[The panopticon at work] BBC Click: Geoff White: Facial recognition

Facial recognition technology is dangerous. The UK should follow San Francisco’s example and ban its use. The argument, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear, is a smokescreen. It appeals to a certain logic without recognising the threat. If you disagree you must have something to hide. It allows vested interests to push an agenda that does nothing for any of our liberty. Facial recognition is the first step in the state automating policing, in automating the panopticon. You will change the way you behave because you will never know when you are being watched. Facial recognition weaponises surveillance, it weaponises the weapon.

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[The sinister face of social media] The Guardian: Jamie Fullerton: Teenage girl kills herself ‘after Instagram poll’ in Malaysia

There is a cold inevitability to this headline. A sadness that goes beyond the mountain of sadness that is this girl’s death. I’m filled with questions about the kind of people social media is engineering. And that brings a chill when I think about the people around me. We really are fucked if we’ve become a world where voting on someone’s death or life is given so little thought. My guess is every one of the 69 per cent who voted “death” are going to say they didn’t think she was serious. Their response to “Really Important, Help Me Choose D/L”, was as random as flipping a coin. They didn’t think about the question, or the outcome. They just flipped a tail instead of a head at the toss. An even more worrying implication is the lack of of critical thinking present in her followers. Would this girl still be alive if she had put an “L” before the “D”? I’m going to make a dangerous assumption that she put the “D” before the “L” because she had suicide in mind. Her metric was already headed in that direction. The answer just confirmed her choice. The 69 per cent chose randomly, and followed blindly. That possibility has ramifications reaching way beyond this girls suicide, taking us somewhere over the horizon, and dropping us in a well so deep we may never get out. In a complicated world social media simplified a question into a choice between, “D” or “L”. Ironically they understood the difference between the abstract “D” for death and “L” for life, but not the nuance of putting “D” before “L”. In life there are no binary choices. I fear we are forgetting that fact, forgetting how to navigate that complexity.

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Can you create fire from nothing? Novara Media: George Monbiot: We’ve got to go straight to the heart of capitalism and overthrow it

This is an interesting and impassioned argument from Mr Monbiot. I agree with what he has to say. But it does feel a bit like one of the podium speeches from the film Reds, Warren Beatty’s 1981 biopic of Jack Reed. The question I have for Mr Monbiot is simple; where do I plunge my sword? I’d love “to go straight to the heart of capitalism,” and strike the fatal blow. Personally I don’t think you can, because capitalism doesn’t have a heart. And because it doesn’t, there is no focus for our rage, no place for my aim to strike.

This raises the question, what form does contemporary capitalism take? It’s not the capitalism of the nineteenth century. The one Jack Reed was battling in Reds? That seems almost quaint by contemporary standards. Cut the head off the bosses. Take control of the means of production. Job done. These days you can cut the head off as many bosses as you want, capitalism will continue. It just grows another head, or two, like the spawn of Hydra. It strikes me that capitalism is more like an all-consuming ball of viscera, held together with clots of blood, and the chimeric limbs of a virus, grabbing at everything in it’s path.

Describing it in this way makes me think I should adjust my understanding of the monolith. For me the metaphor for contemporary capitalism has always been the panopticon. The panopticon I’ve written about in previous posts is a machine of control, a prison. It has a tower at the centre. With cells arranged around it. The watchers watch, and the tenants comply, because they never know when they’re being watched. With the visceral image in mind I think I have to revise my vision of the prisons architecture. It needs to accommodate this unrelenting ball of viscera.

If contemporary capitalism is a ball, always rolling, always consuming, where do the cells of the panopticon fit? I can only think they line the inside of the ball like the proteins lining the wall of a virus. This changes the orientation of the cells, tipping them over. That means we’re no longer being watched along a horizontal axis, instead we’re being monitored from above. If we inhabit these six-sided boxes, hermetically sealed cells, what are we seeing when we look out? If we look left or right, front or back, we should be able to see the other tenants of the panopticon. But we don’t. They should be there, staring in on us, as we stare in on them. Could we be so similar to each other we mistake them for our own reflection? Is it that we see them, but like Narcissus we’re so transfixed by our own reflection, all we see is a haze of movement in the background.

If when we look around we only see reflections, what are we seeing when we look up? Can we even see the spherical version of the tower? All watching? All knowing? Omnipotent? Do we see the virus gnome, hovering above us like water sliding on oil? Are we seeing God? Is that why capitalism hasn’t destroyed our notions of God? It needs us to believe in the almighty so we keep looking up. If we’re always looking up, we’re not looking down. If we’re not looking down, we don’t see the viscera, the clots of blood, the chimeric limbs of the virus. We don’t see the true horror of capitalism swirling beneath our feet. We’re told the fiery chambers of hell are waiting should we transgress, but they’re not. All that is beneath us is the bloody intestine of the beast that has swallowed us.

If the Devil is the beast, and the beast is the machine, how many of us have the courage to cut into its flesh? How hard is it to kill an animal? How much fear and loathing must we have to slice through the flesh and bone? How much more courage would you need to slice and escape through those chimeric limbs? Their entire reason for existence is to grab everything in their path, and draw it into the beast? Any individual escaping their cell would become just another resource for the machine, more protein for the wall of the virus.

It is no wonder that beast seems impossible to slay. We’ve been shadow boxing our reflection for so long, we’re exhausted. But strength must be summoned from somewhere. Any attack on the beast must be coordinated. It requires a vast percentage of the panopticons prisoners to break through the walls of their cell, and slice into the beast simultaneously. The trauma must be so catastrophic that the beast is unable to repair or mutate. Each and every chimeric limb must rendered irreparable. The unrelenting production of heads must be hacked until the machine has neither the will or the energy to produce more. Only then will we be able to hack through the clots of blood, and escape.

This would not be the end of it. Who knows what will be found on the outside. Will there be anything left? It could be so depleted it can no longer sustain us. Consider also, how prepared are we for this new life? After forever in a box, will we have the skills we need to thrive? A practical life is not a technological existence. The abstract thinking needed to thrive in a cell is not the same as the practical skills needed to survive in the wild. Can you create fire from nothing? I’m not sure I have such a basic skill.

This is not an excuse to stay where we are. We have a choice. Escape the panopticon. Destroy the beast. They are one and the same. If we don’t the beast will continue until it has consumed everything. Then it will feed on us until that resource is gone. Finally, alone, the beast will wither and decay. It will not matter. No one will cry. There will be no one left to notice.

We have a choice. Learn to make fire.

‪Futurism: Dan Robitzski: Scientists Create Material With “Artificial Metabolism”

This discovery is both fascinating and scary. It could be a blessing that is used to clean up pollution. It could be a curse, some kind of self replicating nonobot, that reproduces itself until there’s nothing left on the planet but a grey goo. Alternatively it could be the beginning of the Tyrell Corporation, destined to build androids we call replicants?

Another insight into the watchers in the tower: Business Insider: Rob Price: Facebook says it ‘unintentionally uploaded’ 1.5 million people’s email contacts without their consent

Yet more news of Facebook wrongdoing. They “unintentionally” harvested millions of peoples contact emails. Interestingly Mr Price’s report exposes a contradiction from Facebook. He writers “Facebook disclosed to Business Insider that 1.5 million people’s contacts were collected.” This was apparently unintentional, a hangover from another protocol, that automatically uploaded new users email contacts. These contacts were “fed into Facebook’s systems, where they were used to improve Facebook’s ad targeting, build Facebook’s web of social connections, and recommend friends to add.” If that’s true, what’s the point of Facebook assurances that “these contacts were not shared with anyone and we’re deleting them.” The contacts have already been fed into Facebook’s system. Deleting them makes no difference. The damage is already done.

The Guardian: Sam Levin: ‘Bias deep inside the code’: the problem with AI ‘ethics’ in Silicon Valley

There’s a lot to think about in Mr Levin’s article. Most interestingly that there was no such thing as “neutral” AI.

The idea that you can do AI or technical ethics without a point of view is silly … The bias is deep inside the code.

It’s obvious but until it’s called out, you’re not looking for it. And if you’re not looking for it, things will continue unchecked. It occurs to me that bias is our attempt to replicate the world in our image. It’s a survival mechanism, a hangover from our primal past. It’s interesting that in the discourse around these issues, people are being asked to evolve. But even those excluded because of bias, have their own bias. Surely the point is not to exclude all bias. That’s like trying to exclude oxygen from water. If you exclude oxygen, it’s not water. So logically we must, to be unbiased, include all of the biases.