Sunday, April 8, 2018

First they locked up the Knowledge

"If you were given the choice between continued life on earth and computerized devices and the internet, which would you choose?"

“Putting food under lock and key was one of the great innovations of your culture. No other culture in history has ever put food under lock and key — and putting it there is the cornerstone of your economy…. Because if the food wasn’t under lock and key, Julie, who would work?”
— Daniel Quinn, My Ishmael

Some years ago, game makers found a way to suck you into to playing online games for free and still make money. Like Amazon, Facebook and YouTube, they set special features behind paywalls. You could only reach the higher levels of play if you were willing to shell out hard cash.

It wasn’t long before most of the reputable scientific journals latched onto the same model to monetize their websites. Tease you with free summaries or the occasional open article (and sometimes authors can pay to permit that) but then lock up the hard science unless you can shell out hard cash.

Recently Nature Geoscience received correspondence from some leading IPCC climate scientists including Michael Mann. The letter was published online under the title, Interpretations of the Paris climate target. The editors solicited a response from ten other IPCC scientists and published that as Reply to ‘Interpretations of the Paris climate target’. 

Staying true to game theory, in both cases the journal published only the title of the letters. If you want to actually read the letters, you need to shell out $59. Each. For those of us who try to stay abreast of developments in climate policy, or the UN structured expert dialog that is taking place per the Paris Agreement, that paywall is a poke in the nose and the bum’s rush.

We have been watching Bitcoin for a while and have decided it is pure evil. Sorry about that, Max and Stacy. We were glad to hear that Google banned all cryptomining extensions to the Chrome app.

It is not that we don’t like the blockchain, but Bitcoin is based on the Etherium backbone which uses far too much energy — at current rates of growth, all the world’s energy by 2020. Bitcoin could switch to Hedera very easily but doesn’t. That’s evil.

Current estimated annual electricity consumption for Bitcoin mining is 56.71 TWh. Twenty-eight U.S. households could be powered for 1 day by the electricity consumed for a single transaction. Bitcoin’s carbon footprint per transaction is 408.42 kg of CO2-e. That one transaction produces more greenhouse impact than the average Bangladeshi or Vanuatuvian do in an entire year. Bangladesh and Vanuatu are going under water and their citizens forced to relocate because Bitcoin gives no thought about where its computing power comes from. It is an externalized cost. Same for Climatecoin, or Nori — Silicon Valley techno-cornucopian libertarians with no concept of thermodynamic laws or biophysical ecology.

Analysts at Credit Suisse examined Bitcoin’s potential to consume all the world’s energy and concluded for that to happen the price of a coin would have to rise to $1.1 million. It could happen in 5 years, or next month, or later today.

The power demand of Bitcoining likely pales in comparison to the power demand of clandestine superpower cyberwars now underway. The reason the Empire came so hard after Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning was not because leaked videos of Apache helicopters strafing civilians or John Podesta’s emails were dangerous to HRC and her election rigging. It was the same reason they are still after Snowden. These people know too much, will tell all, and have too much of a following. If they can’t be decapitated, they can be isolated until they atrophy and die. Blame the rest of it on the Russians. 

From their dim dungeons, Assange and Snowden accurately predicted Cambridge Analytica, which flipped both the BREXIT vote and the US election of 2016. They predicted the leaked NSA cyberwar tool, EternalBlue, allowing hackers everywhere to hold companies and agencies for ransom. They predicted the changes to be wrought by machine intelligence, well, at least some of them. Last year Stephen Hawking joined in when he said:
Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.
In 2017 he amended his prediction that humanity only had about 1,000 years left. He reduced the horizon by an order of magnitude — to 100 years unless we could arrest AI. 

Consider this. If you were given the choice between continued life on earth and computerized devices and the internet, which would you choose? If you are like most of us, you will wait to give up the latter until forced to, and even then, not without a fight.

Call us neoluddite, but were our lives in the 1970s so primitive before the Mac, Windows and the World Wide Web that we would never want to give up what we have in 2018 and go back to that, even if to keep what we have comes at the cost of our own extinction?

We are just asking. And wondering why more people are not, also. Should it not, by now, be obvious what is happening? There is not a good ending to this.


Don Stewart said...


I read your article this morning, then to the coffee shop where I was rereading Capra and Luisi’s textbook The Systems View of Life. They describe the development of Cybernetics during and after WWII, with particular attention to ‘self-correcting’ machines, such as an anti-aircraft gun which can monitor its own effectiveness and adjust it firing angles to kill an enemy plane. Which led, after the war, to the development of the scientific concept of feedback loops. Feedback loops had been used for a long time, but without the articulation of the scientific principles behind them. For example, the governor on James Watts’ steam engine. Bateson and Mead were particularly interested in using the concept in terms of biological systems. Just as with the governors on steam engines, the practical recognition of negative feedback loops to systems in the body had been well recognized, but not articulated as a scientific principle.

On page 91 we find:
If the circular logical pattern of self-balancing feedback was not recognized before cybernetics, that of self-amplifying feedback had been known for hundreds of years in common parlance as a vicious circle….self-fulfilling prophecy….bandwagon effect.

So the folk wisdom recognized the dangers of positive feedback. Systems science gives us the conceptual tools to, perhaps, recognize it more quickly and take evasive action.

I submit that what Cambridge Analytics and others are doing is creating positive feedback loops. When someone publishes a book, they try to get a ‘bandwagon effect’ started so that the book makes the New York Times Bestseller list. In general, Consumer Capitalism will thrive in the midst of positive feedback loops. Consumer Capitalism does does not thrive on negative feedback loops which involve governors.

Don Stewart

Joe said...

Would it be possible for the global market economy to function without the internet? Perhaps economic supply chains have become so dependent on it that they would couldn't exist in their present form without instant worldwide communication.

On the other hand, maybe if we still had the ability to fax documents the industrial economy could still stumble along. I wonder what the carbon cost of substituting a fax printout for an email would be?

In any case, there is a minimum level of communication speed that is necessary for industrial civilization to exist and that communication will have a lot of carbon cost in its infrastructure and operation. I think it has become more and more apparent that winding down carbon emissions will require winding down our industrial civilization.

Don Stewart said...


I thought of a way to model the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of operations such as Cambridge Analytics in elections.

Draw some Cartesian coordinates on a piece of paper. On the horizontal axis, label the left hand side D for Democrat and the right hand side R for Republican (or H for Hillary and D for Trump, etc.)

Label the vertical axis Love at the top and Hate at the bottom.

Now draw some size sensitive circles and ovals on the paper. In the upper left hand quadrant put a relatively small circle, representing the group of people who love the Democrats. Draw a similar circle in the upper right hand quadrant to represent the people who love the Republicans. Now draw the ‘shadow circles’ for each of those groups. The small number who hate the Democrats in the lower right and those who hate the Republicans in the lower left. Shade the shadow circles.

Now we have to draw in the great multitude of people who do not have strong opinions coupled with strong emotions. For example, assume that most people see little distinction between the parties (a very common comment by intelligent observers since the Democrats disowned the Sanders wing of the party.) Then the majority of the voters will be represented by a horizontal oval centered on the horizontal axis and straddling the vertical axis. In other words, many people lean toward the Democrats or the Republicans, but are not very emotional about the subject, seeing little real difference between two parties, both of which represent the Neo-Liberal position.

Now, let’s consider how the two parties might try to win the election. The first point is to shore up the people who are for you, and are also emotional. Donald Trump’s rallies come to mind. Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist, identified a ‘used car salesman’ trick. Once the salesman can get you to commit to something, anything, positive about a car, your chances of buying it increase by a lot. So, the salesman may ask you, innocuously, ‘isn’t this a nice color?’. If you agree, your commitment to that particular car increases significantly. Similarly, once a person has gone to a Trump rally and found themselves shouting in favor of Trump, it will be much harder for the opposition party to change their minds. This is the reason why you got strange emails asking you to commit to certain statements about either Trump or Clinton.

For the people in the middle, a reasonable strategy is to hire someone like Cambridge Analytics to find ways to create ‘quorum sensing’. Bacteria, for example, can engage in mass activities as they sense other nearby bacteria engaging in the activity. If Cambridge can figure out how to give you the impression that ‘people like me’ are going to vote a certain way, then you are likely to also commit to voting that way. Once you commit, it will be hard to change your vote. The generally very low rating of politicians by Americans is consistent with the oval placed this way.

Don Stewart said...

Second part
As a second exercise, suppose that the oval representing the majority of people is drawn at a 30 or 45 degree angle through the intersection of the horizontal and vertical axes. Then more people will be emotionally attached to one party or the other, with considerable animosity toward the other party. It will be hard to move more than a few percentage points of the vote. We might consider the Lincoln-Douglass debates or the Kennedy-Nixon debates as attempts to move a few percentage points. Cambridge might be a resource, but their internet gamesmanship would probably not yield very much.

As a third exercise, suppose that the oval representing the majority is drawn vertically around the vertical axis, but with people segregated above and below the neutral emotional line. In short, we have strong emotions with little common ground and little room for compromise. Civil war could be one outcome. Civil war between two groups of people, both of whom are basically neo-Liberals.

My conclusion is that the intervention of people like Cambridge (and the small scale testing of the waters by Russia) is dependent on the state of the electorate. The current state of the electorate invites Cambridge style intervention. If the Democrats had nominated Bernie Sanders, the distributions would probably have been different, and the election might have gone differently.

Don Stewart




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