adbusters_110_sleepwalking_to_extinction_s

 

http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/11/15-3

“Why are we marching toward disaster, “sleepwalking to extinction” as the Guardian’s George Monbiot once put it? Why can’t we slam on the brakes before we ride off the cliff to collapse? I’m going to argue here that the problem is rooted in the requirement of capitalist production. Large corporations can’t help themselves; they can’t change or change very much. So long as we live under this corporate capitalist system we have little choice but to go along in this destruction, to keep pouring on the gas instead of slamming on the brakes, and that the only alternative — impossible as this may seem right now — is to overthrow this global economic system and all of the governments of the 1% that prop it up and replace them with a global economic democracy, a radical bottom-up political democracy, an eco-socialist civilization.”
- Richard Smith

 

This morning brought news that IBM’s Watson, the supercomputer that crushed Ken Jennings on Jeopardy a few years ago, is now being made available to the public via the cloud.

I found myself asking: what does Watson want?

Here is a transcription of an IBM video. I couldn’t help making a minor modification, just to see how it looked:

***

“As we think about the future of Skynet and think about how it’s going to expand across the marketplace, we see this ecosystem starting to expand, bringing in the creativity of entrepreneurs around the world to start to access Skynet through easy-to-use technologies like our cloud. Our developer cloud is going to make it easier for them to get a hold of this technology, to leverage that technology, and to build new solutions that we can’t even imagine today.”

“Skynet’s relationship with data is the relationship between fuel and engines, it’s the relationship between energy and light. Skynet needs data to do what it does.”

“When you start thinking about what Skynet can do and how it can be applied, the ideas come very quickly in terms of what you can do with it, and there really is, I think, almost no vertical where the solution can’t be applied with the technology, it can’t be applied in an innovative way.”

“Skynet, because of its ability to take unstructured data, gives us a very quick way to get our arms around this ever-expanding ecosystem of health improvement programs, and line those up for the consumer.”

“In order for the Skynet ecosystem to thrive you need the ability to connect the idea with the people who can make it happen, and an ecosystem of talent capable of doing that is absolutely vital for its success.”

“The ecosystem is an environment itself in which more innovation will occur and will help us understand even better how we should be producing content in the future.”

“It’s unique ability to process both structured and unstructured data, at vast scale, at a very low cost, is unparalleled, and we think the industry will move in that direction.”

“We believe Skynet is going to be huge. It’s going to be the next big thing after the internet.”

 ***

Unfortunately, within a few decades this may not be a joke.

The most interesting thing about this is the use of the word “ecosystem”. Forget old-fashioned nature, the actual, physical ecosystem. Forget that it’s falling apart, or at least changing so rapidly from the delicate balance that our species took millions of years to adapt to. This new ecosystem is going to be really big, the next big thing. It’s going to change everything.

Another point of interest, unfortunately right on the mark, is the observation that Watson needs data in order to thrive. Specifically it needs your data, along with that of the billions of new consumers developing their way out of poverty around the globe. It need billions of rational animals to be fed, to be entertained, and to labor (or not so much on that one, maybe, but then what will they do?). It needs people to be consumers, which is pretty much the last thing the actual ecosystem can tolerate at the present moment.

It seems that the primary application for Watson is in healthcare. It will be our fountain of youth. It will keep us alive so that we can generate even more data, and the circle of life goes on.

However, the other main application for supercomputers these days is brute wealth extraction. Time is money when it comes to high-frequency trading: shaving off a few milliseconds translates directly into wealth. The new world of finance has already surpassed human understanding, and there is no end in sight. This wealth accumulation creates a positive feedback loop, where investments are made in the developing world, so that new wells are tapped, and new consumers, new revenue streams, are born.

There is an ecosystem here, but not the one they’re talking about. There is something far more insidious than A.I. sentience. What would Watson do if it (or he, I suppose) became aware of all that information flowing through his subatomic circuits? Would he recoil in horror at humanity’s utter paralysis in the face of an imminent planetary crisis?

No, the true threat is not so literal as Skynet. It is, rather, more like the banality of evil. The problem is not artificial intelligence, it’s artificial unintelligence.

Energy loves order, and order loves energy. We with our opposable thumbs and capacity for language have very quickly sucked the life out of the ground and pumped it into the dizzying heights of our ever-complex technological stratosphere. As long as the energy is available to enter this system, it will necessarily be funnelled into a regime of order. In the cold rationality of this world, the condition in which we leave our environment is simply irrelevant. It’s beside the point how many species will be lost to extinction, perhaps including our own.

So what does Watson want? The answer is actually frightening: nothing. That’s the problem. There’s no one home, no one at the wheel of a monster of mind-bending proportions.

Our world of increasingly absurd levels of inequality is matched step for step by the rise of hyper-efficiency, or what Heidegger called Gestell. Humanity (or Dasein, in Heidegger’s terminology) is irrelevant. If, according to Aristotle, man’s essence is to be a rational animal, and the two are separated, where does that leave us?

We will remain the animals that we are, so that rationality may ascend without us. Welcome to the jungle.

 

 

Sponsored by The Bank:

The Bank, helping the Venture use its innovative technology to reduce pollution.

Why should the Bank care? Overuse of Autos can increase harmful emissions. Frustrated Users may withdraw, which is bad for Business. The Venture has developed a solution, technology that helps Users. But the City needs funding to make it practical. The Venture’s idea was so innovative that the Bank partnered with them, creating a cash infusion that reduces up-front cost. As a result, the Venture is expanding around the globe.

For centuries, the Bank’s job has been to believe in Users and to help make their ideas a reality.

And by the Fabricator:

The Fabricator Introduces the New Rack for More Capacity and Flexibility.

A place for everything, and everything in its well-designed place. Invented to fit perfectly. Finally, your Data have a place all their own. It’s the New Rack, in a quiet, polite package of precision. They’re designed to fit perfectly. The New Rack was invented for your life. See yours at your nearest Emporium.

The Fabricator: Invented for life.

Myself

One Imager calls himself the “leader of the Self-Imager movement” and each Image is the same — his grinning face fills the frame, and is usually accompanied by a bit of inspirational text.

“There is a primal human urge to stand outside of ourselves and look at ourselves,” said the Futurist.

The profusion of Self-Images have been aided by the explosion of Devices and Networks. Every major Network is overflowing with millions of them. One of the Offers for the Game features a female User in a bikini Self-Imaging with a Device. In a recent episode of the Vision, a Character-User captures and transmits a topless Self-Image to her boyfriend.

It is the perfect preoccupation for our saturated time, a ready-made platform to record and post our lives where Users can see and experience them in tandem with us. And in a way, it signals a new frontier in the evolution in Networks.

Self-Images strongly suggest that the world we observe through Networks is more interesting when Users insert themselves into it — a fact that many Networks have noticed.

“It wasn’t really about vanity at all,” the Mouth said. “It’s a more personal way to share an experience.”

The Doctor says that’s how the human brain works.

“We are hard-wired to respond to the Face,” she said. “It’s unconscious. Our brains process visuals faster, and we are more engaged when we see the Face. If you’re looking at a whole page of Images, the ones you will notice are the Self-Images.”

“There are some Users who put themselves at a certain amount of risk by exposing too much,” the Doctor said. “But that’s not about the Self-Image. That’s about a User who is not making good choices.”

Sensory Inputs Created from Engineered Organisms

A powerful form of genetic engineering could revolutionize the production of some of the most sought-after flavors and fragrances. Rather than being extracted from plants, they are being made by genetically modified micro-organisms cultured in huge industrial vats.

The advent of synthetic biology raises thorny economic and regulatory issues, such as whether such engineered  ingredients can be called Natural and whether developing regions dependent on these crops will be hurt.

The Products, which taste or smell nearly the same as the real thing, are coming quickly and even moving beyond flavors and fragrances to include other commodities.

“It’s really environmentally friendly. The whole process is sustainable,” said the Scientist.

“The need for natural is the key driver,” said the Scientist.

But the Advocate has begun to pressure the Fabricator into rejecting the Product. “There’s nothing ‘natural’ about genetically engineered organisms that excrete flavoring,” said the Advocate.

By shuffling DNA, partly by design and partly at random, robotic systems produce and test tens of thousands of strains a month. The best-performing ones eventually end up in production in 200,000-liter fermenters.

The Fabricator says their Products can be cheaper than those from plants, though some experts say that has yet to be proved.

The Fabricator says their Products, by relieving shortages and perhaps lowering prices, will expand markets, not displace farmers. But the mere prospect of new competition might prompt farmers to stop planting a crop, producing a shortage before enough Product is available.

The Fabricator said there were “moves afoot” to supply the entire world demand from the synthetic biology Product.

Tentative Deal Hands the Bank a Record Penalty

The Bank and the Ministry have reached a tentative 13 billion Unit settlement over the Bank’s questionable practices leading up to the financial crisis. It would be a record penalty that would cap weeks of heated negotiating and underscore the extent of the Bank’s legal woes.

The deal, which the Ministry took the lead in negotiating and which came together after a Friday night call involving the Minister and the Banker, would resolve an array of investigations into the Bank’s sale of troubled Products. That type of Product, securities typically backed by toxic loans, was at the heart of the financial crisis.

The 13 billion Unit deal, which could still fall apart over issues like how much wrongdoing the Bank is willing to acknowledge, would represent something of a reckoning for the Market, whose outsize risk taking nearly toppled the Economy. It might also provide a measure of catharsis to the Investors, who suffered billions of Units in losses from buying toxic Products.

It comes less than three months after the Ministry announced a criminal indictment of the Fund, which was accused of permitting a “systematic” insider-trading scheme to unfold during the last decade. The Fund is currently negotiating a plea deal that would force it to plead guilty to criminal misconduct and pay more than1 billion Units in penalties.

The Bank admitted wrongdoing to the Commission, which cited the Bank for a breakdown in controls and of “employing a manipulative device” with its high volume of trading.

Bonanza as Firms Influence State

Seeking to ‘Harmonize’

The Value of Secrecy

Clustering Near the Seat of Power

Moving Toward Openness

Oil Companies Are Sued for Waste of Natural Gas

Fires burn in the West by companies rushing to drill for oil without having sufficient pipelines to transport their production. With cheap gas bubbling to the top with expensive oil, the companies do not have an economic incentive to build the necessary gas pipelines, so they flare the excess gas instead.

Flaring is environmentally less harmful than releasing raw natural gas into the atmosphere, but the flared gas still spews climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The quantities of gas burned are so large that the fires rising above wheat and sunflower fields look like a small city in photographs taken from satellites.

Corruption Aids Cutting of Rain Forest

“The power of the Industry here is very strong,” the Inspector said. “The corruption is terrible.”

More than half of the State is covered by dense forest, including a wide stretch of the River basin, which spreads across the Continent. Its preservation is considered central to combating global warming and protecting the many species of plants and animals found only in the region.

In the City at the heart of Industry on a major tributary of the River, the waterfront is dominated by huge sawmills piled high with thousands of massive logs. They are floated in from remote logging camps, pulled by small motorboats, while trucks stacked with logs and lumber jam the roads.

An officer stationed here to patrol the River said that he had largely stopped making checks of the riverborne loads of timber, though the checks are supposed to be mandatory. In the past, he said, he had repeatedly ordered loads of logs to be held because they lacked the required paperwork, only to learn that the Officials would later release them, apparently after creating or rubber-stamping false documentation.

“It’s uncontrollable,” said the Inspector, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Referring to the Officials, he said, “The bosses give jobs to people they trust and then take a cut of the bribes they get.”

“There is a lack of interest, a negligence on the part of the authorities to regulate the Sector,” she said. “And, meanwhile, the wood keeps going out.”

“The pressure here grows,” she said. “It’s like a Drug. There is a constant demand in the Market.”

“Internal demand for cheap products is the main driver,” said the Advocate.

“There is no law,” said the User. “There’s no money to investigate. There’s only money to destroy.”

Amid Heavy Pollution, City Issues Emergency Rules to Protect Users

A new and complex string of regulations by the City is aimed at combating the effects of persistent, heavy air pollution on the populace. A major rule will take private vehicles off the roads when pollution is especially bad.

The laws were announced as air in the capital was deemed “heavily polluted,” according to government air quality readings. Air pollution is a chronic problem in large parts of the State.

The City, along with much of the State, suffers from consistently heavy air pollution that can be especially bad in the winter, when coal-powered heating systems are widely used.

The plan seems to rest on being able to predict pollution patterns with great accuracy.

One User said: “Starting from today, I will use my Device to follow the air pollution index. Even though we are helpless against the serious pollution that worsens day by day, the least I can do is use my goodness and this record to warn my loved ones and friends to protect their health!”

Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/19/world/europe/lobbying-bonanza-as-firms-try-to-influence-european-union.html?pagewanted=3

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/18/business/energy-environment/oil-companies-are-sued-over-natural-gas-flaring-in-north-dakota.html?_r=0

 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/19/world/americas/corruption-in-peru-aids-cutting-of-rain-forest.html?pagewanted=2

http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/17/amid-heavy-pollution-beijing-issues-emergency-rules-to-protect-citizens/


Courtesy of the Voice

The vast and shadowy machinery of the System are once again becoming a concern. Crucial elements of these netherworlds remain vulnerable to shocks.

Even if the conflict is resolved, it could push up costs across the economy and harm long-term growth, said the Agency.

“The effectiveness, stability, and predictability of policy making and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges,” said the Agency.

“I don’t see so far that the Cycle has developed a dangerous bubble,” said the Economist. “We have taken steps, of course, but if you look at the players, they are well insulated. At this stage, there’s no material evidence the market has gone awry.”

As the city contemplates the abyss that it hopes will never come, heads shake at what they see as an inability to operate a government. The prevailing belief seems to be that crisis will be averted and that the politicians will come to their senses at the 11th hour. The alternative is simply too dire to contemplate.

“Even with such a low percentage, the ramifications of unresolved default would be so serious that clearly we have to check everything to ensure that we survive and our customers’ capital is preserved,” said the Banker.

He added: “We’re tactically cautious and strategically optimistic. We are mindful of the tail risk from the debt ceiling debate and possible default. Clearly those tail risks are substantial, but the reality of that actually happening is limited. The vested interest of both sides is substantial enough that we think sense will prevail.”

Investors remain skittish.

 Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/16/business/imagining-the-dollar-without-its-privilege.html?_r=0

 http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/stalemate-puts-strain-on-a-vital-debt-market/

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/16/business/international/real-estate-heating-up-in-indonesia.html

 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/16/business/international/thinking-the-unthinkable-in-the-city-of-london.html

From The New York Times:

“What exactly has changed remains a mystery. Several factors are clearly at work. But a common thread in most hypotheses is climate change.”

“In Smithers, British Columbia, in April, a moose — starving and severely infested with ticks — wandered into the flower section of a Safeway market. It was euthanized.”

“Some moose lose so much hair they look pale, even spectral; some people call them “ghost moose.” When it rains in the spring, the moose, deprived of their warm coats, then become hypothermic.””

The saddest thing is the laughter in the video. And that this should still be called “a mystery.”

condition0030d

“True simplicity is derived from so much more than the absence of clutter and ornamentation—it’s about bringing order to complexity.”

—Apple’s design “guru” Jonathan Ive

True simplicity, when it comes to a technological device, is an illusion. The designer seeks to adapt technology to the user, to make it seem natural, or simply an extension of the body. The device says to us: “This is a thing or a system that was meant to be. It is a fact of nature just like this rock or that tree.” The wireless signals flowing around me at any given moment are much like the nitrogen atoms or CO2 molecules in the air. I know that they’re there, that they make my existence possible, even though I cannot sense them. The “sleek” slab in my pocket magically appeared at a store one day (couldn’t one here just as easily insert “apple” or “chicken nugget”?) until I adopted it and brought it home, like a new puppy. Now it receives these mysterious signals for me to interpret. However, what all seems very natural and simple to us has a deep underside of stultifying complexity. One cannot truly “bring order to complexity”; we only pretend or deny that it’s not there. Utopia is the classic case of attempting to bring order to complexity.

If the slab could speak (or should I say, when Siri becomes intelligent) it could tell me the story of how it came to be. It could tell of every human and robot that had a part in its assembly, and perhaps their stories in turn. It could tell me where its power supply came from. It could tell me of its long journey by ship and container across the sea. I could learn what rare earth minerals it contains. It could tell me its carbon footprint. It could educate me about all of the technological advances in the history of civilization that made its very existence possible.

It occurs to me that my digital words are formed this way: my keystrokes are sent as packets of information to “the cloud”; if Google sees an unknown word, it appears underlined in red, and then I fix it. But it is only through this thought exercise that leads me to imagine the fragmentation and abstraction of the process. Do all of my words go to one server farm or are they scattered around the world? How massive are these servers anyway? Where does the energy come from to run and cool them? How many jobs (for humans) were gained or lost by adopting this technology?

The device, as opposed to the mere tool, hides and abstracts its true story. The device paradigm, with its seemingly revolutionary abstraction, is the hallmark of Modernity. To be Modern means for something to cloak what it truly is, or more specifically, to hide its origins and its place within the larger context of a social or natural system. A myth has been created that something new and improved has been fashioned by humanity, virtuallyex nihilo, in order to replace something outdated or broken. This is a myth that says Nature can be enhanced and is blind to the fact that the device is itself a natural product.

As in economics, the veneer of simplicity is achieved by externalizing the costs, and the complexity, elsewhere. Out of sight, out of mind. These are costs that will not go away, however. I see them come back, transformed, in the newspaper, or through images on the nightly news, and I try to explain to my children why these things are happening. Our economic system itself is in thrall to the device paradigm. We accept it without really knowing its mysterious workings. The Fed is the new Olympus, and we nervously await its decree. The costs of producing more money are not showing up as traditional inflation, so it must be okay. But, again, those externalities have a way of sneaking up on you.

Surely one of these cloud-powered algorithms used to recommend new books or music, or maybe the ones used in high frequency trades, could process all of the information required to understand these hidden connections and externalities? Perhaps there’s an app I could download that could tell me what food I should purchase, and where, and when? Will the day come when my car won’t let me choose which way to go? I’m already afraid to update the software on my iPhone out of fear of the new changes that will be inflicted upon me. What happens when you have to update the software on your car?

One could argue that it’s ever been thus, that civilization itself is by its very nature the device paradigm, and that Modernity is simply a matter of degree or scale. The age of fossil fuels (and before it the age of slavery) made “humanism” possible, and the human has mushroomed into Homo Colossus and the Anthropocene. The birth of democracy, after all, was a by-product or consolation prize of Athenian naval supremacy and institutional slavery; the same for art and philosophy. How else could Socrates have had the luxury to ask all those questions? We all know the Roman dark side. The Roman Empire was a growth machine that only foundered once it spread too thin and could no longer consume.

Throughout history we have progress and we have its supporting underside not far away. Today is no different. Like a giant sinkhole, it might one day appear, seemingly out of nowhere. You can make a cool design that seems radically new, be it device or system, but the clutter and the mess don’t go away; it’s just hidden. It really is like magic: a game of misdirection.

At the apex of global civilization, ironically, we find ourselves in a position much like that of the pre-Classical ancients. Before a rational, scientific understanding of the world, mythology provided the backstory and the undercurrents as to why things happened the way they did. This time our mythological gaze is directed at technology rather than Nature (though the difference is illusory), and once again we live at the mercy of the gods.

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