The Sleep Institute by Two Worlds Design

Public goods v tech ⊗ Most transformative decades ⊗ The myth of green growth — No.133

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

This week → The loss of public goods to big tech ⊗ Why 2020 to 2050 will be ‘the most transformative decades in human history’ ⊗ The myth of America’s green growth ⊗ Is DNA hardware or software? ⊗ We’re losing the war against surveillance capitalism because we let Big Tech frame the debate

A year ago → Humans will never colonize Mars.

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The Loss Of Public Goods To Big Tech

Safiya U. Noble, associate professor at UCLA and co-director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, with a fantastic and damning indictment of Big Tech. First, she reminds us that we cannot automate the though decisions we have ahead, or the long overdue redistribution of power. Noble then shows eloquently that not only do the “Silicon Six” always jump in, regardless of consequences, to sell to police, pitch contact tracing, AI, or predictive analysis (there are some good signs recently, like promises of not selling facial recognition). These titans are also “implicated in decimating and displacing high-quality knowledge institutions — newsrooms, libraries, schools and universities.“ They also pay indecently low taxes, further hurting society and it’s capacity to support citizens and finance so many much needed programs. We need a reckoning for surveillance capitalism, disaster capitalism, inequality, and systemic racism; as well as a rethinking of our public goods.

Sidebar: I always wonder why Netflix is included in the “Silicon Six,” aside from size, I don’t understand why they are included in the condemnations of surveillance capitalism. Apple has other faults but is also not really part of that ad-supported problem. Finally, if you want to talk about hurting public good, what about Uber or Airbnb using VC mountains of cash to wipeout (admittedly very imperfect) taxi industries, and destroy neighbourhoods?

Big Tech is implicated in displacing high-quality knowledge institutions — newsrooms, libraries, schools and universities — by destabilizing funding through tax evasion, actively eroding the public goods we need to flourish. […]

Calls by Black Lives Matter and others to defund the police must include dismantling and outlawing the technologies of governments and law enforcement that exacerbate the conditions of racial and economic injustice. […]

As we struggle with multiple crises at this moment, Big Tech has exacerbated the spread of unreliable and false information and conspiracy theories, undermining trust and slowing efforts by public officials to provide greater protections for the public. […]

Big Tech uses our roads, our airports, our post offices — and rather than help prop up the system to work in the interest of all, the industry eschews responsibility and creates housing and employment crises by relying on gig-workers and contractors. […]

In short, instead of being partners in building the public good, Big Tech continues to profit from its erosion.

Why 2020 to 2050 Will Be ‘the Most Transformative Decades in Human History’

Very good piece (an excerpt from Eric Holthaus’ book The Future Earth) on the arduous and transformative next few decades. Even if “we” succeed at executing “proactive harm reduction on a civilizational scale,” there are still massive climate impacts in store for us, many potential disasters, challenging situations to thread, and the near certainty of large migrations that “would challenge our understanding of nationality, borders, and politics as usual.”

If lifesaving technology is not distributed fairly, or if governments lean too heavily on austerity along racial lines, or if climate disasters fragment already vulnerable populations, the result could be truly ugly. […]

[T]he heart of how the problem of climate change came into being in the first place: By imagining ourselves as individuals who somehow exist outside the context of an interconnected, living ecosystem on a planet where all of our actions deeply affect one another, we fail to see each other’s humanity and right to simply exist. […]

Until we build a world that works for everyone, we’ll continue to have people whose survival is systematically erased by those in power. That’s the dystopia for the rich and powerful: a world where the rest of us finally realize the power we had all along to fight for a justice-focused society. […]

We will need to establish policies that encourage, rather than restrict, freedom of movement. And we must establish robust social safety nets so that families are less likely to abandon their homes in search of a place where they can simply live. Also, even before we reach zero emissions globally, we will have to recognize the need to take aggressive actions to reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The Myth of America’s Green Growth

Jason Hickel looks at the claims of green growth, from Andrew McAfee in particular, and shows that globally it’s not even close. Yes, GDP in the US is rising faster than consumption of resources but he forgets to include all the extraction which takes place in countries where stuff is actually built. When looking at the United Nations’ “raw material consumption” numbers, we can see that resource usage has been accelerating since 2000. We can’t have capitalism, growth, and a livable planet that hasn’t been stripped bare.

One solution would be legally binding caps on resource use, which should make even green growth fans happy since it could (but won’t) prove their theories; they think resource extraction is falling anyway. He closes by reminding us that we don’t need growth in rich countries, we simply need to be farer. “Equity is the antidote to growth—and a much saner way to achieve our social goals.”

In other words, what looks like “green growth” is really just an artifact of globalization. Given how much the U.S. economy relies on offshored production, McAfee’s data cannot be legitimately compared to U.S. GDP, and cannot be used to make claims about dematerialization. […]

Rich countries consume a staggering 28 tons of material stuff per person per year, nearly four times more than the sustainable per-capita boundary. In the United States it’s up to 35 tons. […]

The United States has had extraordinary GDP growth over the past four decades. But, oddly, enough, real wages are lower today than they were in the 1970s, and poverty rates are higher. Why? Because virtually all of the gains from growth have gone to those who are already rich. […]

South Korea also beats the United States with 50 percent less GDP per capita. Portugal, too, with 65 percent less GDP per capita. Costa Ricans live longer, healthier lives than Americans, with 80 percent less GDP per capita.

Is DNA Hardware or Software?

If you like to read about bonkers, mind expanding and mind exploding topics, this is the one to click on.

Christina Agapakis interviews Michael Levin to better understand the Xenobots his lab has created. Lots and lots of interesting things in there but perhaps the one thing to remember for future readings is this group’s different take on biological software vs hardware. Most biologists have been thinking of DNA as the software and actual living things as hardware, focusing all their hopes of manipulating life in the tweaking of DNA (see CRISPR for example).

Levin’s team has managed to program cells without touching DNA, “simply” by giving “cells and tissues novel stimuli or experiences.” To keep the same very imperfect analogy, you could say that in this perspective DNA is not software but machine code (the only format that can be executed directly by a computer’s CPU), what they are doing with Xenobots is software, and the cells and beings are the hardware. Make sure to stick to the end for the ? on epigenetics, and how he would approach General Artificial Intelligence.

[T]hese teams of cells were wholly liberated from constraints of frog DNA. Their behavior was determined by their shape, their design. […]

DNA has been shaped by evolution to produce hardware that is eminently reprogrammable. I think we need to respect the fact that evolution has given us this amazing multi-scale goal-driven system where the goals are rewritable. […]

It’s because the structure of the cortex is templated onto the previous one. So when it makes a daughter cell, it just copies whatever it has. The non-genetic piece of information is critical. This is the original demonstration of true epigenetics. This information is simply not in the genome. […]

I’ve been suggesting that a true general purpose intelligence is much more likely to arise not from mimicking the structure of the core of the human cortex, or anything like that, but from actually taking seriously the computational principles that life has been applying since the very beginning.

We’re losing the war against surveillance capitalism because we let Big Tech frame the debate

Good piece on the systemic aspect of privacy, what privacy actually is (vs personal information), and on how even those “with nothing to hide” are enmeshed in the repercussions. Instead of haggling and negotiating details of what can and can’t be done with data and to which degree, the author’s preservasionist approach starts from the very basic principle that “personal information may not be bought or sold.” You can still personally share with companies to enable services to you but it stops there, no selling or buying further down the line.

Sidebar: Note the first quote below about personal agency in choosing where data goes (or cancelling your Facebook for example). It’s very similar to the failed framing of acting on climate change and the environment by changing lightbulbs or recycling. It helps, but political, systemic decisions are the only real ways to change things.

Yet this very neoliberal notion of personal agency fails to acknowledge the role these services play in modern life. Being asked to resist only punishes those of us struggling to preserve our privacy. To imagine a world where privacy is preserved we need to explore what privacy truly means and to name it, for to name something is to own it. […]

But the stakes are much higher than you may realize, for privacy is truly our civil rights struggle in the 21st century. Privacy violations are a gateway to identity-based targeting, which singles out individuals by race, religion, or gender identity. Yet with over 1 billion, mostly apathetic users, fighting Google (or Facebook or Experian for that matter) may move you to turn your despair into resignation. […]

Privacy in this case means freedom to engage in conversation or thought without unwanted or unknown surveillance. […]

Yet now that technology-mediated services have an outsize ability to shape culture at large, the malicious use of this same personal information threatens to undermine every advance made by modern liberal society. This is why I call privacy the last line of defense in the battle for civil liberties.

More → Is it time for a ‘Digital New Deal’ to rein in Big Tech?
“[L]ooking at the broader political economy of so many businesses struggling and very large tech platforms doing so well, that a rebalancing is due. If you look at some of the statistics on level of profits, revenue generated by Big Tech firms versus the rest of the economy, it’s remarkable the divergence there.”