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Technophilic Vacuity

I used to like TED. In fact I loved it so much I linked to it in this blog’s sidebar (where only truly loveable links dare tread), and recommended the site – and a number of specific TED talks – to people regularly.

But gradually I fell out of love with TED. It seemed to me that the substance I perceived in those early TED talks, the powerful meaning they conveyed and the strength of their messages, were all diminishing.

TED talks have become more about style, about delivering a story in as powerful a way as possible, regardless of the actual worth of that story. They became exercises in propaganda speeches.

In a recent article for The New Republic, professional cynic Evgeny Morozov reviews three e-books from TED’s publishing division, and his commentary on the whole TED movement is eloquently scathing:

“Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.”

In the same article, when reviewing TED’s decision to publish short e-books instead of properly sized tomes, Morozov is equally dismissive:

“When they launched their publishing venture, the TED organizers dismissed any concern that their books’ slim size would be dumbing us down. “Actually, we suspect people reading TED Books will be trading up rather than down. They’ll be reading a short, compelling book instead of browsing a magazine or doing crossword puzzles. Our goal is to make ideas accessible in a way that matches modern attention spans.” But surely “modern attention spans” must be resisted, not celebrated. Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis. The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.”

I find it hard not to agree with the man. When I saw my first few TED talks, I genuinely believed that this sort of thing could help change the world. Now, I fear, it’ll primarily help to dumb us down.

It’s not just TED where this trend of techno-global-fetishism is taking hold. I’m subscribed to the UK edition of Wired magazine, and recently I’ve become a little disenchanted with their ceaseless sycophantic reporting on internet start-ups and the incestuous Silicon Valley venture capitalist circles in which they move.

It’s not about actual worth any longer – it’s about hip stories on cool tech (ideally with some connection to Apple’s shiny devices) with substance an optional ingredient. Again, Morozov describes it perfectly:

“The recipe is simple. Find some peculiar global trend—the more arcane, the better. Draw a straight line connecting it to the world of apps, electric cars, and Bay Area venture capital. Mention robots, Japan, and cyberwar. Use shiny slides that contain incomprehensible but impressive maps and visualizations. Stir well. Serve on multiple platforms.”

This is not an encouraging trend. Especially when you look at related trends in the technology world, such as the over-valuation of Facebook and their $1bn Instagram deal, the signs are there: it’s a whole new bubble, filled with metric tonnes of effervescent hot air.

Bright Does Not Make Right

Last night I came across a great article explaining how smart people are just as susceptible to bias and false beliefs as anyone – and, in fact, how smart people are more adept at justifying these false beliefs:

“Smart people will usually be able to brush off criticism since they are convinced they are right and, due to their thinking abilities, can probably out-argue most criticism even if the criticism is right.”
- The Dangers of Being Smart

This fits perfectly with my own thoughts on members of Mensa, where I found many people with astounding IQs clinging to horrendously stupid beliefs:

I was appalled at how many Mensans are in to what we collectively term ‘New Age’ spirituality. From astrologers to energy healers, from psychics to homeopaths, Mensa boasts a frightening abundance of people who have thrown every last remnant of rationality and common sense overboard and have committed themselves entirely to plainly ridiculous ideas.

Not only that, I got the distinct impression that these people felt that their membership of Mensa – their high IQ – was a vindication of their beliefs. “I’m smart,” they seem to argue, “so what I believe is right.”

Now I am of course keenly aware that I’m not immune to this conceit either, and that there’s a strong possibility my own beliefs are equally flawed and that I use my own intellect to justify them, even when faced with valid criticism.

Unfortunately, being aware of bias and prejudice does not make you immune to it. That’s something we’d all do well to keep in mind, I reckon.

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  • When Justice Becomes a Corporate Lapdog

    Recently some alarming facts about justice and imprisonment in the USA have been highlighted. These facts are not new discoveries as such, but worryingly few people know about them.

    First there’s this study about wrongful convictions in the USA, which paints a pretty grim picture of the American justice system:

    “The US criminal justice system is a broken machine that wrongfully convicts innocent people, sentencing thousands of people to prison or to death for the crimes of others, as a new study reveals. The University of Michigan law school and Northwestern University have compiled a new National Registry of Exonerations – a database of over 2,000 prisoners exonerated between 1989 and the present day, when DNA evidence has been widely used to clear the names of innocent people convicted of rape and murder.”

    The fact that thousands of Americans are jailed for crimes they did not commit is not particularly surprising, if viewed in the larger context of the country’s highly profitable private prison system:

    “In the past few decades, changes in sentencing laws and get-tough-on-crime policies have led to an explosion in America’s prison population. Funding this incarceration binge has been an enormous drain on taxpayer dollars, with some states now spending more to lock up their citizens than to provide their children with education. It’s difficult to spin anything positive out of that scenario, but as it turns out, even this blackest of clouds has a silver lining – silver as in dollars, that is, for the private prison industry.

    In 2010, two of the largest private prison companies in America, GEO Group, Inc and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) generated over $4bn dollars in profit between them.”

    Both these articles are just scratching the surface of this deeply worrying trend in many western democracies to impose ever-stricter sentences on minor crimes, and to utilise the resulting prison population for capitalist gain.

    In effect this is a new form of slavery, aimed at imprisoning as many of the lowest echelons of our society in order to use them as involuntary cheap labour. It’s a new way to maximise corporate profits through exploitation of the lower classes, as these will be the most likely to serve extensive prison terms for often minor crimes.

    As we all know, rich men can pillage and loot for billions and get away with a slap on the wrist, while the poor serve decades in prison for petty theft. Our justice systems are not blind, we are not treated equally under the law. The more money you have – i.e. the higher your social class – the lower the punishment for your transgressions, if there is any punishment at all.

    We see the same unsavoury trends beginning to take shape here in the UK. This form of government-approved corporate slavery is among the worst excesses of capitalist greed, and it should be resisted at every step.

    What You Say Online Can Get You Jailed

    I am increasingly convinced that I’m living in the wrong country. My current status as a resident of the United Kingdom means that I could potentially go to jail for nothing other than speaking my mind online.

    Those who know me know that I tend to have very vocal opinions that are often expressed with an abundance of profanity. I rarely hold back, and I swear often and loudly.

    Apparently that is enough to get me sent to jail, should the wrong person choose to take offence and make a case of it. That is not an exaggeration. There are abundant examples of people going to jail for nothing more than saying something rude on Twitter or Facebook. Some prominent examples:

    Facecook riot sentences: Two men are sentences to four years(!) in prison for posting messages on Facebook calling for riots. As those riots never materialised, these two men are effectively jailed merely for saying something online.

    Twitter Joke Trial: Paul Chambers is convicting for making a bad joke on Twitter.

    Offensive tweets: Student Laim Stacey is jailed for 56 days for posting offensive tweets about a footballer.

    Olly Cromwell: Blogger Olly Cromwell faces prison for indirectly insulting a councillor with the c-word on Twitter.

    All these cases are examples of a growing – and very worrying – trend in the UK to criminalise people’s opinions. What you say online can and will be used against you. All it takes is for someone to take offence and get the litigation ball rolling, and before you know it you’re behind bars for merely speaking your mind.

    I fiercely believe that no one has the right to never be offended. I believe that everyone should have the right to speak their mind, just as everyone else has the right to disagree and to reply with criticism, mockery, and ridicule.

    So for someone like me this criminalisation of opinion is an almost unbearable state of affairs. The UK is simply not a free country. A nation where citizens cannot speak freely because they fear being jailed for what they say is nothing short of a fascist police state. There is no other conclusion possible.

    Fair Search in Europe

    For a while the FairSearch organisation has been fighting in the USA against Google’s anti-competitive behaviours. Now finally FairSearch has crossed the Atlantic and has a European presence: fairsearcheurope.org.

    While many Google advocates dismiss it as a marketing tool for competitors like Microsoft, what FairSearch actually does is incredibly vital to our continued enjoyment of a free and unfiltered internet. In Europe this is an even more pressing concern than in the States, as here Google enjoys marketshares of well over 90% in most EU countries.

    So an organisation with some economic and political klout behind it, fighting for search neutrality and limitations on Google’s anti-competitive practices, is a good thing. See the slideshow below about why FairSearch matters:


    The Case for Fair Search

    The other day my eye caught an AdWords ad for a book called “The Final Theory” by Mark McCutcheon, an author previously unknown to me. This book allegedly solves all of the existing scientific conundrums and supposedly introduces ‘a new scientific perspective’ that ‘radically re-thinks’ all we know about how the universe works today.

    Now, as you may know, I’m a bit of a science geek. I’m also a sceptic. De Omnibus Dubitandum, and all that. The description of this book in the ad and on its website set off all kinds of bullshit alarms in my head. The book’s marketing material focused purely on how this new final theory would overturn all established science and revolutionise our understanding of the laws of physics, casting in to doubt centuries worth of scientific advancements.

    I’ve seen similar tones struck in many different promotional materials, usually those published by creationists, homeopaths, energy healers, and other similarly delusional quacks. So I did what any physics geek of sound mind would do: I went to Amazon.com and looked at the book’s reviews.

    Amazon tends to be a place where works of atrocious quality are skilfully eviscerated by a horde of merciless reviewers who will destroy a work if it lacks merit. At least, that’s what I thought.

    As it turns out, the vast majority of reviews for this book on Amazon are overwhelmingly positive, with no fewer than 71 five-star reviews at last count. According to the Amazon reviewers this book is at least on a par with Stephen Hawkin’s “A Brief History of Time”.

    That, too, set of further bullshit alarms. I’d never heard of this Mark McCutcheon fellow before, and I try to keep myself at least moderately informed of what’s going on in the world of science. As this book was originally published in 2003, if it truly had such amazing scientific merit as is claimed by these countless Amazon reviewers, there should by all accounts have been quite a shockwave going through the scientific establishment. And there most certainly was not.

    So I dug deeper. Wikipedia was, mysteriously, devoid of any mentioning of the book and its author. In fact, Wikipedia was so diligent in not mentioning Mark McCutcheon and his Final Theory, that I suspected it was a deliberate deletion. That turned out to be the case, as is evident from this administrators’ discussion page (search for ‘McCutcheon’ on that page to find the relevant passages).

    Also there are various sceptical forum threads and blog posts dedicated to the book, specifically to how negative reviews on Amazon are mysteriously and inexplicably deleted, leaving only a vast bulk of four- and five-star positive reviews. These positive reviews are themselves rather suspect, as they seem to be posted by new Amazon users without any significant review history, and many of them use very similar phrasings and writing styles.

    The last damning piece of evidence comes from a forum thread on a physics community site where the book’s ‘Final Theory’ is thoroughly slaughtered for the nonsensical quackery that it so obviously is.

    What is most disturbing about this whole episode is Amazon’s complicity in the whole affair. There is, for all intents and purposes, deliberate censorship at work here in an effort to promote a book that espouses such an obviously farcical concept. Genuine criticism is being silenced in favour of a commercial message, trying to get you to buy a book that contains patent falsehoods, distortions, and lies.

    I suppose when there is money to be made, truth is entirely optional.

    Modern copyright law makes no sense

    Imagine your grandfather worked in construction. Imagine he helped build roads and buildings that still exist today. Imagine you would now be getting money, a few pence at a time, every time someone used one of those roads or lived in one of those buildings.

    That would be great, wouldn’t it? Free money for something you had nothing to do with! How awesome would that be?

    Of course it’s a totally ridiculous concept. You didn’t put any effort in to creating those roads and buildings, and thus you shouldn’t get any reward from their usage either. It’s a plainly stupid idea.

    Except that this is exactly how copyright works.

    A creative person, a writer or musician or whatever, creates something and gets an initial payment for it. So far that’s no different than most jobs out there, mine included – we do work and get paid for it.

    But then that creative person then gets paid every time their work gets used by someone else. Every time a book is reprinted or quoted, every time a song is played on the radio, every time a movie is shown on TV, the creators gets paid.

    Hang on a second… why is that? I don’t get paid every time a website I helped create makes a bit of money. A nurse doesn’t get paid every time a patient she helped recover from illness gets a paycheck. A teacher doesn’t get paid every time a former student earns big money.

    So why do creatives get paid over and over again for work they’ve done just once?

    The thought behind copyright and royalties is that it should encourage artists of higher quality to create more works, as they would earn more money with high quality stuff that gets re-used. And it disallows other artists from copying other people’s work and making money off of that for themselves.

    But modern times have caught up with copyright law in almost every single aspect, making a total mockery of the entire concept.

    First of all, I don’t think it’s fair that an artist gets paid over and over again for work done just once. If the goal is to encourage good artists to create more art, then paying them once for a piece of work – and have that payment be in accordance to the quality of the work – suffices just fine. That’s how nearly all of us earn our money, and it’s how all of us ensure future employment: by making sure our work is of good quality so that our employers want more of it.

    The fact that artists get paid for their entire life for the effort they put in to a piece of work just once is, in my opinion, mind-bogglingly stupid and unfair.

    The other aspect of copyright is to protect an artist’s work, making sure others can’t copy it and make money off of it themselves. This was probably a fairly valid point 100 years ago, but nowadays it’s a mostly hollow argument.

    First of all, it’s pretty impossible nowadays to find a piece of creative work that is not derivative. Original work is pretty impossible to find. Every piece of creative output, from music to art to design to writing, is inspired by what has come before. Everything is copied, mashed up, diluted and mixed.

    Second, I admit there is a good case to be made for copyright to be in effect for a certain period of time. A writer for example should be able to sell his books for a number of years without having to worry about someone else copying his books and selling them as well. A period of, say, 10 years sounds pretty reasonable. That gives the original creator plenty of time to capitalise on their creative output. And after 10 years the work becomes available for others to build upon, mix and remix, and generally integrate in to the collective cultural output of a society.

    But copyright law in most countries have set this period of copyright to be insanely long. In the UK for example copyright on any piece of work is valid for the creator’s entire life, and then for another 70 years.

    Yes, you read that right. Copyright is valid for 70 years after the creator has died.

    This is of course totally and utterly bonkers. People who had nothing to do at all with the creation of a piece of art get paid for decades after the original artist has died. There is no sensible reason at all for these people to be paid, and yet this is exactly how the law works in this country.

    This is of course because the people who make the most money off of copyright – the record companies, the movie studios, the big publishing houses – have a vested interest in making copyright last as long as possible. They want to keep on making money from the work the artists they’ve contracted have done, for decades and decades after those artists have died. And they’ve lobbied our politicians – with amazing success – to have the law go their way.

    It’s pure and simple greed. There is not an ounce of genuine cultural enrichment at the core of modern copyright law. It’s only about padding the pockets of big corporate media organisations, and keeping the politicians they support in power.

    Modern copyright law makes no sense. None whatsoever.

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    Adamus

     Adamus
    Adamus is the online identity of Barry Adams. A Dutchman living in Northern Ireland, Barry / Adamus is an internet fanatic, skeptic, technophile, gamer, and geek.

    On this personal blog he provides his unpolished view of the world and its insanities.

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