De omnibus dubitandum
4 Jun 2013
Continuing the technology-scepticism of previous posts, I came across an article about Google that’ll effectively serve to eradicate any remaining optimism you may have had about our internet-enabled utopia arriving any time soon.
“The Singularity, Ayn Rand, the elitism, the moral pretensions and the dreams of island states are all sending the same message – that Silicon Valley is a small, highly intelligent, obsessive, hubristic and deluded community. Its values are not ours. We should, of course, embrace its ingenuity and the gadgets it showers upon us, but we should be wary of the ‘terms and conditions’ attached. These include not just the inane legalisms that come with the software, but also the ideology, the rhetoric, the world-dominating fantasies and, of course, the tax avoidance.”
This cult-like Silicon Valley mentality expresses itself in many different ways:
Fortunately the voices opposing this navel-gazing quasi religion are growing, with recent books from Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier serving as welcome antidotes to this Scientology-like cult behaviour.
This double review of Morozov’s and Lanier’s books in the Times Literary Supplement is a very worthwhile read, and highly recommended if the aforementioned Bryan Appleyard article got your curiosity peaked.
30 May 2013
If you want to understand why this world is as fucked up as it is, you need look no further than the internet.
Heralded as a great liberating technology, the internet is often seen as a leveller, an equaliser of playing fields where everyone has a voice and anyone can become successful.
But one look at the world wide web’s largest companies makes a lie out of that fantasy. Because these companies are not equalisers, they’re not promoters of meritocracy and opportunity.
The Googles and Facebooks and Yahoos of this world are all advertising platforms.
Advertising is what made Google what it is today. You, as a user of Google’s search engine and email service and video platform and everything else it offers you, are not Google’s customer. You are the product.
Advertisers are Google’s customers. Google sells your time and attention to advertisers. All those free services are the bait to keep you coming back to Google so it can show you more ads.
On Facebook you may think you’re socialising with friends and chatting about common interests and activities. But what you’re actually doing is giving Facebook more information that it can pass on to advertisers so they can target you more effectively.
Advertising is the engine that drives the internet economy.
Think about that for a moment. And think about what advertising actually is, in and of itself.
It’s corporations screaming messages at you to BUY MORE STUFF. Advertising does not teach us anything. Ads don’t enlighten us in any way nor enrich us in any way shape or form.
In fact, advertising makes us poorer – mentally and financially, in ways both direct and indirect.
The internet began as an intellectual endeavour to aid the sharing of knowledge for the betterment of all mankind. It didn’t take very long for it to become a gigantic corporate engine, designed to bombard people with advertising 24/7, which in turn is designed to make you shut up and buy stuff.
Welcome to the future.
4 Apr 2013
Evgeny Morozov, the internet’s most renowned technology cynic, is not afraid to act as a polemical David to technology’s Goliaths. Not long after he thoroughly eviscerated the TED phenomenon he’s now set his sights on one of the internet’s biggest names: Tim O’Reilly.
In a lengthy article titled ‘The Meme Hustler’, Morozov takes O’Reilly to task for a range of buzzphrases and PR moves summarised as ‘meme-engineering‘. In doing so, he touches upon a number of highly intriguing ideas.
For example Morozov states that O’Reilly’s open source movement, having succeeded in supplanting Richard Stallman’s ‘free software’ concept as the de facto model for open software development, has paved the way for the current trend of closed source & closed platform appification of the internet:
“Now that apps might be displacing the browser, the openness once taken for granted is no more – a contingency that licenses and morals could have easily prevented. Openness as a happenstance of market conditions is a very different beast from openness as a guaranteed product of laws.”
He also exposes the Web 2.0 concept invented by O’Reilly for the hollow hypephrase that it is, pointing out that the technological trends that are viewed as a core aspect of Everything 2.0 predate the phrase – and the web itself – by some considerable margin:
“O’Reilly himself pioneered this 2.0-ification of public discourse, aggressively reinterpreting trends that had been happening for decades through the prism of Internet history – a move that presented all those trends as just a logical consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution. Take O’Reilly’s musings on “Enterprise 2.0.” What is it, exactly? Well, it’s the same old enterprise – for all we know, it might be making widgets – but now it has learned something from Google and Amazon and found a way to harness “collective intelligence.” For O’Reilly, Walmart is a quintessential Enterprise 2.0 company simply because it tracks what its customers are buying in real time.
That this is a rather standard practice—known under the boring title of “just-in-time delivery” — predating both Google and Amazon didn’t register with O’Reilly. In a Web 2.0 world, all those older concepts didn’t matter or even exist; everything was driven by the forces of open source and the Internet.”
I admit that after a brief period of skepticism I too was taken by the Web 2.0 hype, but like many I’ve also stopped using the phrase as I’ve become aware of its lack of substance.
Even social media, seen as the defining aspect of Web 2.0, is not a novel idea and has existed in primordial form since before the World Wide Web was a twinkle in Berners-Lee’s eyes.
“For Postman, one of the main tasks of language is to codify and preserve distinctions among different semantic environments. As he put it, “When language becomes undifferentiated, human situations disintegrate: Science becomes indistinguishable from religion, which becomes indistinguishable from commerce, which becomes indistinguishable from law, and so on. If each of them serves the same function, then none of them serves any function. When such a process is occurring, an appropriate word for it is pollution.” Some words—like “law”—are particularly susceptible to crazy talk, as they mean so many different things: from scientific “laws” to moral “laws” to “laws” of the market to administrative “laws,” the same word captures many different social relations. “Open,” “networks,” and “information” function much like “law” in our own Internet discourse today.”
I recommend you read Morozov’s 16,000 word piece – his no-punches-pulled criticisms are always worthwhile, even if you disagree – and if you feel thusly inclined you can continue with the abundant retorts being published online in defence of O’Reilly.
The man himself posted a brief, albeit polite, dismissal on his Google+ profile.
18 Mar 2013
This video, a perfectly executed parody of the 9/11 ‘inside job’ conspiracy video Loose Change, highlights an important flaw of the human psyche: its capacity to interpret unconnected events and random facts in such a way as to imply a secret behind-the-scenes conspiracy:
The sad fact is that nearly always there is no conspiracy. People are bad at keeping secrets, and big conspiracies need a lot of people involved. Any complicated endeavour has too many things go wrong for conspiracies to be effective. Incompetence is often a more accurate explanation rather than inside knowledge or intricate conspiracies.
And, most of all, sometimes the world just doesn’t make sense, and bad stuff happens for no good reason.
13 Mar 2013
So the human race has invented 3D printing.
This is possibly the greatest scientific advancement of the last few centuries, as it’ll allow us to create a genuine egalitarian post-scarcity society where the means of production are in the hands of us, the people, and we can quite literally build almost anything we’ll ever need.
And what do some people want to do with this astonishing, liberating, levelling-the-capitalist-playing-field invention?
They want to use it to make guns.
Seriously, I often wonder if the human species deserves to exist.
2 Jan 2013
The journey of my perspective on life has been a long one. As a baby I was baptised, which made me officially catholic until that church’s depraved teachings and endeavours disgusted me too much and I had myself stricken from the catholic register a few years ago.
I’d become an atheist long before then, though not after trying to find spiritual truth in a range of different areas, including christianity and what are termed ‘New Age’ beliefs.
None of those attempts at spiritual fulfilment stuck, because they all depend in large part on a suspension of disbelief that I was simply incapable of making. They all required me to abandon evidence and simply believe in something, despite a total and utter lack of proof.
I call myself a skeptic nowadays, and that moniker will likely stick for a while. I realise though that not everyone understands what a skeptical perspective on life actually means – or, specifically, what I take it to mean.
For me, to be a skeptic is to always be critical of any assumption. This applies mostly to spiritual beliefs, but extends to pretty much everything in life. As the motto goes, ‘de omnibus dubitandum‘ – everything is to be doubted.
This means that when a preacher appeals to God, when an energy healer describes auras and chants, or when a homeopath argues that water has memory, these claims should be scrutinised. Does it make sense? Is there any proof? If so, is that proof verifiable? Does the proof originate from a reliable source?
Of course, there are limits to how you can express your skepticism. In extremis, skepticism leads to solipsism, which is a rather untenable philosophy. At some level we have to accept a source’s claim and trust in their legitimacy and authority.
For me, that source is the scientific method. Science is seen by many as this big monolithic entity delivering grand truths from high above (not unlikely dogmatic religion, come to think of it), often accompanied by visualisations of high-tech laboratories and grey-haired bespectacled men in white lab coats.
But science is, at its core, a state of mind. Science is about enquiry and exploration. We all practice science almost every single day, whenever we seek evidence for something and want proof instead of accepting someone’s claim at face value.
More than that, we reap the rewards of scientific progress every single moment of our lives. Things as basic as electricity, running water, medicine and the food we eat, are all the results of science. Our modern lives would be utterly impossible were it not for science.
Science is not a novel invention. Humankind has been doing scientific research at its most basic level for as long as we’ve been using tools. Science – i.e. discovery through experiment and reason – truly is the driving force of human progress.
Also, most importantly, science is anti-dogmatic. Science does not claim absolute truths. The results of science are theories, and they’re called theories for a very good reason. Science doesn’t provide definitive answers, it merely argues the most likely answer, and that answer can – and does – change depending on the evidence.
Science goes where the evidence leads. There are no uncontested truths in science. For example we currently think the universe is 13.7 billion years old because that’s what the evidence suggests. Should there be strong evidence to contradict that, then we’ll change our minds and consider different ages for the universe.
For me, science is the authority in which I place my trust. Science is the most accurate description of reality we have, and has brought progress and enlightenment to the human condition. I trust in the critical evidence-driven approach of modern science to deliver the best answers we can currently acquire.
Science alone is not enough, of course. Science is an uncaring discipline centred on logic and evidence. The human condition is so much more, which is why my skeptic’s motto includes another element: empathy.
We all know what empathy is, so I won’t elaborate much on it. Suffice to say that empathy is what makes us care about others and fuels our altruistic efforts.
For me, empathy provides the emotional ingredient of my skeptical outlook on life. I care about what happens to other people, therefore I strive to contribute – however modestly – to the welfare of others.
So, to summarise, my skeptic’s motto is founded on three pillars: critical thinking, science, and empathy.
I strive to implement these concepts in my every day life, and I hope the wider world similarly embraces these concepts as I truly believe they will help make this an increasingly better world.
11 Dec 2012
I recently realised I’ve been blogging for over a decade. After a few haphazard attempts at blogging using the chosen platforms of the day – Diaryland and LiveJournal – in 2002 a friend gifted me the Adamus.nl domain name and a hosting package to go with it.
Initially I ran the blog on Moveable Type, but migrated it to WordPress after less than a year because it was much more versatile. I haven’t looked back since.
Updates on this blog have never followed a fixed regimen. As a space for my personal rants, I blog here whenever the mood strikes me. Sometimes that’s almost every day, and sometimes it’s just once every few months.
This blog has been great to me. It helped me vent frustrations, express admiration, and functioned as a general channel for things that interest me. I’m looking forward to the next ten years.
Here’s a small selection of some of my personal favourite blog posts of the past 10 years:
Dope Me Up – 25 Aug 2005
Back in 2005 I was one of the scarce few who strongly suspected Lance Armstrong was using doping. Now I can finally say “I told you so”.
I hate flying – 4 Sep 2006
And I still do.
The end is nigh! Again! – 18 Oct 2006
Six years on, the PC era has still not come to an end. Though maybe with the dawn of the tablet era, it’s time to get worried?
PeerDrive – 26 Apr 2007
My idea for a satnav variant of p2p filesharing. Nothing ever came of this, unfortunately.
The power of the subconscious mind – 16 Aug 2008
It’s easily one of the most influential books I’ve ever read, and radically changed the way I thought about thinking.
Movie Critics Just Don’t Get It – 01 Jul 2009
Here I admit I basically have no taste. I also admit I don’t give a damn.
Why homeopaths are either thieves or imbeciles – 20 Jan 2010
Another one of my frequent rants against ignorance and pseudoscience, this time aimed at the pervasive homeopathy scam.
The unbearable schizophrenia of the UK’s national identity – 24 Jun 2010
Having moved to the UK in 2009, I struggled coming to terms with the complexities of the British state of mind.
Modern copyright law makes no sense – 19 Aug 2011
One of my frequent laments of the inadequacies of the current legal system.
Philosophy of the gaps – 30 Apr 2012
As a skeptic and adherent to rational thought, I find the mind-curves philosophers wring themselves in to are becoming fairly unpalatable.
Bright does not make right – 14 Jun 2012
Being smart does not make one immune to the pitfalls of human thought. Something we should all keep in mind.
This anniversary post is the 343rd post I’ve published on Adamus.nl. When I hit 1000, I’ll throw a massive blog party.