Archive for March, 2014

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?