It’s not all bad news

I think I might not bother keeping up with current affairs for a while, it’s all too ridiculous. Basically, another prime minister, another deal, another vote.

How much of Johnson’s ‘great new deal’ is actually new?
As MPs prepare to vote on Boris Johnson’s EU withdrawal agreement, Guardian analysis shows that less than 5% of the original deal has been renegotiated, despite it being rejected by parliament three times.

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Another lost vote.

‘House of fools’: how the papers covered Johnson’s latest Brexit defeat
Newspapers cast prime minister as either a fighter or a loser, with plenty of anger directed at Parliament, too.

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This current prime minister seems as prime ministerial as that president is presidential, i.e. not much.

Boris Johnson’s three letters to Brussels: what do they mean for Brexit?
Rather than writing one letter to the European Union, Johnson has sent three – almost. The first is less of a letter: rather an unsigned photocopy of a portion of of the Benn Act. Rather than asking for an extension on behalf of Johnson, the text merely points out that the Benn Act requires the government to seek an extension. After this, it adds that “if the parties are able to ratify before this date, the government proposes that the period should be terminated early”. In what seems a fit of pique, and reinforcing his determination simultaneously to write and refuse to write to Brussels, the prime minister declined to actually sign the missive.

Remember all those flow charts trying to explain how we might leave, back in March and April? Back to the drawing board with all those.

Brexit: What happens now?
It’s not clear that the whole process will be completed by 31 October. The government will seek to pass a “programme motion” to limit the length of debates in the House of Commons. MPs could reject that, though, and the bill must also pass through the House of Lords.

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And it’s not just the British press that’s struggling with politics.

Why Australia’s media front pages were blacked out today
Australia’s major media organisations blacked out their newspaper front pages and websites on Monday in a coordinated push for legislative change to protect press freedom and force the government to increase transparency.

According to the organisations – which include SBS, the ABC, Nine, News Corp Australia and The Guardian – a slew of laws introduced over the past 20 years have hindered the media’s capacity to act as the fourth estate and hold the government and other powerful figures to account.

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But what we need to remember is, if we step back from all this, it’s not all bad news. We just need to look in the right places.

Beautiful News
A collection of good news, positive trends, uplifting statistics and facts — all beautifully visualized by Information is Beautiful.

We’ll be releasing a chart every day for a year to move our attention beyond dramatic news headlines to the slow developments and quiet trends that go unseen, uncelebrated.

Amazing things are happening in the world, thanks to human ingenuity, endeavour and collaboration.

It’s the new initiative from David McCandless and his Information is Beautiful team. Here’s an example.

Everyone, everywhere is living longer
One of the greatest achievements of humanity is the increase in life expectancy. In 1960, the average life span was 52.6 years. Today it’s an impressive 72 years. The reasons are simple: improvements in child survival, expanded access to healthcare (including widespread vaccination), and people being lifted out of extreme, grinding poverty.

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And another.

More Afghan girls are being educated
Educating girls is probably the single most impactful thing we can do to make the world a better place. Women who spend longer in school have fewer, healthier and better-fed children, are less likely to die in childbirth, contribute more towards a country’s economy, participate more in politics, and are less likely to marry young or against their will.

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Just two of dozens of uplifting stories. I know which news website I’d rather read.

Update 22/10/2019

I should, of course, have added some links to Hans Rosling‘s work after that.

Bill Gates on Factfulness
Bill Gates recently read Hans Rosling’s new book “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” In it, Hans offers a new framework for how to think about the world.

And here’s Hans in his own words about the need for fact-based optimism.

Good news at last: the world isn’t as horrific as you think
Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? War, violence, natural disasters, corruption. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and we will soon run out of resources unless something drastic is done. That’s the picture most people in the west see in the media and carry around in their heads.

I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s population live somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated. Perhaps not on every single measure, or every single year, but step by step, year by year, the world is improving. In the past two centuries, life expectancy has more than doubled. Although the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.

Heavy questions for a Monday morning

I’ve just got round to reading this weekend’s Art & Letters Daily newsletter. More coffee is required before I properly engage with these questions, I think — the first, about the value of the arts; the second, the value of higher education.

What’s the point?
These feel like such dire times, times of violence and dislocation, schism, paranoia, and the earth-scorching politics of fear. Babies have iPads, the ice caps are melting, and your smart refrigerator is eavesdropping on your lovemaking (and, frankly, it’s not impressed).

Fascists, bigots, and guys who plan to name their sons Adolf wake up every day with a hateful leer on their faces and the Horst Wessel Song in their hearts—if you’re an ignorant, misogynist, xenophobic, racist against science, I guess times have never felt better. But for the vast rest of us—and please know, please believe, you and I greatly outnumber them—for the rest of us, things can seem so much worse than they did back in 2010, when a decent, thoughtful, level-headed, rational, and humane black man was living in the White House.

It has all seemed to fall apart so quickly. Looking around, it’s hard not to wonder who or what is to blame. I think it might be me. No, hear me out.

(This quote from George Bernard Shaw might help here.)

Does meritocracy stall social mobility, entrench an undeserving elite, and undermine trust in higher education?
An attack on meritocracy is invariably an attack on higher education, where meritocrats get sorted and credentialed. So the turn against meritocracy prompts big questions. Has meritocracy in fact failed? Is it time for universities to rethink the definition of merit, and, more broadly, higher education’s role in American life? Are meritocracy’s critics too sweeping in their indictment? Is it still — flaws and all — the fairest way to organize society? If we do away with it, what comes next?

We put these questions to 10 scholars and administrators from across the academy. Here are their responses.

Global protests for a global crisis

Lots of attention, rightly, on the school climate strikes today.

Greta Thunberg is leading kids and adults from 150 countries in a massive Friday climate strike
It’s a big moment for Thunberg and the legions of youth and adult activists and leaders she’s inspired since August 2018, when she began skipping school on Fridays to protest outside the Swedish Parliament. Thousands of young people in the movement, called Fridays for Future, now strike every Friday to demand more aggressive action from their governments and the international community. The last large-scale coordinated climate strike on May 24 drew participants from 130 countries.

The huge youth climate strike is about courage, not hope
As children and young people in more than 150 countries skip school, university, or work, to strike against climate inaction, they aren’t just creating a new form of activism. They are also creating a platform that presents a united front to a multi-pronged global problem.

It’s not just for teenagers this time.

Global climate strike: how you can get involved
The global climate strike kicks off on Friday and will ripple across the world in more than 4,000 locations, the start of a weeklong movement to train international attention on the climate emergency. It’s the latest of a succession of strikes on Fridays led by schoolchildren – but this time adults are invited to join in.

The scale of the problem can feel a little overwhelming, but here’s a possible way forward.

Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot make short film on the climate crisis
Environmental activists Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot have helped produce a short film highlighting the need to protect, restore and use nature to tackle the climate crisis. Living ecosystems like forests, mangroves, swamps and seabeds can pull enormous quantities of carbon from the air and store them safely, but natural climate solutions currently receive only 2% of the funding spent on cutting emissions. The film’s director, Tom Mustill of Gripping Films, said: ‘We tried to make the film have the tiniest environmental impact possible. We took trains to Sweden to interview Greta, charged our hybrid car at George’s house, used green energy to power the edit and recycled archive footage rather than shooting new.’

(Speaking of videos that are trying to change hearts and minds, have you seen the absolutely heart-wrenching film from Sandy Hook Promise, Back-To-School Essentials?)

The most interesting links of the day, I think, are all these from The Conversation, bringing together climate science with economics, culture and the media.

Five things every government needs to do right now to tackle the climate emergency
I would never argue against setting climate targets. They are necessary – but far from sufficient. We must guard against politicians hiding behind distant and possibly empty promises, and demand climate policy that impacts the carbon ledger here and now.

I stand with the climate striking students – it’s time to create a new economy
My research area remains marginal, and its results neglected, because to accept it would require a fundamental transformation of the prevailing economic philosophy. We would need to pay less attention to growth and profit as the measures of prosperity, and replace them with sufficiency and equity – a fair division of resources to provide what is sufficient for well-being and not more. After centuries of entrenchment, that’s no easy feat.

How getting rid of ‘shit jobs’ and the metric of productivity can combat climate change
But suppose we stopped chasing productivity growth. What might happen? It would make it easier to decarbonise. We’d no longer be stuck on the production-consumption treadmill. It would mean less stuff too. But do we need all the crap we have?

Humanity and nature are not separate – we must see them as one to fix the climate crisis
Scholars such as Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour remind us that viewing the natural world as separated from humans is not only ethically problematic but empirically false. Microorganisms in our gut aid digestion, while others compose part of our skin. Pollinators such as bees and wasps help produce the food we eat, while photosynthetic organisms such as trees and phytoplankton provide the oxygen that we need in order to live, in turn taking up the carbon dioxide we expel.

Climate change: children are carving out a place in politics – now adults must listen and act
It’s not enough to put children on the covers of newspapers and call them “heroes”. It’s not even enough to listen to the concerns they’re raising through the global strikes for climate action. Adults in positions of authority need to give young people the means to change the world and create their own visions for the future.

Why is climate change still not top of the news agenda?
Journalists with a better grasp of the science (and indeed social science) of climate change would be less reliant on press releases, reducing the impact of corporate lobbyists and the need to include their public relations activity as part of the news. However, these suggestions are optimistic considering the wider power structures that constrain how journalists operate.

#ShowYourStripes: how climate data became a cultural icon
Helping science to make this leap from the lab to social media is crucial to changing mindsets. My research has often focused on communicating the impacts of climate change to new audiences. The more people that see and understand this huge problem, the better chance we have of solving it.

Imagining both utopian and dystopian climate futures is crucial – which is why cli-fi is so important
When now is the time that we need to act, the rarer utopian form of cli-fi is perhaps more useful. These works imagine future worlds where humanity has responded to climate change in a more timely and resourceful manner. They conjure up futures where human and non-human lives have been adapted, where ways of living have been reimagined in the face of environmental disaster. Scientists, and policy makers – and indeed the public – can look to these works as a source of hope and inspiration.

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Do we know what’s really going on?

It seems there are three kinds of people in the world: fools that believe in ludicrous conspiracy theories; bullies that want to persuade us that established facts are conspiracy theories when they’re plainly not; and us, stuck in this post-truth world, trying to get to the bottom of it all.

What you think you know about the climate is probably wrong – new UK poll
But our lack of understanding of the scale of the issues doesn’t mean we’re not worried. In fact, recent polling of Britons by Ipsos MORI measured record-breaking levels of concern. Our new polling also shows that two-thirds of Britons reject Donald Trump’s assertion that global warming is an “expensive hoax” – and instead two-thirds agree with the recent UK Parliament declaration that we are facing a “climate change emergency, with the threat of irreversible destruction of our environment in our lifetime”.

Things are confusing enough without all these concerted efforts to massage the truth.

Five climate change science misconceptions – debunked
This organised and orchestrated climate change science denial has contributed to the lack of progress in reducing global green house gas (GHG) emissions – to the point that we are facing a global climate emergency. And when climate change deniers use certain myths – at best fake news and at worse straight lies – to undermine the science of climate change, ordinary people can find it hard to see through the fog.

It’s not just the climate crisis, of course. Remember that damned bus?

Citizens need to know numbers
The message on the bus had a strong emotional resonance with millions of people, even though it was essentially misinformation. The episode demonstrates both the power and weakness of statistics: they can be used to amplify an entire worldview, and yet they often do not stand up to scrutiny. This is why statistical literacy is so important – in an age in which data plays an ever-more prominent role in society, the ability to spot ways in which numbers can be misused, and to be able to deconstruct claims based on statistics, should be a standard civic skill.

The future of the 90s

Nothing wrong with indulging in a little nostalgia now and then, right?

Do you remember Suck.com, the web’s first and best snarky internet/pop-culture magazine? It owned the show in the 90s, and I was a huge fan. It stopped publishing in 2001, but for the last four years the “Suck, Again” project has been serialising its archives as a daily e-mail newsletter, each article sent out twenty years to the day since the original.

Gen Xers rejoice: Suck.com comes back as a daily newsletter
Launched in 1995 by Wired staffers Joey Anuff and Carl Steadman — the same year as Salon.com and a year before Slate — Suck offered a daily riff on early Web culture, politics, pop culture and dating. It was done with a characteristically Gen X flare: arch, wry, ironic and smart. It was massively influential.

It’s fascinating to see just how deeply the internet and the other new technologies have become embedded into our societies since then — and just how ‘on the money’ the Suck.com team were in highlighting the issues that we’re still grappling with today, two decades later.

Like this from April 1999 — fifteen years before Alexa first appeared, for example.

Bit Rot
In the December 1998 Wired, Negroponte – director of MIT’s Media Lab and sharp-dressed retailer of broader-bandwidth tomorrows to corporate America (and to the unwashed AOL millions in his best-selling book Being Digital) – announced that he was vacating his bully pulpit on the magazine’s end page. After six years there, the man, whose audio-animatronic prose is to literary style what the Parkinsonian tics of Disneyland’s Mr. Lincoln are to fluid human movement, had decided to step down.

Negroponte’s departure marks the end of an era when Magna Cartas for the Knowledge Age and Declarations of the Independence of Cyberspace were taken seriously, at least by the self- anointed “digital elite.” Oddly, Negroponte himself seems not to have noticed how retro his Jetsonian visions of digital butlers and supercomputing cufflinks seem in the politically turbulent, economically anxious late-’90s. At the end of a century that has witnessed acid rain and global warming, Bhopal and Chernobyl, he beckons us toward a future where technology never fails, corporations are always benign, and there’s a high-tech magic bullet for every social malady.

Here’s a more favourable piece on him for 21C magazine.

Net prophet
In his immaculate Italian suit, Nicholas Negroponte looks more like an international financier than one of the leading thinkers of the information age. His new book, Being Digital, may have propelled the head of MIT’s Media Lab into the spotlight, but is he a true visionary or just a well-connected hype merchant?

For all that I might now think that Nicholas Negroponte was a little wide of the mark politically, I’ve had his Being Digital book on my bookshelf since it was first published in 1995, just next to Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. They’re still two of my favourites. 

(Featured image c/o Phil Gyford on Flickr)

Everything is political, nothing is neutral

Remember last year I mentioned how the Design Museum’s exhibition on political graphic design had itself become political? Those kinds of debates are still ongoing. Should museums just be preserving cultural heritage, or using their collections to promote social justice and equality? (Is it not obviously the latter?)

Are art institutions becoming too ‘ideological’? A debate breaks out at the International Council of Museums Over Politics in the galleries
What is at stake at the Kyoto meeting on September 7 is more than a battle over terminology. It reflects a debate that has been taking place for the past four decades around whether museums can ever be ideologically neutral spaces. It also reflects a desire since at least the 1980s for museums to be meeting places where ideas can be discussed, turning the museum from a traditional “temple” to a more democratic “forum.” The debate has been given added urgency as institutions in the West face increasing pressure over their colonial-era collections, sources of funding, and historic under-representation of women’s history in particular.

Are we all under surveillance?

We’re used to seeing CCTV cameras absolutely everywhere in this country, but this creepy introduction of facial-recognition technology is something I thought only happens in places like authoritarian China.

‘Deeply concerned’ UK privacy watchdog thrusts probe into King’s Cross face-recognizing snoop cam brouhaha
It emerged earlier this week that hundreds of thousands of Britons passing through the 67-acre area were being secretly spied on by face-recognizing systems. King’s Cross includes Google’s UK HQ, Central Saint Martins college, shops and schools, as well as the bustling eponymous railway station.

“I remain deeply concerned about the growing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces, not only by law enforcement agencies but also increasingly by the private sector,” said Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham in a statement on Thursday.

“We have launched an investigation following concerns reported in the media regarding the use of live facial recognition in the King’s Cross area of central London, which thousands of people pass through every day.”

So, not only is GDPR’s notion of consent being ignored in our online life, but we are being tracked without our consent outside in the real world, too.

It’s good to see some people are fighting back.

Adversarial fashion designed to trick automated license plate readers
When hacker and fashion designer Kate Rose learned – through a conversation with Dave Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation – that the plate readers kind of suck at their jobs, she got an idea. Her new line “Adversarial Fashion” is the result. Unveiled at the DefCon cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas last week, the garments spell out the words of the fourth amendment of the US constitution, which protects Americans from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

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That dystopian future creeps nearer every day. And here’s more evidence that “Years and Years” will end up being a fact-based documentary rather than a far-fetched satire.

Robotic contact lens that allows users to zoom in by blinking eyes revealed by scientists
The lens is made from polymers that expand when electric current is applied. It is controlled using five electrodes surrounding the eye which act like muscles. When the polymer becomes more convex the lens effectively zooms in.

Scientists hope one day this could help create a prosthetic eye or a camera that can be controlled using eyes alone.

Don’t give up on social media just yet

Most of the social media articles I share here are quite negative. I think it’s got a lot to answer for, in making us less social. But perhaps there are some pockets of positivity out there, as this Scientific American blog post explains.

The technology of kindness
People’s ability to connect is the glue that holds our culture together. By thinning out our interactions and splintering our media landscape, the Internet has taken away the common ground we need to understand one another. Each of us is becoming more confident about our own world just as it drifts farther from the worlds of others …

Diagnosing technology’s damaging effects is the first step toward reversing them. Harris co-founded the Center for Humane Technology to encourage developers and investors to build “regenerative,” rather than extractive, online platforms. The idea is that our capacity for empathy runs just as deep as our vanity, outrage or fear, and technology should highlight healthier forces.

Rather than thinking that Twitter and Facebook are the only options, we’re introduced to ChangeAView, RareConnect, Koko and 7 Cups.

Sites such as ChangeAView and 7 Cups can appear like oases of connection in a landscape bereft of it—exceptions that prove the rule. But what sets connected platforms apart is their break from common, antisocial online practices. They allow people to be vulnerable and visible to one another and reward them for listening rather than shouting. Other social media companies could follow suit: by reforming their incentive structures such that open-minded, positive posts rise more quickly or by facilitating longer, richer communication between users. But they must make progress on this mission intentionally and soon.

Perhaps there’s hope for them (and us) yet.

Falling short

I think I need to make a bigger effort to find more positive stories. Everything I read convinces me more and more that we’re a planet of idiots.

Scarecrow’ statue of Melania Trump unveiled in Slovenia to mixed reviews
“I can understand why people might think that this falls short as a description of her physical appearance,” Downey told AFP, but insisted that he found the end result “absolutely beautiful”.

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If he’s saying this isn’t a good description of her ‘physical’ appearance, does he mean he was trying to represent her — what? Intellect?

Has humanity reached ‘peak intelligence’?
Whatever the cause of the Flynn effect, there is evidence that we may have already reached the end of this era – with the rise in IQs stalling and even reversing. If you look at Finland, Norway and Denmark, for instance, the turning point appears to have occurred in the mid-90s, after which average IQs dropped by around 0.2 points a year. That would amount to a seven-point difference between generations.

Lost your wallet? Don’t worry

An article to show that honesty might not be as rare in people as the media would have us believe.

Majority of people return lost wallets – here’s the psychology and which countries are the most honest
Overall, 51% of those who were handed a wallet with smaller amounts of money reported it, compared with 72% for a larger sum. The most honest countries were Switzerland, Norway and the Netherlands whereas the least honest were Peru, Morocco and China.

So why is this and what does it tell us about the psychology of honesty? To get an idea, I ran a very informal focus group to find out what kinds of things people may ask themselves when making a decision to return a found wallet. A common view was that no one wanted to appear to act in a socially unacceptable way, and nobody wanted to appear to be a thief. And, of course, the more money in the wallet, the greater the crime.

Is there anything you can do to increase the changes of your wallet being returned? Try this.

In 2009, a researcher carelessly “dropped” a number of wallets all over Edinburgh to see what would happen. He got 42% of the wallets back, but wasn’t not the most interesting finding. It wasn’t only the money in the wallet that influenced whether it would be returned. Where a family photo, an image of a cute puppy, a baby or an elderly couple were included, the chances of the wallet being returned significantly improved.

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You may want to cut this out and put it in your wallet.

Thefts do happen, of course, but some have happy endings.

Found: 15 wallets from the 1940s, stolen and stashed behind a bathroom wall
The pastor took to Facebook to wage a longshot campaign to return the wallets to their owners. His post—which featured a photo of the find along with eight names from the discovered student identification cards—has since picked up more than 3,000 shares, and has so far helped facilitate one reunion. Betty Sissom, 89, currently living more than an hour away from Centralia in Chesterfield, Missouri, is now back in possession of treasures once lost, such as her old social security card, a photo of herself with her childhood crush, and a picture of her brother, who had been fighting in World War II at the time and has since passed away. “I was just so glad to get that,” CNN quoted Sissom as saying, “because I don’t have a picture of him.”

And let’s not forget this from NBC News, under its ‘Criminal weirdness’ heading:

Man’s two ‘page one’ photos lead to arrest
Michael Millhouse, wearing a blue and black checkered coat, is painting decorative Christmas greetings on storefront windows in one photo published Dec. 13 in the Lewiston Tribune. The other image was taken from surveillance video footage that reportedly showed a then-unidentified man slipping a women’s wallet in the pocket of that same coat and walking away.

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Satire or harmful deception?

Fake videos — they’re just a bit of fun that we’re happy to spread around on social media, right? Whilst they play a part in the BBC dystopian future drama, Years and Years, helping to sway a general election, we’re not really fooled by them, are we?

Well, perhaps not yet, but they’ve got US politicians worried enough about their upcoming presidential election in 2020 to officially look into it all.

Congress grapples with how to regulate deepfakes
“Now is the time for social media companies to put in place policies to protect users from this kind of misinformation not in 2021 after viral deepfakes have polluted the 2020 elections,” Schiff said. “By then it will be too late.”

At the outset of the hearing, Schiff came out challenging the “immunity” given to platforms under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, asking panelists if Congress should make changes to the law that doesn’t currently hold social media companies liable for the content on their platforms.

Another example.

Deepfakes: Imagine All the People
Of course this isn’t real. The video was done by a company called Canny AI, which offers services like “replace the dialogue in any footage” and “lip-sync your dubbed content in any language”. That’s cool and all — picture episodes of Game of Thrones or Fleabag where the actors automagically lip-sync along to dubbed French or Chinese — but this technique can also be used to easily create what are referred to as deepfakes, videos made using AI techniques in which people convincingly say and do things they actually did not do or say.

A ‘fake’ arms race, for real

This essay from Cailin O’Connor, co-author of The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, frames the issue of online misinformation as an arms race.

The information arms race can’t be won, but we have to keep fighting
What makes this problem particularly thorny is that internet media changes at dizzying speed. When the radio was first invented, as a new form of media, it was subject to misinformation. But regulators quickly adapted, managing, for the most part, to subdue such attempts. Today, even as Facebook fights Russian meddling, WhatsApp has become host to rampant misinformation in India, leading to the deaths of 31 people in rumour-fuelled mob attacks over two years.

Participating in an informational arms race is exhausting, but sometimes there are no good alternatives. Public misinformation has serious consequences. For this reason, we should be devoting the same level of resources to fighting misinformation that interest groups are devoting to producing it. All social-media sites need dedicated teams of researchers whose full-time jobs are to hunt down and combat new kinds of misinformation attempts.

I know I’m a pretty pessimistic person generally, but this all sounds quite hopeless. Here’s how one group of people is responding to the challenge of misuse of information and fake videos — by producing their own.

This deepfake of Mark Zuckerberg tests Facebook’s fake video policies
The video, created by artists Bill Posters and Daniel Howe in partnership with advertising company Canny, shows Mark Zuckerberg sitting at a desk, seemingly giving a sinister speech about Facebook’s power. The video is framed with broadcast chyrons that say “We’re increasing transparency on ads,” to make it look like it’s part of a news segment.

“We will treat this content the same way we treat all misinformation on Instagram,” a spokesperson for Instagram told Motherboard. “If third-party fact-checkers mark it as false, we will filter it from Instagram’s recommendation surfaces like Explore and hashtag pages.”

We’re all in this together. Right?

Hanna Rosin from NPR has noticed a worrying trend. It’s not just that we’re caring less, but that we’re reducing who we care for.

The end of empathy
Konrath collected decades of studies and noticed a very obvious pattern. Starting around 2000, the line starts to slide. More students say it’s not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else’s perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!

It’s strange to think of empathy – a natural human impulse — as fluctuating in this way, moving up and down like consumer confidence. But that’s what happened. Young people just started questioning what my elementary school teachers had taught me.

But surely we’re all in this together.

I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people
Personally, I’m happy to pay an extra 4.3 percent for my fast food burger if it means the person making it for me can afford to feed their own family. If you aren’t willing to fork over an extra 17 cents for a Big Mac, you’re a fundamentally different person than I am.

I’m perfectly content to pay taxes that go toward public schools, even though I’m childless and intend to stay that way, because all children deserve a quality, free education. If this seems unfair or unreasonable to you, we are never going to see eye to eye.

A class act

Brexit blah blah blah. Chris Dillow makes some interesting points on how we might have got here.

On class difference
My point here should be a trivial one. Background determines character, so rich backgrounds tend to generate different characters than poor ones. I’d suggest other differences, all of which should disqualify most posh people from politics:

1. If everything comes naturally to you, you don’t need to think so much about how to get it. So you under-invest in learning how to hustle, negotiate or strategize. (Is it really an accident that the western politician who most mastered these arts, Lyndon Johnson, came from a poor home?) This might be one reason why Brexit has gone badly. Having spent his entire life thinking he could get what he wants simply by asking, Jacob Rees-Mogg has been disturbed to find that the EU doesn’t work like that …

3. The rich don’t appreciate just how important money is. For a poor family, an extra fiver at the end of the week can make the difference between relief and misery. This warps their political priorities. Whereas I regard economic growth and redistribution as the main political issues, the rich have others – Brexit if you are on the right, Palestine if on the left.

And so on.

Whilst we’re on the subject (kinda):

 

Looking for connections

As this video from Kurzgesagt explains, “We are living in the most connected time in human history, and yet an unprecedented number of us feel isolated.”

Loneliness
Everybody feels lonely sometimes. But only few of us are aware how important this feeling was for our ancestors – and that our modern world can turn it into something that really hurts us. Why do we feel this way and what can we do about it?

I mentioned last year the steps being taken by the government and others to tackle loneliness. Help might be at hand, though. Literally.

Loneliness is bad for your health. An app may help.
Little changed for those in either the control group or the one taught attention-only mindfulness. But the subjects whose training included acceptance and equanimity were measurably more sociable. Their daily routines, after using the app for two weeks, typically included several more interactions with people that lasted at least a few minutes, and their questionnaires showed a decline in their feelings of loneliness.

Because loneliness, like mindfulness, is a subjective state, it’s difficult to make definitive conclusions about why and how a focus on acceptance prompted greater sociability. But David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon who conducted the study with the lead author, Emily Lindsay, believes that “the equanimity piece is key.” The poise it teaches, he says, may help people become less self-judgmental, less self-conscious, more amenable to interacting with others.

Here’s another write-up of the research, from Reuters this time.

Smartphone mindfulness app may help curb loneliness
“Perhaps by practicing monitoring and acceptance daily, even though for a short period of time, we can feel more at peace and free, more centered, and less affected by the possible negative thoughts and feelings generated in our mind,” Zhang said. “So we are closer to who we really are – we are social beings and we inherently need to connect to others.”

A theme which kicks off this stand-up routine from Simon Amstell, from 2010. This is how he starts, once the applause as he walks on stage dies down.

“Hello. Thank you. How are you? Are you all right? Well, this is fun, isn’t it? This is sort of a fun thing to be doing. This is fun, right? I’m quite lonely, let’s start with that.”

Simon Amstell – Do Nothing Live

Don’t worry, though. He ends it on quite a positive, inspirational note. It’s all about letting go.

Stop, we want to get off

Shortly before he died in 2015, Oliver Sacks wrote this slightly melancholic article about his fears for the future of a society so obsessed with “pee ring into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces”, oblivious to their surroundings.

I’m not sure why the New Yorker has published this now, four years later, but I must admit to sharing some of his concerns.

The Machine Stops, by Oliver Sacks
In his novel “Exit Ghost,” from 2007, Philip Roth speaks of how radically changed New York City appears to a reclusive writer who has been away from it for a decade. He is forced to overhear cell-phone conversations all around him, and he wonders, “What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? . . . I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life.”

These gadgets, already ominous in 2007, have now immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanizing.

[…]

I have only to venture into the streets of my own neighborhood, the West Village, to see such Humean casualties by the thousand: younger people, for the most part, who have grown up in our social-media era, have no personal memory of how things were before, and no immunity to the seductions of digital life. What we are seeing—and bringing on ourselves—resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.

Out of curiosity, I took the option on the New Yorker webpage of having this article read to me. I enjoyed the irony of listening, right at the end, to an advert for an iPhone app.

No change

Another great find from Futility Closet.

Unquote
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” — Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, Jan. 21, 1980

I wonder why that quote, from 1980, made me think of this news item from just the other day, in 2019.

Why the attack on our cameraman was no surprise
President Trump interrupted his speech and checked that Ron was OK. But there was no condemnation. No statement that this was unacceptable. The Trump campaign issued a two-line statement on the incident, but equally did not condemn what happened. What conclusion should we draw from that? What message does it send to people who feel hostile towards the media?

Money – too much, not enough

Nicer problems to have.

Mind my Picasso… superyacht owners struggle to protect art
Pandora Mather-Lees, an Oxford-educated art historian and conservator, started giving lessons after a billionaire asked for help to restore a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting damaged not by sea spray, but by breakfast cereal. “His kids had thrown their cornflakes at it over breakfast on his yacht because they thought it was scary,” Mather-Lees said. “And the crew had made the damage worse by wiping them off the painting.”

[…]

Tilman Kriesel, founder of an art advisory firm, told the conference one client asked how to display a Rothko that was too tall for a yacht’s grand saloon. “We turned the piece by 90 degrees,” he said. “The artist would probably be turning in his grave, but we took a deep breath and said ‘it’s your painting, do what you like’.”

Another of Kriesel’s clients had a piece by the Japanese modern artist Takashi Murakami that he wanted to display in the “beach club” – the rear of superyachts where owners access jet skis and other water toys – but again it was the wrong size. “In the end we cut it up to make it fit,” he said.

Meanwhile.

money-too-much-not-enough-1

What it’s like to slash millions from Council budgets: Local Authority leaders speak out
Local authorities have already lost 60 per cent of their central government funding over the last decade, substantially more than any other area of government. And it is in the loss of valued frontline community services that the impact of this austerity drive is most keenly felt by communities across England.

Regardless of their political stripes, the council leaders each called on central government to invest in local government saying the cuts have now gone far enough. […] So acute are the financial challenges that even the most basic services – such as libraries, school lollipop patrols, street lighting, road repairs, cemetery maintenance, gritting – are now being considered for savings.

And that’s what makes all the time, energy and money wasted on Brexit so shameful.

I’ve never really thought about yachts before. They sound horrible.

The lonely life of a yacht influencer
“Nah, I’m nobody you’d know,” he assured me. “I’m here to take some pictures and post some video stories of the yacht, which a brokerage group is trying to sell. The watch is a loaner from a friend. I wear it, take a picture of my wrist and tag his company on my Instagram account. It’s just a small part of the hustle.”

Life and death on a superyacht: ‘If something goes wrong, they can just raise the anchor and leave’
While it is a dream job for some, other deckhands and chefs have horror stories of working punishing hours. Accidents, injuries and deaths are also commonplace, with union leaders believing working on superyachts to be more dangerous than life on oil rigs; over the past few years at least three young Brits have died while serving their billionaire bosses.

Money ≠ happiness

Wired’s review of a new book has a somewhat click-baity headline.

Social media has totally warped how you think about happiness
That higher-status jobs lead to more happiness is only one of the social narratives that Dolan’s book surgically dismantles. Happy Ever After may sound like a cheap self-improvement guide to positive thinking; in reality, it is a pragmatic inspection by an LSE-qualified behavioural scientist.

And it’s not just about securing a good job. Dolan also tears apart the myth of monogamous marriage and of long-lasting marriage; the myth of having children, of going to university or of earning a lot of money. Of owning your own property. Of donating to charity (and not bragging about it). Even of being healthy.

It may sound like a blow to what you have always been taught – but the link between all of these things and happiness is, according to research, extremely loose.

He’s done his research, so has the numbers to back that up, but he talks about social narratives being to blame for our unrealistic expectations and harsh judgements of ourselves and others, not social media. That’s just the mechanism by which these narratives are being magnified.

It all sounds a little Stoic.

China’s fear of losing control

This isn’t quite the brave new world we were hoping these new technologies would enable.

Davos: George Soros calls Xi Jinping a “dangerous opponent” of open societies
Soros said he wanted to “call attention to the mortal danger facing open societies from the instruments of control that machine learning and artificial intelligence can put in the hands of repressive regimes.” Echoing recent concerns raised about China’s use of facial-recognition technology, Soros asked: “How can open societies be protected if these new technologies give authoritarian regimes a built-in advantage? That’s the question that preoccupies me. And it should also preoccupy all those who prefer to live in an open society.”

Tracing his critique of authoritarian governments to his own childhood under Nazi occupation in Hungary, Soros, who is now 88, urged the Trump administration to take a harder stance on China. “My present view is that instead of waging a trade war with practically the whole world, the US should focus on China,” he said

The complicated truth about China’s social credit system
What’s troubling is when those private systems link up to the government rankings — which is already happening with some pilots, she says. “You’ll have sort of memorandum of understanding like arrangements between the city and, say, Alibaba and Tencent about data exchanges and including that in assessments of citizens,” Ohlberg adds. That’s a lot of data being collected with little protection, and no algorithmic transparency about how it’s analysed to spit out a score or ranking[.]

[…]

The criteria that go into a social credit ranking depends on where you are, notes Ohlberg. “It’s according to which place you’re in, because they have their own catalogs,” she says. It can range from not paying fines when you’re deemed fully able to, misbehaving on a train, standing up a taxi, or driving through a red light. One city, Rongcheng, gives all residents 1,000 points to start. Authorities make deductions for bad behaviour like traffic violations, and add points for good behaviour such as donating to charity.

Running a red light is one thing, but what if you’re a journalist investigating corruption and misconduct?

Chinese blacklist an early glimpse of sweeping new social-credit control
What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.

“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

In China, facial recognition tech is watching you
Megvii, meanwhile, supports the state’s nationwide surveillance program, which China, with troubling inferences, calls Skynet. Launched in 2005, Skynet aims to create a nationwide panopticon by blanketing the country with CCTV. Thanks to Face++, it now incorporates millions of A.I.-enhanced cameras that have been used to apprehend some 2,000 suspects since 2016, according to a Workers’ Daily report.

[…]

Jeffrey Ding, an Oxford University researcher focused on Chinese A.I., believes there is more pushback in the West against deploying facial recognition technology for security purposes. “There’s more willingness in China to adopt it,” he says, “or at least to trial it.”

But there’s also less freedom to oppose the onslaught. “The intention of these systems is to weave a tighter net of social control that makes it harder for people to plan action or push the government to reform,” explains Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The line from Soros about the danger from “the instruments of control that machine learning and artificial intelligence can put in the hands of repressive regimes” chimes with what I’m reading in James Bridle’s new book, New Dark Age.

May we live in interesting times.