Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The passing scene – August 19, 2015

August 19, 2015

On the elementary structure of domination: The Bully’s Pulpit by David Graeber for The Baffler.

Schoolyard bullies typically believe they have a right and duty to punish and humiliate those who manifest vulnerability, fear or deviance, and they retroactively justify their actions by the inappropriate ways in which their victims resist, Graeber wrote; this reflects the structure of domination in the larger society.

Algorithms can be a digital star chamber by Frank Pasquale for Aeon.

An algorithm fed into a computer can determine whether you get a job, get credit or get insurance, or what kind.  Probably you don’t know about it.  Probably you can’t appeal the result because arbitrary assumptions processed through a computer are considered “objective.”

Climate Change Threatens Economic Development, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim Says by Julia Glum for International Business Times.   (Hat tip to Hal Bauer)

We’ll see whether he puts the World Bank’s money where his mouth is.


Software rot, not cyber-terrorism, is the threat

July 12, 2015

The computer systems serving United Airlines, the New York Stock Exchange and the Wall Street Journal web page all crashed on the same day.

The cause almost certainly was not cyber-terrorism.  It was software rot.

Software programs of most big institutions are built on modifications of older obsolete programs.  There are so many layers of software that nobody fully understands them.

A writer named Zeynep Tufekci explained—

In the nineties, I paid for parts of my college education by making such old software work on newer machines.  Sometimes, I was handed a database, and some executable (compiled) code that nobody had the source code for.  The mystery code did some things to the database.  Now more things needed to be done.

windows-rotThe sane solution would have been to port the whole system to newer machines, fully, with new source code.  But the company neither had the money nor the time to fix it like that, once and for all.

So I wrote more code that intervened between the old programs and the old database, and added some options that the management wanted.  It was a lousy fix. 

It wouldn’t work for the next thing that needed to be done, either, but they would probably hire one more person to write another layer of connecting code. But it was cheap (for them). And it worked (for the moment).

via Medium.

Other aspects of the problem are that most software programs are written in a hurry to meet tight deadlines.  Remember the engineers’ proverb?

Price.  Time.  Quality.

Pick any two.

All this is part of a larger societal problem—the refusal of managers of big institutions to spend money on maintenance.

Our dominant operating systems, our way of working, and our common approach to developing, auditing and debugging software, and spending (or not) money on its maintenance, has not yet reached the requirements of the 21st century.  [snip]

From our infrastructure to our privacy, our software suffers from “software sucks” syndrome which doesn’t sound as important as a Big Mean Attack of Cyberterrorists. But it is probably worse in the danger it poses.

Via Why the Great Glitch of July 8 Should Scare You by Zeynep Tufekci for Medium.

Jobs, productivity and inequality

June 30, 2015



David Rotman, writing in MIT Technology Review, made the case that advances in technology and growth in productivity have not paid off for working Americans.

He considered whether there is something in the nature of technology that rewards highly-trained employees and eliminates the jobs of unskilled employees.

I think the problem is the priorities of the people in charge, not the nature of technology.

It is not technological progress that leads to public libraries having shorter hours, or public utilities have deferred maintenance, or customer service centers keeping people on “hold” for endless minutes.  Rather it is the priorities of the people in charge.

To the extent technology is the cause, I think the reason is that the impetus has been to develop technologies that eliminate jobs rather than technologies that provide better services and improve the quality of life for the majority of Americans.


How Technology Is Destroying Jobs by David Rotman for MIT Technology Review.

Technology primarily benefits those who own it

June 29, 2015

jobs.5x650I can remember 50 and 60 years ago when people worried about what Americans would do with all the affluence and leisure time that would result from automation.   Today that seems like a cruel joke.

Technology primarily benefits those who own it.  Applied science primarily benefits those who fund it, or at least reflects what the funders are interested in.  There can be spillover effects that benefit everyone, but these don’t necessarily happen of their own accord.

I came across a good article on this topic in Technology Review.  The lesson I draw from it is (1) technology is not a substitute for social and economic reform and (2) there is a need for scientific and technological research outside the domains of for-profit corporations and the military.


Who Will Own the Robots? in Technology Review.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism}

World empires of the Internet

June 16, 2015
Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

Source: Information Geographies

Internet companies are an extension of their nations’ soft power.  This map, based on data compiled in 2013, shows the number of Internet users and the most-visited web site in each country.

What stands out for me is the global reach of U.S.-based Internet companies whose dominance, however, ends at the borders of China and Russia.

Google has been squeezed out of China.  It still has a reported 30 percent market share in Russia, based partly on the popularity of its Android hand-held device, but faces anti-trust charges in that country.

I don’t think Russia, any more than China, is willing to tolerate a strong foreign Internet presence.

Another thing that stands out is the huge Internet penetration in the Southeast Asian nations of Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, compared not only to Burma, Laos and Cambodia, which barely register as dot on the map, but also compared to Australia and New Zealand.


The real reason robots are replacing human labor

May 12, 2015

The great danger of so-called artificial intelligence is not that computers will become sentient beings, but that decision-makers will treat them as if they are.

Machines are tools.  They are a means to multiply human strength and to duplicate repetitive human tasks.  They are highly useful.  But they are not a substitute for human skill and judgment.

jobretraining21stcenturyThe use of automatic pilots in airplanes is a good example.  An automatic pilot will make fewer errors than a human pilot, especially if airline management has pushed the human pilot to the point of exhaustion.  But excessive use of automatic pilots means that the human pilot’s skills wither, and the human is less able to respond in an emergency that doesn’t fit the computer algorithm.

Another example is the use of the Internet and automatic answering machines for customer service.  I don’t think anybody who has ever had to deal with one of these things thinks that they provide improved customer service.  Their purpose is to create a barrier between the organization and the public in order to save money, but also in order to free the managers from the inconvenience of having to deal with actual human beings.

Machines don’t talk back.  Not even self-directed machines talk back.  Neither do they exercise judgment or think of ways to do the work better.

But from the standpoint of a bureaucrat whose goal is the seamless exercise of power, the latter consideration is unimportant.   It is much more convenient to program machines than to deal with employees or deal with the public.


How tar sands oil is produced

May 6, 2015

gr-tar-sands-948Source: NPR.

Behemoth machines laying railroad track

April 29, 2015

These Plasser & Theurer machines are awesome.  It is even more awesome to think that the U.S. transcontinental railroads were all laid by laborers with hand tools, without such machines as these.

We owe a lot to those old-time railroad laborers, like John Henry in the song.  But we also owe a lot to the inventors and industrialists who made it possible to do the work without back-breaking labor.  Notice, though, that there are workers all around the track-laying machine.  The machines don’t run themselves.  Human beings are not obsolete.


John Michael Greer on the burden of denial

April 9, 2015

Allegedly smart phones don’t do anything to fix the rising spiral of problems besetting industrial civilization, but they make it easier for people to distract themselves from those problems for a little while longer.

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

That, I’d like to suggest, is also what’s driving the metastasis of television screens in the places that people used to go to enjoy a meal, a beer, or a cup of coffee and each other’s company.

These days, that latter’s too risky; somebody might mention a friend who lost his job and can’t get another one, a spouse who gets sicker with each overpriced prescription the medical industry pushes on her, a kid who didn’t come back from Afghanistan, or the like, and then it’s right back to the reality that everyone’s trying to avoid.

It’s much easier to sit there in silence staring at little colored pictures on a glass screen, from which all such troubles have been excluded.  [snip]


‘Why spy? It’s cheaper than playing fair’

March 13, 2015

The French economist Thomas Piketty believes that if the gap between rich people and the majority becomes as wide as it was before the French Revolution, there could be another such revolution.

But Cory Doctorow, writing in The Guardian, says the financial elites are aware of the danger of revolution and their response is to press governments to spend money on the police, the military and government surveillance, rather than on measures that would allow a more broadly shared prosperity.

technology police statePiketty is trying to convince global elites (or at least the policymakers beholden to them) that it’s cheaper to submit to a redistributive 1% annual global wealth tax than it is to buy the guards to sustain our present wealth disparity.

There’s an implied max/min problem here: the intersection of a curve representing the amount of wealth you need to spend on guards to maintain stability in the presence of a widening rich/poor gap and the amount you can save on guards by creating social mobility through education, health, and social welfare is the point at which you should stop paying for cops and start paying for hospitals and schools.

This implies that productivity gains in guard labor will make wider wealth gaps sustainable.

Improvements in military and surveillance technology tilt the balance against economic reform.

Why spy? Because it’s cheaper than playing fair.

I think Doctorow is right.  I think the reason so many known suspicious characters are able to commit acts of terrorism is that the U.S. government and other governments are more concerned about putting down social unrest.


Technology should be used to create social mobility – not to spy on citizens by Cory Doctorow in The Guardian.

Why salaries don’t rise by Harold Meyerson for the Washington Post.


Why doesn’t technology make us all better off?

March 11, 2015


We Americans long enjoyed the world’s highest material standard of living, and we were told that was because of the superior productivity of American industry.  That sounds like common sense.  If you want more, you need to produce more.  Obviously.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

But about 30 or so years ago, this changed.  Our productivity continued to increase, but our wages and salaries didn’t increase along with it.


Some say that the problem is technology.   Automation means that fewer wage-earners are needed, and our work had less value.   So naturally there are fewer jobs, and employers generally don’t have to pay as much to find people to take these jobs.

Fewer wage earners are needed.  Needed by whom?  Our work has less value.  Value to whom?

They are less needed, and of less value, to the corporate boards and wealthy stockholders who own the technology.  Or, to put it another way:  Capitalists, not workers, own the means of production.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

It’s true that the average factory worker or retail clerk did not personally create the technological innovations that made it possible for them to do more with the same amount of work.  But neither did the average corporate executive or corporate stockholder.

If technology is owned and controlled by a small financial elite, then the applications of technology will be such to benefit that elite.

It is possible that, in acting in their own interest, the elite will do things that are good for society as a whole.  It also is possible that they will do things that are bad for society as a whole.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

When that happens, we the people need to understand that their power and ownership is not based on divine right or impersonal economic laws.   It is the result of corporate structures and legal rights established by law, and laws can be changed.

Some radical thinkers, such as Stanley Aronowitz, David Graeber, Richard D. Wolff and Gar Alperovitz, are reviving the idea of worker ownership and public ownership of the means of production, which is not the same thing as government ownership.

More moderate reformers think it is just necessary to change the balance of power within society.

The important thing, as I see it, is to stop letting priorities be determined by the “job creators,” the ones who own the machinery, the research laboratories and the so-called intellectual property.   The question is not whether they need us.  The question is whether we need them.


Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit by David Graeber for The Baffler.

Why Wages Won’t Rise by Robert Reich.

The Great Decoupling of the U.S. Economy by Andrew McAfee on his blog.

Global lessons on inclusive growth by Jason Furman for Policy Network.

The Most Important Economic Chart by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi for House of Debt.

The wedges between productivity and median compensation growth by Lawrence Mishel for the Economic Policy Institute.



Technology and its discontents: Links 2/17/15

February 17, 2015

Socialize the Data Centers! an interview of Evgeny Morozov by New Left Review.

Knowledge really is power.   Information available on the Internet enables big organizations to know—or think they know—everything important about you.  Evgeny Morozov, a technology writer and critic, believes Big Data should be subject to democratic control and privacy safeguards, not monopolized by private companies such as Google.

One American City Enjoys a Hyperfast Internet—Any Surprise Corporations Don’t Control It? by Thom Hartmann for AlterNet.

Chattanooga, Tennessee’s publicly-owned fiber-optic Internet utility operates at a speed of 1,000 gigabits per second—about 50 times faster than in the average American city where Internet service is provided by for-profit companies.

New High-Tech Farm Equipment Is a Nightmare for Farmers by Kyle Wiens for Wired.

Tractlor manufacturers such as John Deere make it virtually impossible and maybe illegal for farmers to repair and reprogram their own tractors.

The invisible network that keeps the world running by Tim Maugham for the BBC.

Containerized shipping enables the global supply chain to function.  It requires complex coordination that can be done only by computer networks.  The author speculates that someday the process of sorting, loading and unloading cargo may be completely automated, with no human beings in the loop.  What, I ask ironically, could possibly go wrong?

South Korean woman’s hair ‘eaten’ by robot vacuum cleaner as she slept by Justin McCurry for The Guardian.

Technology is an extremely useful servant, but, as any rich person can tell you, people with servants need to keep an eye on them.

Comfort, risk and coal-fired furnances

January 26, 2015

When I was a schoolboy, one of my chores after I walked home from school was to stir up the coal in our furnace, so that the fire, which had been banked during the day, would flare up start to warm our house again.

Both my mother and father worked outside the home for pay, so there was no sense burning coal unnecessarily when nobody was home.

furnaceThe coal was in a huge pile in our basement, delivered by the coal company through a chute.  We had to remember to shovel new coal in the furnace at regular intervals, especially just before we went to bed at night, lest the fire go out.

Restarting a furnace fire was a major operation.  What we should have done was to start a fire with newspaper and kindling wood, then add more food and then, when the fire was going strong, add coal

What my dad actually did was to splash kerosene onto the coal, toss a lighted wooden match into the furnace and then jump back.  I do not recommend this.

The coal burned down to ashes which collected in the bottom of the furnace in big metal tubs.  Another one of my chores, when I was big enough, was to help my father carry the tubs out to the curb to be collected.

I imagine my father thought having a furnace at all and having coal delivered to the house was a great advance.  He grew up in a farm with only a stove in the kitchen for heat.

I myself have a gas furnace which I control with a thermostat.  That’s a lot easier than shoveling coal.  But on Saturday night, my furnace failed—with temperatures outside below 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

I phoned Betlem Heating, and a service technician came by a few hours later.  He quickly diagnosed the fixed the problem—a failed thermocouple—and was on his way.

He told me he had many calls that night, each one to a place 20 or 30 miles from the one before.  But he said he didn’t mind.  That was his job.

I have a much easier life than my father and grandfather.  But compared to them, I am much more dependent on complex systems that I don’t understand—not just the furnace, but the whole interdependent web of people and institutions that bring the gas to my house.


The passing scene: Links & comments 11/19/14

November 19, 2014

The Myth of AI: a conversation with Jaron Lanier for Edge.

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, social critic and pioneer virtual reality researcher, said a computer algorithm is no more a form of life, and artificial intelligence is no more a form of intelligence, than a computer is a type of person.

The great danger is not that intelligent computers will take over, but that human beings will abdicate their decision-making to computer algorithms.  This is especially true, Lanier noted, as corporate managers increasingly make decisions based on computer algorithms.

Lanier warned against “premature mystery reduction”—the assumption that when we learn interesting and important new things, these are the key to understanding everything.

The Scheduled Crisis by Jeannette Cooperman for St. Louis magazine.

William Harmening, who was an Illinois state investigator for 34 years and now teaches forensic psychology, criminology and crisis intervention at Washington University in St. Louis, gave a wide-ranging interview on what to expect when a Grand Jury decides whether to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown.

Harmening spoke of the process of “deindividuation” in which people in a crowd are so caught up by anger that they lose the capacity for thought and self-control and become caught up in something that seems like a group mind.

There is an opposite process, he said, in which people are so caught up by fear that they lose any sense of being a part of organized society and do whatever they think will make them safe, at whatever cost.

High Tide in Republicanland by John Pennington.

John Pennington collected photographs for his blog of water in the streets of American  coastal cities at high tide.   He said these photos weren’t taken in the aftermath of storms or anything like that, just after regular high tide.

This is something that will only get worse.  How much worse depends on what Americans and others do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are making the climate change and the ocean rise.

Does humanity’s future rest on Mars?

November 10, 2014

The Earth has existed for billions of years, and life arose only once.  We know that because the DNA of all living creatures, from humans to yeast, is related. For all we know, Earth is the only abode of life in the universe.

Life has existed for hundreds of millions of years, and intelligence life appeared only once.  Vision came into existence by means of several different evolutionary paths, but intelligence exists only in creatures with brains.  Even if some kind of life exists elsewhere in the universe, Earth may be host to the only intelligent life.

The whole saga of human life may be a brief and unimportant episode in the history of the universe, and human civilization a minor and short-lived part of that.

marsPIA02653-fullBut that’s not the only possibility.  It is possible that the history of human life and civilization on Earth may be the prelude to the spread of life through the universe, a story that would continue for billions of years.

Recent discoveries show hundreds of planets around stars within observation distance.  We don’t know how to get to those planets, but we do know how to get to planets within our Solar System, which would be a first step.

The billionaire American entrepreneur Elon Musk, the lesser known Dutch promoter Bas Lansdorp and others have announced their intentions of establishing a human colony on Mars.  They want to be real-life versions of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein’s David Delos Harriman character in The Man Who Sold the Moon.  Like Harriman, they seek profits only as a means of sending humanity to the planets and stars.

vikinglander1-1I am torn between the grandeur of this enterprise and the seemingly hard practical facts.  Establishing a permanent human colony on Mars would be infinitely more difficult than, for example, establishing a self-sustaining colony in Antarctica or the Gobi Desert or a domed city at the bottom of the ocean.

Would people go?  Many say they would.  Could they sustain themselves in an environment so much more unforgiving than anything on Earth?  Would there be an economic payback?  Would people on Earth commit to supporting them indefinitely?

I don’t know enough to answer these questions, but my gut feeling is “no”.  But then again, I agree with Arthur C. Clarke, another science fiction writer, who said that the only way to know the limits of the possible is to venture a little bit into the impossible.


Geo-engineering the earth’s ecology and climate

October 8, 2014

What if the world continues to fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?  There is a different approach to fighting global warming, called geo-engineering.  It means intentionally tampering with the Earth’s ecology and climate systems to stop global warming.

David Keith, in the video above, advocates releasing ash into the air to absorb sunlight.  Joseph Cannon, in a blog post (link below), advocates using Pykrete—ice impregnated with wood pulp—to slow the melting of Arctic ice.  Another plan is to dump clouds of iron filings into the ocean, stimulating the growth of plankton and other marine plants that absorb carbon dioxide.

Other scientists are working on genetically-engineered plants that would absorb sunlight more efficiently and suck up carbon dioxide in greater amounts.

I’m leery of such plans, without having any specific objections beyond Murphy’s Law. the Law of Unintended Consequences and the Precautionary Principle.

But if global warming starts to accelerate, the world’s people will demand emergency action, whether such action is well thought out or not.  So I agree with Joseph Cannon.  It is time to research Plans B just in case.

Keep in mind, though, that the open-ended buildup of greenhouse gasses, if not stopped, will sooner or later overwhelm any Plan B.   And that would require a Plan C, a Plan D and a Plan E.  Which would be followed by more plans to counteract the unforeseen effects of the earlier plans.

Or maybe, by that time, the problem will have been rendered moot by the scarcity and high price of what’s left of the world’s coal, oil and natural gas.


Climate change and the limits of debate by Joseph Cannon for Cannonfire.  (Hat tip to Cannonfire for the video)

Should we upgrade photosynthesis and grow supercrops? by Michael Le Page for New Scientist.


The passing scene: Links & comments 10/6/14

October 6, 2014

Populist Former Senator Jim Webb Could Give Hillary Clinton Major Headaches in 2016 by Lynn Stuart Parramore for Alternet.

I’ve long admired Senator James Webb, the former Senator from Virginia.  A Vietnam veteran and Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, he switched from the Republican to the Democratic party out of disgust for the Bush administration’s subservience to Wall Street.  He has criticized the Obama administration on the same grounds.

Webb is an opponent of reckless military intervention abroad, a critic of the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration and a friend of working people.

I admire Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for the way she stands up to Wall Street, but I agree with Webb on a broader range of issues than I do with her (for example, she goes along with the administration’s war policies).

Tech gives the rich new toys while perpetuating the criminalization of poverty by Nathaniel Mott for Pando Daily (via Naked Capitalism)

A new device allows subprime auto lenders to track the location of a debtor’s car and to disable the car if the debtor falls behind on payments.  The New York Times reported this has happened when the car is in motion.


A map of the on-line world

October 2, 2014

Click to enlarge.

Hat tip to The Big Picture

India to Mars, on time and on a shoestring

October 1, 2014

dYOLLCrChart by Global Post

India’s recent Mars mission was the first time a nation succeeded in sending a spacecraft to Mars on the first try.  And it was the lowest-cost Mars mission on record—even cheaper to do that some well-known science fiction movies. Spokesmen say it was all done without any imported components.

It is true that India had the benefit of experience of nations that previously sent missions to Mars.  But Russia and Japan had that benefit, and they spent more with less success.

It also is true that the scientific mission of India’s spacecraft was more limited than that of some other nations.

Even so, India’s Mars mission is a remarkable achievement, both in itself and for how it was done.


Mangalayan sends India’s critics into orbit by Raja Murthy for Asia Times.

David Graeber on postmodernism

September 24, 2014

Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened?

The question struck me as I watched one of the recent Star Wars movies.  The movie was terrible, but I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects.

Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”

That last word—simulate—is key. The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation.  [snip]

The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche—all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.

Surely, if we were vacationing in geodesic domes on Mars or toting about pocket-size nuclear fusion plants or telekinetic mind-reading devices no one would ever have been talking like this.

The postmodern moment was a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and to dress it up as something epochal, exciting, and new.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

David Graeber on the space race

September 23, 2014

It’s often said the Apollo moon landing was the greatest historical achievement of Soviet communism.  Surely, the United States would never have contemplated such a feat had it not been for the cosmic ambitions of the Soviet Politburo.  [snip]

The American victory in the space race meant that, after 1968, U.S. planners no longer took the competition seriously.  As a result, the mythology of the final frontier was maintained, even as the direction of research and development shifted away from anything that might lead to the creation of Mars bases and robot factories.

The standard line is that all this was a result of the triumph of the market.  The Apollo program was a Big Government project, Soviet-inspired in the sense that it required a national effort coordinated by government bureaucracies. 

As soon as the Soviet threat drew safely out of the picture, though, capitalism [supposedly] was free to revert to lines of technological development more in accord with its normal, decentralized, free-market imperatives—such as privately funded research into marketable products like personal computers.  [snip]

In fact, the United States never did abandon gigantic, government-controlled schemes of technological development.  Mainly, they just shifted to military research—and not just to Soviet-scale schemes like Star Wars, but to weapons projects, research in communications and surveillance technologies, and similar security-related concerns.

To some degree this had always been true: the billions poured into missile research had always dwarfed the sums allocated to the space program.  Yet by the seventies, even basic research came to be conducted following military priorities.

One reason we don’t have robot factories is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

David Graeber on the lack of flying cars

September 21, 2014

David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist-anthropologist, wrote about possible reasons why technological progress seems to be slowing down, and why the science fictional dreams of his boyhood did not come true like the dreams of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

David Graeber

David Graeber

One is that American institutions are reshaping themselves on the model of the for-profit corporation, where everything has to be justified on its potential for short-term profit.  If you have to show in advance what you intend to invent, and its guaranteed cash value, you’re not going to invent anything very new.

Another is that the government and corporate elite is not interested in radical new technologies that will disrupt the power structure.  So research is focused on high-tech automated weapons, on surveillance technology, on psychiatric drugs to keep us calmed down, and on special effects, virtual reality and electronic gadgets to keep us distracted.

Yet another is that the payoff from technology, in terms of profits, is reaching a point of diminishing returns, which, by the way, is something Karl Marx predicted.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.  Click on Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit to read it.

The new normal: Links & comments 7/21/14

September 21, 2014

There Are Social and Political Benefits to Having Friends by David Brooks for the New York Times.  (Hat tip to Hal Bauer)

David Brooks argued for the benefits of friendship, especially how good friends bring out the best in each other.  He proposed, tongue in cheek (I think), a program for bringing people together in circumstances in which they would be likely to become friends.  I think it strange to live in a world where the value of friendship is an unfamiliar idea that you have to argue for.

Read Slowly to Benefit Your Brain and Cut Stress by Jeanne Whalen for The Wall Street Journal.  (Hat tip to David White)

I think this article, too, is strange.  The author cites scientific studies that show the benefits of reading, and specifically of reading from printed books, as if reading were an unfamiliar activity that needs justification.

Eight Things We Can Do Now to Build a Space Colony This Century by Annalee Newitz for io9.

Based on the comments, the most controversial of the eight proposals is to build a sustainable future here on Planet Earth so that the space colonists will have a world to come home to.   Some of the hard-core space enthusiasts think this is a false priority.


Is progress in technology winding down?

September 16, 2014

Double click to enlarge

Is technological progress winding down?  I think it might be.   And if it is, I have some ideas as to why this might be so.

I have seen many changes in my adult lifetime (since 1957), but I think the changes my grandparents saw were greater.   They saw the advent of electricity, the telephone, piped water, radio and the automobile—not that these things were invented in their lifetimes, but that they came into widespread use.

Technological20progress20640x480What have I seen that is comparable?  Television, the personal computer, the Internet, affordable air travel.  I don’t think that any of these things changed my life as the progress of technology changed my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives.

I don’t think this is because inventors are less creative.  The electrical generating plant and the internal combustion engine were much more complicated than the steam engine, and the nuclear reactor is more complicated still.  The telephone was a more ingenious invention than the telegraphy, and the Internet even more ingenious.   Compared to the first car I owned, the car I have now is like something out of science fiction.

Rather it is because the simple inventions that have a big payoff have already been made.   As the Japanese would say, we have picked the low-hanging fruit.  It is in the nature of things that the demands on engineers and inventors in the future will be greater, and the payoff will be less.

The first oil wells were simple devices compared to deep water drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  Think about drilling a deep vertical shaft into the earth’s surface, then drilling a horizontal shaft out from that, then setting off explosives to fracture the layers of shale, then pumping in detergent to force out the oil and gas.   It is amazing to me that this is possible at all.  Yet the payoff is less and the hazards are greater than in the old well because the low-hanging fruit already has been picked.

Then, too, to the extent that technological progress consists of using external sources of energy more efficiently, it is self-limiting, because there are finite amounts of water power, fossil fuels and nuclear fuels.

electricity_illustrationThis is all speculation.  I could be wrong.  This is not a subject about which I have deep knowledge.

I remember all the people in the past, including the man who said about a century ago that the U.S. Patent Office should be closed because there was nothing important left to invent.   And even if I’m right for now, there could be some breakthrough that would change everything.

Why, then, do I even bother to post on this topic?  It is because so many people, especially us Americans, seem to think that indefinite technological progress is a law of nature.

The extreme example of this is the high-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, who says that accelerating scientific progress will soon bring us everything we could wish for, including immortality.   A more common example is the people who refuse to be alarmed about climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels or mutant drug-resistant disease, because they are confident something will turn up.

I’ve seen construction crews with flow charts of their work, culminating in a box saying [AND THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS].   This of course was a joke, but if we as a people assume this in real life, the consequences will not be a joke.


Life in the wired society

August 25, 2014

Oral-B, a Procter & Gamble company, this year launched its SmartSeries Bluetooth toothbrush — an essential appliance for what the firm calls “the well-connected bathroom”.

It connects to your smartphone, where its app tracks brushing tasks: Have you flossed? cleaned the tongue? rinsed? And highlights areas of the mouth visualized on the phone screen that deserve more attention.

More importantly, as the toothbrush’s website proudly announces, it also “records brushing activity as data that you can chart on your own and share with dental professionals.”

What happens to that data — whether it goes to these dental professionals, or your insurance company, stays with you or is appended to your data already owned by Facebook and Google — is a controversial question.

via Evgeny Morozov: How much for your data?.

The principle of financialization is that if anything can be done, it not only can, but should be done for money, and that the only standard of value is monetary.  Technology in the service of financialization applies this to your personal life.  Any information about you that is worth knowing is worth selling for money.

Now if personal data is a financial asset and nothing else, the individual person should have the exclusive right to sell it, just as the individual person should have the exclusive right to sell his or her own blood.   But is this how we want to live?

The digitization of everyday life, and the rapaciousness of financialization, risk turning everything — genome to bedroom — into a productive asset. 

As Esther Dyson, a board member of 23andme, the leader in personalized genomics, said the company is “like the ATM that gives you access to the wealth locked within your genes”.

This is the future that Silicon Valley expects us to embrace: given enough sensors and net connections, our entire life becomes a giant ATM.  Those refusing this would have only themselves to blame. 

Opting out from the “sharing economy” would come to be seen as economic sabotage and wasteful squandering of precious resources that could accelerate growth.

Eventually, the refusal to “share” becomes tinged with as much guilt as the refusal to save or work or pay debts, with a veneer of morality covering up — once again — exploitation.

It’s only natural that the less fortunate, under the burden of austerity, are turning their kitchens into restaurants, their cars into taxis, and their personal data into financial assets. What else can they do?

For Silicon Valley, this is a triumph of entrepreneurship — a spontaneous technological development, unrelated to the financial crisis.  But it is only as entrepreneurial as those who are driven — by the need to pay rent — into prostitution or selling their body parts.

via Evgeny Morozov: How much for your data?.

 Hat tip for the link to Daniel Brandt.


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