All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Understanding China’s Confucian Edge in the Global AI Race

The American fugitive Edward Snowden triggered the West’s current (and ongoing) wave of concern over data privacy six years ago, when he revealed details about secret U.S. government programs that collect information on U.S. citizens. Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of disclosures about how personal information is collected and shared, alarming the public and laying the groundwork for restrictive new laws, regulations and corporate policies. But the situation is different outside of the Western world—especially in China, which seems set to monetize its citizens’ seemingly nonchalant (or, more probably, fatalistic) attitude toward data collection. In China, even the most pervasive and invasive forms of data collection raise few eyebrows. As a result, China now stands poised to lead the world in the development of artificial-intelligence technologies, which rely, for their machine-learning algorithms, on vast quantities of accessible data. Developing AI in China has become akin to pumping oil in Saudi Arabia. This advantage will have enormous economic significance in coming years. Last year, Russian president Vladimir Putin ominously proclaimed that whichever country …

It Isn’t Your Imagination: Twitter Treats Conservatives More Harshly Than Liberals

This is a response to “Who Controls the Platform?“—a multi-part Quillette series authored by social-media insiders. Submissions related to this series may be directed to pitch@quillette.com. Many conservatives believe that social media companies are biased against their views. This includes Donald Trump, who last year accused Twitter of “shadow banning” Republicans, and promised to “look into this discriminatory and illegal practice.” A few months later, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made a categorical denial of any bias while testifying before Congress: Let me be clear about one important and foundational fact: Twitter does not use political ideology to make any decisions, whether related to ranking content on our service or how we enforce our rules. We believe strongly in being impartial, and we strive to enforce our rules impartially. Recently, Mr. Dorsey appeared on two different podcasts, on which he similarly denied any bias against the right. Not everyone is convinced. A June, 2018 Pew poll found that 72% of Americans believe that social media companies censor views they don’t like, with members of the public …

How Radical Transparency Cures Web Censorship and Surveillance

The article that follows is the third instalment of “Who Controls the Platform?“—a multi-part Quillette series authored by social-media insiders. Our editors invite submissions to this series, which may be directed to pitch@quillette.com. The internet is set for a renaissance-level transformation that will see users migrate to more open networks and corporate models. Popular web personalities are starting to discuss the need to give less of our time and money to entities that silence us. Comedy itself is experiencing an existential crisis. The founders of Instagram, Whatsapp and Oculus—all bought by Facebook—have left their new corporate master in reaction to issues of privacy and censorship. It isn’t a coincidence that all of this is happening at the same time. This is about more than social networks. It’s about all forms of digital technology. What browser are you using right now? Get off Safari, Chrome and Edge. Get on Firefox, Tor and Brave. Technologies that we feed will grow. Technologies that we avoid will self-correct or wither. It’s already been proven through such examples as GNU/Linux, Wikipedia, …

There’s Nothing ‘Intersectional’ About Free Speech

The article that follows is the second instalment of “Who Controls the Platform?”—a multi-part Quillette series authored by social-media insiders. Our editors invite submissions to this series, which may be directed to pitch@quillette.com. Censorship is a tool of repression as old as civilization. And fighting it has always been dangerous: Socrates was sentenced to death in 399 B.C. largely because he refused to pander to a panel of moralizing censors. These days, the punishments tend to be less severe (in Western countries, at least). More commonly, the ancient menace of censorship now takes the form of social opprobrium imposed by online hordes supposedly representing the interests of oppressed minority groups—by which I mean hordes of people claiming, almost always without basis, to speak for these groups while promoting their own narrow political agendas. This censorship effort receives back-office ideological support from scholars promoting “intersectionality” and similar theories, which draw heavily from Marxist and post-Marxist thinking on economics and power relationships. It also encourages adherents to view the world through a lens of “oppression and the need …

Facebook Has a Right to Block ‘Hate Speech’—But Here’s Why It Shouldn’t

The article that follows is the first instalment of “Who Controls the Platform?”—a multi-part Quillette series authored by social-media insiders. Our editors invite submissions to this series, which may be directed to pitch@quillette.com. In late August, I wrote a note to my then-colleagues at Facebook about the issues I saw with political diversity inside the company. You may have read it, because someone leaked the memo to the New York Times, and it spread outward rapidly from there. Since then, a lot has happened, including my departure from Facebook. I never intended my memos to leak publicly—they were written for an internal corporate audience. But now that I’ve left the company, there’s a lot more I can say about how I got involved, how Facebook’s draconian content policy evolved, and what I think should be done to fix it. *     *     * My job at Facebook never had anything to do with politics, speech, or content policy—not officially. I was hired as a software engineer, and I eventually led a number of product teams, …

Plastic Pollution is a Real Problem—and It Won’t Be Solved by Straw Bans

The presence of plastic in our oceans has been a growing problem for decades. But only in recent years has it found its way into the public consciousness. In one well-publicized case last year, scientists in Spain discovered the washed-up body of a sperm whale that contained 29 kilos of plastic—a grim intestinal haul that included dozens of plastic bags and a fuel container. On Midway Atoll, a dead albatross chick was found with a stomach full of brightly covered plastic junk, which the bird’s parents had collected and fed to her, imagining it to be food. In a recent study of 102 sea turtles, spanning seven species, every sampled specimen was found to have swallowed plastic material of some kind. Plastics represent only one component of pollution, of course. But the durability of discarded plastic products presents a special challenge. This quality, which makes plastics so useful to consumers, has turned them into a unique menace to the entire natural environment. As the examples above illustrate, plastic often is mistaken for food by fish, …

The Death of a Dreamer

The following is a lightly adapted extract from Will Storr’s latest book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, Picador (June 15, 2017), 416 pages.  Imagine that it were possible to create the perfect human. The process would be like making an app, but instead of computer code, your design language would be DNA. You’d do the creating itself on your smartphone—using a piece of software called a Genome Compiler—then email what you’d come up with to a laboratory. Technicians in that lab would manufacture the DNA, per your instructions, dry it out, then send it back to you. After all, DNA isn’t alive. It’s a polymer, an arrangement of four different chemicals. Theoretically, from that DNA, it would be possible to construct the most advanced forms of life. You could make your human a super-genius, immune to all kinds of diseases. You could even make them live forever. After all, we only age and die because the DNA program we’re running—our human code—contains an instruction to do so. Just get …

The Right Needs To Grow Up On Environmentalism

Mentioning the environment to a conservative is liable to elicit a similar response that mentioning political correctness would from a left-winger: a slight raising of the eyebrows, a slight exhalation of breath and, perhaps, a folding of the arms or tapping of the feet. It smells—it positively stinks—of out-group affiliation. The environment? That’s what those dreadful latté sipping, lentil eating, flip-flop wearing leftists talk about. Are you sure you’re in the right place? It did not have to be this way. Up until the later decades of the twentieth century, attitudes towards the environment did not fall along tribal lines. Conservationists, like President Theodore Roosevelt, were often conservatives. As environmental causes, like the campaigns against DDT and air pollution, gathered storm in the 1970s, however, conservative were dismayed by the apparent tendencies towards big government and internationalism in addressing them. A 1970 letter to William F. Buckley from his National Review colleague James Burnham, unearthed by the assiduous researcher Joshua Tait, also expresses deep concerns regarding threats to free enterprise and a “snobbish elitism…with the …

How Real Is Systemic Racism Today?

Racist attitudes of whites towards blacks have long become socially unacceptable in America, although the reverse, racism of a minority directed at the white majority, is still tolerated or even encouraged. However, statistical racial disparities persist. African Americans, as a population, continue to suffer income, crime and incarceration rate, health, housing and family-structure deficits by comparison with the white population. These disparities cannot easily be attributed to racist behavior by whites. The disparities have either increased or remained the same while individual racist behavior has declined. What then is the cause of these disparities? There are two possibilities: causes within individuals, what I have elsewhere called endogenous causes; or external, exogenous causes. Endogenous Causes of Black-White Disparities Endogenous causes were in fact the first ones to be studied, with unfortunate results. Bigots stigmatized the entire “black race” as inferior because of lower average scores on, for example, IQ tests. Blacks’ under-performance in terms of status, health, incomes, etc. was then comfortably attributed to their alleged built-in inadequacy. The usual presumption was that IQ is fixed at birth, …

Enlightenment Wars: Some Reflections on ‘Enlightenment Now,’ One Year Later

You wouldn’t think that a defense of reason, science, and humanism would be particularly controversial in an era in which those ideals would seem to need all the help they can get. But in the words of a colleague, “You’ve made people’s heads explode!” Many people who have written to me about my 2018 book Enlightenment Now say they’ve been taken aback by the irate attacks from critics on both the right and the left. Far from embracing the beleaguered ideals of the Enlightenment, critics have blamed it for racism, imperialism, existential threats, and epidemics of loneliness, depression, and suicide. They have insisted that human progress can only be an illusion of cherry-picked data. They have proclaimed, with barely concealed schadenfreude, that the Enlightenment is an idea whose time has passed, soon to be killed off by authoritarian populism, social media, or artificial intelligence. This month’s publication of the paperback edition of EN in the US and UK is an occasion for me to weigh in on the controversies that have flared up in the year since …