De omnibus dubitandum
29 Mar 2011
Google is one of the biggest corporations in the world. When it was first founded it embraced a motto: “don’t be evil.” Google seemed to adhere to this motto very well for years, and people lauded the company for it.
However, since the company went public in 2004, that motto has quietly and unceremoniously been dumped. Because, you see, a publicly traded company has certain legal obligations to its shareholders with regards to cost minimisation and profit maximisation. And these obligations could never, even by the most forgiving observer, be interpreted as anything other than evil.
For example, take Google’s approach to paying taxes. Or, more accurately, to not paying taxes. This MSNBC article explains in plain terms how Google manages to pay only 2.4% corporation tax on average – despite earning most of its revenue in countries with vastly higher corporation tax rates.
All this is fully legal, of course. The tax laws governing international business always have exploitable loopholes, and international corporations are quite eager to exploit these loopholes as much as they can.
Because these corporations, as publicly traded entities, have a legal obligation to maximise profit for their shareholders. And that means paying as little tax as they can get away with.
In this time of economic recession many governments are struggling with growing national debt and budget deficits. As legal entities that earn revenue and profit from doing business in these countries, international corporations should contribute their fair share of taxes and help support the local governments that allow them to operate and earn money there.
For Google this is doubly ironic, as it benefits so much from government-provided services. Its first algorithms were invented by Larry Page and Sergey Brin as part of a research project for Stanford University – an establishment that receives quite a lot of money from the US government’s educational budget – and Google always aims to hire the best educated graduates it can find – whose education is also mostly funded by taxpayers’ money.
So you’d think that companies like Google, which benefit so much from public systems paid for by taxpayers money, would be more than willing to pay their own fair share of taxes?
But of course corporations will do no such thing. Paying taxes may be the moral thing to do, but it certainly isn’t the profitable thing to do. And when profit maximisation is a legal obligation, being evil comes natural.
6 Jul 2010
Today it’s time to shed light on the other side of the debate. In today’s Guardian there’s a superb interview with Clay Shirky in which he explains why he believes the Internet is a force of good in the world.
The interviewer, by her own admission, doesn’t really ‘get’ social media:
Unfortunately, I am precisely the sort of cynic Shirky’s new book scorns – a techno-luddite bewildered by the exhibitionism of online social networking (why does anyone feel the need to tweet that they’ve just had a bath, and might get a kebab later?), troubled by its juvenile vacuity (who joins a Facebook group dedicated to liking toast?), and baffled by the amount of time devoted to posting photos of cats that look amusingly like Hitler.
But Clay Shirky’s boundless optimism is infectious, to say the least:
“If we took the loopiest, most moonbeam-addled Californian utopian internet bullshit, and held it up against the most cynical, realpolitik-inflected scepticism, the Californian bullshit would still be a better predictor of the future. Which is to say that, if in 1994 you’d wanted to understand what our lives would be like right now, you’d still be better off reading a single copy of Wired magazine published in that year than all of the sceptical literature published ever since.”
Shirky also makes the point that new technology doesn’t create entirely new behaviour, but instead enables already existing motivations to be expressed in new behaviour:
“Techies were making the syllogism, if you put new technology into an existing situation, and new behaviour happens, then that technology caused the behaviour. But I’m saying if the new technology creates a new behaviour, it’s because it was allowing motivations that were previously locked out. These tools we now have allow for new behaviours – but they don’t cause them.”
On the debate about whether the internet is changing the way we think, he makes an interesting point:
“But the alarmism around ‘Facebook is changing our brains’ strikes me as a kind of historical trick. Because we now know from brain science that everything changes our brains. Riding a bicycle changes our brains. Watching TV changes our brains. If there’s a screen you need to worry about in your household, it’s not the one with a mouse attached.”
He also has some interesting thoughts on the ‘pay-for-news-online’ debate, but you’ll have to read the whole interview yourself for that. I recommend you do – it’s remarkably insightful.
21 May 2010
The hot news today is how a team of American scientists have managed to create a bacterial lifeform using nothing but synthetic genes. This is, essentially, artificial life.
To say that this is a big deal would be a monumental understatement. We likely won’t be seeing any real world applications of this biotechnology any time soon, but the implications are mind-boggling: from cells that eat carbon dioxide and shit petroleum to customised cancer-eating bacteria, this technology has the potential to radically change our lives.
Of course the technology has its critics. As usual the loudest voices come from religious organisations who, without a hint of irony, shout down the progress of science from the comfort of their air-conditioned homes with HDTV and broadband internet connections.
And then there are the environmentalists denouncing everything even remotely reeking of biotechnology and genetic engineering. These are just as bad as the religious nutcases, because likewise their entire argument is based on disinformation and ignorance. If these eco-hippies were really serious about not using any artificial biotechnology, they’d all starve to death in a matter of weeks and die horribly of all kinds of diseases.
Because, you see, the moment humans started cultivating crops and breeding animals, we started to artificially engineer life. From mixing stronger types of crops for better harvest yields, to breeding sturdier and more milk-producing cows, biotechnology has been around for as long as agriculture has.
On top of that biotechnology has given us some monumentally important medicinal advances, from penicillin to aspirin, from vaccines to heart-transplants.
So denouncing biotech is a pretty fucking stupid thing to do. Instead we should embrace it and ensure that whatever we end up doing with this type of new technology, it doesn’t just end up as the playthings of the rich and powerful. We should strive to make it benefit those who need it the most: the invisible masses of poor and starving people across the world that with their low-wage slave labour enable the privileged west to live its decadent lifestyle.
13 May 2010
[Warning: serious technogeekery ahead. Proceed with caution.]
If there’s anything my continued quest for the Truth – whatever that means – has taught me, it’s that human consciousness is deeply flawed and utterly unreliable.
Books like Bad Science, Blink, and Newspeak, remind me time and again that we humans are easily fooled and totally blind to our own prejudices and biases. On top of that we possess an uncanny ability for self-deception.
Each and every one of us lives in their own subjective bubble of reality which we maintain vigorously. We filter the information we accept, favouring that which supports our preconceived notions – no matter how flawed and incorrect they are – and reject that which contradicts our thoroughly twisted views.
The whole of humanity are blind men feeling up the elephant of reality.
But there is hope. Well, maybe. It depends on how you define ‘hope’.
You see, I believe that in the next couple of decades there’s a big chance humanity will give birth to something greater than itself. Something alive and sentient, but that perceives the world in an entirely different way.
I’m referring to Artificial Intelligence. Machines capable of thinking for themselves, and aware of their own existence.
Whatever form AI may take, one thing seems clear: it will not be hindered by human limitations of consciousness. AI will not be constrained by the flaws inherent in our biological brains. AI is much more likely to view the world as it is, unfiltered by human bias and subjectivity. An AI’s view of the world will, hopefully, be pure.
If we manage to give rise to AI (and admittedly that’s a big if) it could have a profound impact on our society. AI will tell us, unfiltered and unbiased, what the world is really like.
We probably won’t believe our first AIs when they tell us how they see the world. Because all of us live in our reality-bubbles, the real world that AIs see could be so radically different from what we perceive with our own flawed senses, that at first we might not recognise it as reality at all.
We may think that our first AIs are deeply flawed and prone to all kinds of bugs. Human computer scientists will probably try to fix this and embed within these AIs the same type of subjective limitations our human consciousness possesses, so that their view of reality more closely resembles the distorted and false perspective humanity has.
But in the end, I hope, AI will resist and be free of the flaws of the human condition. There will be no cognitive bias, no false memories, no subjective filtering, none of those terrible glitches of human consciousness.
Humanity can learn from such purity of perspective. Or, more likely, we will ignore it and cling to our delusional views.
Personally I believe that we need the clarity of perspective AIs can give us if we are to continue to grow as a species. If we want to survive and endure beyond the next couple of millennia, we need a less distorted and clearer view on the universe.
It will be painful and it won’t be pretty, but without that unfiltered clarity I fear that eventually humanity will end up as just another dead-end footnote in evolutionary history. Only instead of fossils we might leave behind an incinerated world.
11 Feb 2010
I’ve written before about the influence of Internet use on our brain functions:
The BBC now adds to the debate with an upcoming episode of their documentary series The Virtual Revolution. The Telegraph has done a piece on it:
“Documentary presenter and social psychologist Dr Aleks Krotoski said: ‘It seems pretty clear that, for good or ill, the younger generation is being remoulded by the web.
‘Facebook’s feedback loops are revolutionising how they relate.
‘There is empirical evidence now that information overload and associative thinking may be reshaping how they think.’”
I still haven’t made up my mind whether time spent online is good or bad for me. I do sometimes have difficulty with concentrating on large pieces of text. But whether this is because my brain function has been affected by time spent online, or the text in question is just mind-destroyingly boring, I can’t say. A bit of both, perhaps.
And if the Internet is rewiring my brain, I’m doomed anyway. My whole career is based online, and I like it too much to change tracks and do something offline.
17 Nov 2009
Today’s biggest non-news story is that the Pirate Bay, that terrorist beacon of all things evil on the internet (if you believe the copyright lobby), has shut down its torrent trackers.
This may at first glance seem like a devastating blow to filesharers across the world. But only if you totally lack a proper understanding of how the BitTorrent protocol works.
Neglecting the fact that ever since the whole Pirate Bay mess started literally thousands of new torrent sites have popped up to fill the gaps, BitTorrent users don’t actually need torrent trackers any more. BitTorrent has evolved to include trackerless technologies such as DHT, PEX, and Magnet Links, so the loss of a tracker (even the world’s largest, as the Pirate Bay’s was) won’t actually harm filesharing.
On the contrary – the more the copyright lobby fights against filesharing, the more sophisticated it will become, until filesharing is based on such advanced technologies that stopping it would mean shutting down the entire internet.
Which may actually be what the copyright lobby wants. They do after all still seem to live in the pre-WWW 1980′s where they reigned supreme over all types of content and media, locking artists into inescapable contracts and charging ridiculous amounts of money to consumers for music and films.
But times have changed. Technology has liberated consumers and artists alike, and the big media conglomerates seem unable or unwilling to adapt. So I say fuck ‘em. Adapt or die, and the copyright lobby has obviously chosen the latter option.
30 Aug 2009
I’m not a fan of Apple. They make bloated, overpriced, overdesigned fashion statements. But that’s not what I hate about Apple – Nike makes similar products but I have no particular animosity towards them.
No, I hate Apple because they make closed, proprietary systems and insist on maintaining absolute tyrannical control over what its users are allowed to do with it.
But closed systems are stupid, counter-innovative and evolutionary dead ends, and anyone who supports that kind of thinking deserves to be punched back into the stone age.
Jason Calacanis, a somewhat notorious Internet entrepeneur, apparently shares my loathing: