When Algorithms Rule The World

Blackboard with mathematics sketches - vector illustration

Google, Facebook, Amazon: algorithms will soon rule our lives so we’d better understand how they work

A very scary item is hidden away the governments’ budgets so far – not an allocation of funds for joining in the Third World War, nor a huge amount of money for building wind farms everywhere so coal and oil power stations can be closed and the weirdie beardies can have their wish and make us all sit shivering in the darmk and playing I-spy-with-my-little-eye for entertainment. It is actually the huge amount of millions that governments and big GAFAs are funding for “big data and algorithm” research.

Today, with the awesome processing power of modern computers and the “big data” analysis, algorithms designed to analyse data improperly –may I say illegally?– obtained every day by governmental security agencies and private corporate entities like Google and Microsoft, algorithms increasingly manipulate or even control what information we have access to. Technology can also be used to influence our choice of products and with our social behaviour.

In spite of all that, many people still have no idea what algorithms can do or how they are used. An algorithm is just a simple formula which must be followed to calculate the answer to a mathematical problem. (The word “algorithm” itself is derived from the eighth-century Persian mathematician Al-Khwa-rizmi- but the concept goes all the way back to the Greeks – ya right, Greeks, whatever herr Schäuble thinks.)

Algorithms are vital to the internet because they help to order and arrange vast volumes of data at a scale and speed impossible for a human. Google’s famous PageRank algorithm counts the number of links to a page and assesses their quality to determine how important a website is. The quality and quantity of websites’ links to each other are compared and ordered; the more important websites are displayed first on the Google search page when a search query is entered. It has long been suspected however that Google’s algorithm favours those sites which bring the search engine operator revenue, though Google, a notoriously secretive corporation, are never likely to admit this.

All other search engines have similar algorithms although it is probably true to say the others do not seek to exercise the Orwellian levels of control over information to the extent as Google do.

All internet search technologies are based on proprietary algorithms. Having better algorithms than opponents is at the core of Amazon’s future plans as well. On Christmas Eve 2013, they patented something called a “method and system for anticipatory package shipping”: an algorithm-based system that could potentially ship products before consumers place an order for them. Algorithms that make the best sense of data can earn companies billions. That’s why they are as closely guarded as the recipe for Coca-Cola. Don’t be too scared however, when I start typing a search term and Google’s predictive text algorithm tries to complete it for me, it has never been right yet, and thus far Amazon has never recommended for me a book that I am ever likely to buy (it has recommended books that I would enjoy reading, but in these cases I’ve already read them and occasionally have actually previously bought them from Amazon. How clever is that?)

There social and economic benefits from being able to process data at much more quickly and efficiently than humans, though these fall some way short of the advantages geeks claim will be gained from letting computers do all the thinking. Some commentators believe that algorithm-led data analysis of e.g. health systems records, could result in huge improvements in treatment outcomes, as we’d get a much better understanding of works and what doesn’t. If the price we must pay for these as yet unquantified benefits is loss of privacy and the sharing of our personal data with private healthcare and Pharma corporations, as has been suggested, are we willing to pay it given the track record of such corporations* for abuses of trust.

OK, so I’m a serial dissident who feels he must always challenge the wisdom of the crowd. I’m not the only one who thinks this way however. Evgeny Morozov thinks all of this algorithmic analysis of personal information on a massive scale amounts to an incremental erosion of privacy by private companies and the state, and could even end up in Minority Report-style preventive policing. Others, like Filter Bubble author Eli Pariser, believe that by trying to use what they erroneously and arrogantly refer to as “Artificial Intelligence” (it’s really just high speed sorting and retrieval) their search engine predict our preferences with his search function, Google “limits our opportunities for serendipity, discovery, exploration” – we end up reading and watching the same things, having our horizons slowly narrowed.

As if any algorithms technique was about control and power…

______

* Take a look at Merck Vaccine Fraud Exposed, and GlaxoSmithKline fined $3bn after bribing doctors to increase drugs sales

Making babies with Spiritual Machines

primo_posthuman

Back to Paris yesterday night I got an email from my good friend P. Barnes bringing my attention at a Ray Kurzweil’s interview in the WSJ (hereunder). Kurzweil is the Pope of Transhumanism, a futurist ideology of which Google has become one of the main sponsors.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Some scientists are unrealistic deviants who loathe and despise their own human qualities. Should they all be sedate? Because it seems it is the only charitable thing to do.

You may think that is a bit extreme but I promise you will agree once you have read this item

The magical transhumanist date of 2045 holds many predictions for how man will reach his final merger with computer systems in an age of “spiritual” machines. Ray Kurzweil has issued a pack of likely scenarios in his book The Singularity is Near, and continues to suggest that much of those predictions could arrive much sooner. Others have pointed strictly to the economic impact and have marked 2045 as the date when humans could be completely outsourced to robotic workers.

Now cybernetic experts are pointing to the trends in robotics, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing to suggest that the “merger” could go beyond the establishment of an era of cyborgs and into a very literal one: sex with robots.

There has been an on-going move to create humanoid robots that can more than simply replicate human ability and behaviour. Attention is being paid to the social aspect as well. But what is now being proposed has even more serious ethical and existential implications, and very well could bring about the concept of a true “master race.”

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kurzweil highlights why Google has taken an interest in nanotechnology and the possibilities he sees for humans as they “increasingly become non biological and form direct connections with computers, augmenting and/or supplanting our natural processes” as we move into the era of cyborgs and beyond:

And of course once our neocortex is uploaded to the Cloud, it positions Google perfectly for searching our every thought and pre-thought. While this might sound like an impossible amount of information to upload, let alone interconnect and search, it is being announced that researchers have designed the first nanocomputer that can push beyond the concept of Moore’s Law, which imposes a theoretical limitation on the expansion of computer processing power.

Wait a second, Kurzweil really believe machines will have feelings and instincts? This guy is not fantasising about having an inflatable robot doll, but making babies with robots. The fantasy goes too far. Even if someone is only thinking about such things, should be grounds for having them tied up in a high security hospital without trees and flowers and chirping birds.

I don’t know what is more obscene, the contents of this interview or Kurzweil’s solipsist conviction that he is Deus Ex machina. Well, he is director of engineering at Google… But the fact that such scientists are even thinking about it (and you should see the yelling and screaming such notions are greeted with in science and technology blogs) is grounds for giving them a one-way ticket to the infinite within a potato chip – disconnecting them for good from human society.

This is more than I can bear. There is more chance for men to be walking on the surface of the sun than this ever happening.

Internet privacy : Could your on line browsing details go viral?

1428292599581280Even if you are using privacy tools is your internet browsing safe? How secret are your financial transactions, are the off colour jokes you share with friends really private, and what about the kind of sites you would never tell your mother you visit? While you are going on financial deals, selling, purchasing or…watching porn, who is watching you?

Interesting story featured in The Independent last week, I did a bit more digging to the source. Having often crossed swords with science worshippers who believe all technology is handed down to us on tablets of printed circuit board stuff by The Gods Of Science, and is therefore good and should not be doubted, I was gratified to see that my repeated warnings that there is absolutely no privacy on the internet, and far from being a benign tool invented by a geek scientist to liberate information, it can become in fact a surveillance tool developed by security agencies in collaboration with corp freaks for the purpose of controlling us.

The premises are simple: Say you are watching/viewing porn (replace it by the stuff of your choice) on line in 2015, even in Incognito mode, you should expect that at some point your porn viewing history will be publicly released and attached to your name.
How is this possible?

from Brett Thomas’ blog

This is an uncomfortable topic to talk/write about, which perhaps contributes to how we’ve arrived at the current state. So, to understand the threat, start with some technical considerations:

Browser footprints: Web browsers leave an essentially unique footprint every time you visit a web page, even in Incognito mode (and even without super cookies). This is well established; many web tools such as Panopticlick will confirm that you give a website lots of information about your computer every time you visit.

Global identifiers: Linking your browser footprint on one website to your footprint on another website – or to a previous footprint on the same website – is straightforward. You should think of your browser footprint as a persistent global identifier, and this is particularly true if you don’t take any measures to hide your IP address (eg. a VPN). The EFF has an excellent technical overview of how this works.

User tracking: Tracking web users is super valuable, so almost every traditional website that you visit saves enough data to link your user account to your browser fingerprint, either directly or via third parties. The Economist ran an overview of user tracking in September. (Though, interestingly, there is no mention of adult websites.)

Hacking is ubiquitous: We hear about data breaches that involve tangible harm – Target, Anthem, TurboTax – but not the (likely great majority) of cases when hackers don’t want additional exposure. Or, paraphrasing the FBI director: There are two types of companies…those that know they’ve been hacked…and those that don’t know they’ve been hacked.

How might this happen?

The political economy of networks

AN « EXCESS »  OF DEMOCRACY  (2/3)

Networked forms of the 1960s/70s were distinctive because essential to their origin, character and sustainability were values of solidarity, equality and democracy. Consciousness of these origins could help us now, when networked organizations are everywhere, to distinguish between the instrumental use of the concept of network in essentially undemocratic organizations (i.e. within states and corporations) and, on the other hand, as a way of connecting distributed activities based on shared values of social justice and democratically agreed norms.

6698152803_b1dee3ce41

The latter possibility is radically enhanced through the new information and communications technology in its non-proprietorial forms. The new possibilities of systems coordinating a multiplicity of autonomous organizations with shared values, through democratically agreed norms or protocol, can help upscale economic organizations based on non-capitalist – collaborative, P2P (peer to peer organizations such as The Pirate Bay) co-operative or other social and democratic – forms of ownership, production, distribution and finance.

What enables us to make this apparently surprising dive from the forms of organization shaped by the consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement (or indeed other civil society initiatives of the same period, such as the factory shop stewards’ committees combining against multi-plant, multinational corporations and developing alternative plans for socially useful production is the importance they give to practical, experiential knowledge and the need to share and socialize it.

The political economy of knowledge

The reason why this is important for the development of a political economy beyond capitalism is that behind the imposed choice between capitalist market and the state is the polarization between scientific, social and economic knowledge on the one hand and practical knowledge on the other. While the former was regarded as the heart of economic planning and centralized through the state, defenders of the free market sustained the latter as being held individually by the entrepreneur, capable of coordination only through the arbitrary workings of the market, based on private ownership. The relevant step forward of the women’s and other movements of the 1960s/70s was to make the sharing and socializing of experiential knowledge – in combination with scientific forms – fundamental to their focused, but always experimental, organizations. And to do so through consciously coordinated (networked) and self-reflexive relations between autonomous (distributed) initiatives.

Translating this into economics in the age of information and communications technology – a project requiring much further work – points to the possibility of forms of co-ordination that can include and help to regulate a non-capitalist market. A regulated, socialized market, that is, in which the drive to accumulate and make money out of money is effectively inhibited. It also provides a base for democratizing and, where appropriate, decentralizing the state, within the context of democratically agreed social goals (such as concerning equality and ecology).

It is over these issues concerning the sharing of knowledge and information and the implications for the relationship between autonomy and social co-ordination that the ideas coming from the Occupy movement can creatively converge with those of earlier movements. It is interesting in this context to read the economics working group of Occupy London describing in the Financial Times how Frederick von Hayek, the Austrian economist and theorist of free-market capitalism, with his ideas on the significance of distributed knowledge, is the talk of Occupy London. No doubt this was partly a rhetorical device for the FT audience. But the challenge of answering Hayek and his justification of the free market on the basis of a theory of distributed practical and/or experiential knowledge does provide a useful way of clarifying for ourselves the importance of the networked social justice initiatives of today and the anti-authoritarian social movements of the past for an alternative political economy. (http://www.tni.org/archives/books_arguments)
There is a point at which Hayek’s critique of the ‘all knowing state’ at first glance converges with the critique of the social democratic state made by the libertarian-social movement left in the 1960s/70s. Both challenge the notion of scientific knowledge as the only basis for economic organization and both emphasize the importance of practical and experiential knowledge and its ‘distributed’ character. But when it comes to understanding the nature of this practical knowledge and hence its relation to forms of economic organization, these perspectives diverge radically.

Whereas Hayek theorizes this practical knowledge as inherently individual and hence points to the arbitrary, unplanned and unplannable workings of the market and the price mechanism, the radicals of the 1960s/70s took, as we have just explained, a very different view. For them, the sharing of knowledge embedded in experience and collaboration to create a common understanding and self-consciousness of their subordination and of how to resist, was fundamental to the process of becoming a movement. In contrast to the individualism of Hayek, their ways of organizing assumed that practical knowledge could be socialized and shared. This led to ways of organizing that emphasized communication and shared values as a basis for co-ordination and a common direction. It provided the basis for purposeful and therefore more or less plannable action – action that was always experimental, never all-knowing; the product of distributed intelligence that could be consciously shared.

At the risk of being somewhat schematic, it could be argued that the movements of the 1960s/70s applied these ideas especially to develop an unfinished vision of democratizing the state. This took place both through attempts to create democratic, participatory ways of administering public institutions (universities and schools, for example) and through the development of non-state sources of democratic power (women’s centers, police monitoring projects and so on). It involved working ‘with/in and against’ the state, such as in the early 1980s when Madrid was handled by Enrique Tierno Galvan and the Greater London Council was led by Ken Livingstone.

Today’s movements are effectively focusing their energies especially on challenging the oligarchic market, and the injustice of corporate, financial power. Here the development of networked forms are increasingly linked to distributed economic initiatives – co-ops, credit unions, open software networks, collaborative cultural projects and so on. In this way, today’s movements are beginning to develop in practice a vision of socializing production and finance and creating an alternative kind of market, complementary to the earlier unfinished vision of democratic public power.

What they have in common, more in practice than in theory, is an assertion of organized democratic civil society as an economic actor, both in the provision of public goods and in the sphere of market exchange.

From social rebellion to transformation

AN « EXCESS »  OF DEMOCRACY  (1/3)

As we become increasingly dominated by the pursuit of economic growth, what campaigners can learn us from #occupy as well as previous radical movements in our attempt to forge a new kind of political economy based on a framework of equality, mutuality and respect for nature.

occupy-everything2The philosophy and experience of radical movements in the 1960s and 70s are complementary to the ideas of the direct action movements today. It is here to examine the possibility of forging a new kind of political economy by assimilating the best of both of them.

The Occupy movement’s ability to create platforms out of our closed political system to force open a debate on inequality, the taboo at the core of the financial crisis, is impressive. It is a new source of political creativity from which we all have much to learn.

One cannot fail to be impressed by the similarities between the late 1960s and 1970s and the current movement. There are both within the same strong feeling of power “from below” that comes from the dependence of the powerful on those they dominate or exploit. There’s the creative combination of personal and collective change, and proper rapport between resistance and experiments in creating alternatives here and now. There’s the repulse of hierarchies and the creation of organizations that are today described as ‘horizontal’ or ‘networked’ – and that now with the new technology tools for networking (Twitter, Facebook …) have both more potential –but it should also lend to greater distortion…

Here come back the same old problems: informal and unaccountable leaderships, tensions between inclusion and effectiveness. The Tyranny of Structurelessness, a strong assay of American feminist Jo Freeman inspired by her experiences in the 1970s in favor of the liberation of women and addressing, in particular, those unforeseen difficulties from the perspective of the movement women’s liberation, may be well read.

But that was 40 years ago – even before the widespread use of faxes, not to mention personal computers and mobile phones. Reflecting on these marginalized earlier movements possibly take forward the debates opened by Occupy and the Indignados.

From social rebellion to capitalist transformation

The fate of the energies and aspirations of that rebellious decade is a long and complex cluster of stories. Considering their relevance today, I want only to point to a historical process that was not generally anticipated at the time and still is not fully understood today. This was the ability of capitalism, which sought a way out of its stagnation and crisis, to feed opportunistically on the chaotic creativity and experimental culture-restless of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

For example, in the 80s while attacking unions, corporate management was also dismantling the military-style hierarchies characteristic of many leading companies and decentralizing the production process. A new generation of managers, especially in the innovative industries, assumed that more tacit knowledge by workers would infer a valuable source of increased productivity and higher profits – as long as workers have little or no power on their real redistribution.

Another prime example is how, in the endless pursuit of new markets, marketing experts were able to identify and anticipate business opportunities in the broad perspective and wants of a growing number of women with own income.

The key underlying feature of these and similar trends is that much of the innovative nature of capitalism’s renewal in the 1980s and 1990s – strengthened by the credit expansion– came from external sources to both the society and the state. In fact, frequently its origins lay in the resistance and the search for alternatives to both.

In other words, capital proved very much more agile in responding and appropriating the new energies and aspirations stimulated by the critical movements of the 1960s and 1970s than did the parties of the left – for which these movements could have been a force for democratic renewal.

Counter-movement

Now, with the credit that supported the social turmoil of this particular period of capitalism having become toxic, the search for alternatives is back again. Even the Financial Times, much to our astonishment, insisted in a series of articles on the crisis of capitalism to conclude that “at the heart of the problem is widening inequality”.

Are we witnessing in the combination – not necessarily convergence – of unease within at least the cultural elites, the growth of sustained popular resistance and public unhappiness, the emergence of what Karl Polanyi called a ‘counter-movement’ to the socially destructive consequences of rampant capitalism? And to what extent might the ideas of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s influence the character of that counter-movement?

A fundamental break

To answer this we need briefly to remind ourselves of the essential nature of the original social critique driven up by the 1960s/70s movements and in particular the nature of its potential break with the institutions of the post-war order: their paternalism, their exclusions, their narrow definition of democracy and the assumption that production and technology were neutral values.

Essential to the character of this assessment was its aspiration, more in practice than in theory, to overcome the deleterious dichotomies of the Cold War between the individual and the collective/social; freedom and solidarity/equality; ‘free’ market versus ‘command’ state – dichotomies that were refrozen through neoliberalism and the conditions in which the Berlin Wall fell.

The ideas and practices of the feminist’s movement are particularly explanatory. This movement arose partly from the gender-blind inconsistencies and from unfulfilled promises of radical movements of the time. It deepened and extended their transformation, adding ideas emerging from women’s specific experiences of breaking out of their subordination.

Especially important here was an emphasis on the individual as social and the collective as based on relationship between individuals: a social individualism and a relational view of society and social change. After all, the momentum of the women’s liberation movement was encouraged both by women’s desire to develop as individuals and their determination to end the social relationships that blocked these possibilities of progress. This required social solidarity: an organized movement.

The nature of its organization was shaped by a constant attempt to create organizational forms that combined freedom and autonomy – what every man struggles for– with solidarity, mutuality and values of equality. The result – cutting a complex and tense story short – was ways of relating that allowed autonomy, coordination and mutual support, without having to go through a single center. It’s what might be called an early solution, pre-ICT (*), a form of network organization.

Censorship on the Internet

censorship

Be irrepressible, an Amnesty International campaign.

>> Haga clic aqui para la versión en Castellano

Chat rooms monitored. Blogs deleted. Websites blocked. Search engines restricted. People imprisoned for simply posting and sharing information.

The Internet is a new frontier in the struggle for human rights. Governments – with the help of some of the biggest IT companies in the world – are cracking down on freedom of expression …

The web is a great tool for sharing ideas and freedom of expression. However, efforts to try and control the Internet are growing. Internet repression is reported in countries like China, Vietnam, Tunisia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. People are persecuted and imprisoned simply for criticising their government, calling for democracy and greater press freedom, or exposing human rights abuses, online.

But Internet repression is not just about governments. IT companies have helped build the systems that enable surveillance and censorship to take place. Yahoo! have supplied email users’ private data to the Chinese authorities, helping to facilitate cases of wrongful imprisonment. Microsoft and Google have both complied with government demands to actively censor Chinese users of their services.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It is one of the most precious of all rights. We should fight to protect it..

Database of censored material

Amnesty International is working with the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) to help raise awareness of internet censorship around the world.

The ONI is a collaboration among the Citizen Lab, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, the Advanced Network Research Group at Cambridge University, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School UK, and the Oxford Internet Institute, plus partner non- governmental organizations worldwide.

The aim of the ONI is to document empirically patterns of Internet content filtering and surveillance worldwide behind national firewalls over an extended period of time. The ONI employs a unique methodology that combines in-field investigations by partners and associates within the countries under investigation and a suite of technical interrogation tools that probe the Internet directly for forensic evidence of content filtering and surveillance technologies.

Its 11 country reports have documented the scope, scale and sophistication of numerous filtering regimes worldwide, and have helped verify the use of US commercial filtering technologies, such as Smartfilter and Websense that are used in some ways to underpin these regimes. The ONI’s flash map of global filtering shows the results of these investigations.

The work of ONI is supported by the Information Program of the Open Society Institute and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. ONI’s mapping work is supported by the International Development Research Centre (Canada).

The examples of censored material used for Irrepressible.info have been drawn from websites that have been blocked in one of the following countries – China, Iran, Myanmar, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Syria and Vietnam, and are based on latest testing results available from each country.

Wandering over the Internet: ‘Newsmap’ and ‘Worldometers’

Newsmap 2.0, your daily portion of breaking news.

newsmap_2OOnewsmap_3

newsmap_4OOnewsmap_5

prixarsNewsmap is a well-known application that visually reflects the constantly changing landscape of the Google News news aggregator.

A treemap visualization algorithm helps display the enormous amount of information gathered by the aggregator. Treemaps are traditionally space-constrained visualizations of information. Newsmap’s objective takes that goal a step further and provides a tool to divide information into quickly recognizable bands which, when presented together, reveal underlying patterns in news reporting across cultures and within news segments in constant change around the globe.

Newsmap’s objective is to simply demonstrate visually the relationships between data and the unseen patterns in news media.

Google News automatically groups news tories with similar content and places them based on algorithmic results into clusters. In Newsmap, the size of each cell is determined by the amount of related articles that exist inside each news cluster that the Google News Aggregator presents. In that way users can quickly identify which news stories have been given the most coverage, viewing the map by region, topic or time. Through that process it still accentuates the importance of a given article.

Newsmap also allows to compare the news landscape among several countries, making it possible to differentiate which countries give more coverage to, for example, more national news than international or sports rather than business

Currently, the internet presents a highly disorganized collage of information. Many of us are working in an information-soaked world. There is too much of everything. We are subject everywhere to a sensory overload of images, bombarded with information; in magazines and advertisements, on TV, radio, in the cityscape. The internet is a wonderful communication tool, but day after day we find ourselves constantly dealing with information overload. Today, the internet presents a new challenge, the wide and unregulated distribution of information requires new visual paradigms to organize, simplify and analyze large amounts of data. New user interface challenges are arising to deal with all that overwhelming quantity of information.

.

Worldometers makes you use your brain

Worldometer welcome screen

Worldometer welcome screen

My good friend Charles told me a few days ago about the existence of Worldometers which I did not know.

Worldometers.info is managed by an international team of developers, researchers and volunteers with the aim of making world statistics available to the widest audience in the world in a format that makes you use your brain.

Worldometers.info uses data and statistics from the most reputable organizations and statistical offices in the world.

The counters that display the real-time numbers are based on Worldometers’ algorithm that processes the latest statistical data available together with its estimated progression to compute the current millisecond number to be displayed on each counter based on the specific time set on each visitor’s computer clock.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 386 other followers

%d bloggers like this: