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Transparent: Believing is Seeing that Believing is Seeing

“We've almost made ourselves transparent in reaction to the fact that we know we're being watched.”

Annie Clark, St. Vincent

You are what you eat. You are what you wear. You are the music you listen to, the audio and video you consume. You are the investments you make, the work you do, the space you live in. You are the furniture that decorates your living space, especially the knick knacks on your mantle. You are the photos you share, the snarky comments you make on social networks, the political commentators you choose to listen to. You are the software you chose, the operating system, the device, the cloud that holds your stuff. You are the car you drive, the public transportation you take, the footwear you select for any particular walk. You are the cocktails you order, the craft beer you quaff and the espresso you sip.

You are the bill that was left unpaid this month. You are the parking ticket for parking in a handicapped spot. You are the bad report from a dentist. You're the person who doesn't floss enough. You're the person who raised his voice in anger. You are the phone call you forgot to make. You are the person living beyond her means. You are the person working two jobs and collecting food stamps. You are the person whose marriage didn't work out. You're the person who's too tired to read and too tired to sleep. Staring at the ceiling, waiting for the alarm to ring signaling the start of another day. You're the person obsessively checking email, even though there's only ever spam. You're the person who can't afford to eat lunch today. You are the person who forgot the difference between baking soda and baking powder.

You're the person whose essence is never completely captured by a sentence, or even a paragraph. You're the person who is represented by thousands of entries in hundreds of corporate and government databases. But the pieces never seem to add up to a solid picture. You're the person whose potential isn't represented by your test scores. You're the person who can't be summed up analyzing your web search history. You're the person whose taste can't be modeled with an algorithm.

You're the person who's become transparent. You're the person who is watched but unseen. You're the person who is present, but unrecorded. You're the person who leaves a trace that is never fully comprehended. You're the person with wholly unexpected depth. You're the person filled with unknown unknowns.

 

I Like to iWatch

For some reason we're looking for a computerized wrist watch. I guess it's because everyone, at least before smart phones, used to buy a watch. The market for wrist watches appears to include just about everyone, but good quality watches are rarely replaced. It's becoming a niche market steeped in nostalgia.

A watch is for telling time. A computer isn't necessary for that function. No one needs an iWatch to tell time. The current networked wearables are small feature-reduced smart phones that can be strapped to the wrist. Not that phones are still telephones.

The etymology of the word “watch” isn't entirely clear, but it seems to have something to do with a schedule for keeping watch, for instance on the deck of ship. An iWatch would be a device for keeping an eye on the wearer. The schedule can be discarded because it's always on, although the batteries need to be recharged now and then. “Wearable” means attached via a strap or some other means–it's a device not meant for the hand or the pocket.

These new devices, if they actually appear, are personal data collection devices that will send information for analysis to a personal or feudal cloud. The devices themselves will have limited read-out capability. They are sensors. They're meant to suck in data, not to display it. And once it's “in,” there's little chance it will remain private.

 

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.

 

 

THE HUMAN ABSTRACT

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?

 

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