television, more people have the potential to hear you.

Recommenders: Rough propriety vs. Optimization

The robot that can find you the stuff you’ll like isn’t doing a very good job. The algorithm “if you like this tea, you’ll also like this weak tea” is flawed except for people who happen to be drinking weak tea. More precision isn’t what’s called for. The trick will be in finding what’s roughly appropriate rather than the perfect match. In this melody it’s the wrong notes that will prove most important.

Real time is Dead

Real time media (with the exception of financial data for the purpose of trading) is the equivalent of turning on the television to see what’s on. There’s always something on, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to watch it. The flood of real-time personal digital information will be consumed and digested by equally large robots who will determine that nothing important is going on. It will turn out to be sound and fury signifying nothing. Now we can be certain that nothing’s happening. This will free up a lot of time.

The Technical Age is Inside of the Ecological Age

Humankind is constitutive of the biosphere, meaning that it is a part of a larger thing. While global warming is down to human activity within the biosphere, the biosphere isn’t something to which we can apply our human will and mold like a piece of plastic. The technical in us has the fantasy that we can “fix” the problem of the warming earth through optimizing our technical approaches. This is the faith of the scientist and the capitalist.

Plausible Deniability and the “You” who is Recorded

The poor will be recorded and prosecuted based on those recordings. The rich will purchase plausible deniability with regard to their recordings and nullify their value in courtrooms.

Silicon Valley has Over-Served the Consumer

With few exceptions, all new technology products and services will be considered superfluous. This will be the case for the next 15 to 20 years. Google Glass will prove to be indigestible. It will find a place in warfare and professional technical work situations. Pundits will keep looking for, and demanding, the next big innovation when we haven’t fully digested the last one. We barely understand the telephone and television yet.

The Enterprise was Already Social

There are many experts who will say that the Enterprise isn’t social until they say it is. Corporate enterprises are social by their nature, some new communications tools are added to the toolbox every year. This has always been true. Social in the enterprise will end up looking more like UseNet and Listservs. Real-time streams are for coffee breaks.

The Singularity and the Fear of Being Left Out

The singularity is the most important and telling fantasy of the technical age. Its practical possibility is unimportant. Those who desire and worship the singularity feel they will be included in this grand reunion of all things. They see themselves helping to build a paradise to replace the one we lost. Those who see it as dystopian exercise recognize that a machine-driven singularity may well exclude humans as too inefficient. The fallen human will have no place in the next level of evolution in which self-aware machines will dominate.

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