All posts filed under: Tech

A Single Global Standard for Internet Content Regulation Is a Recipe for Censorship

This is a contribution to “Who Controls the Platform?”—a multi-part Quillette series. Submissions related to this series may be directed to pitch@quillette.com. “If governments are to retain a firm hold of authority and not be compelled to yield to agitators, it is imperative that freedom of judgment should be granted, so that men may live together in harmony, however diverse, or even openly contradictory their opinions may be. In a democracy…everyone submits to the control of authority over his actions, but not over his judgment and reason.” So wrote Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza in his Theological Political Treatise of 1670. At the time, most rulers and thinkers believed that a policy of free speech would lead to bloodshed, sedition and atheism. Spinoza, on the other hand, argued that freedom of conscience and speech were necessary preconditions for pluralism, tolerance and liberty. The Portuguese-born Jewish philosopher wasn’t blind to the potential harms of free speech, but thought that they were outweighed by the benefits. “I confess that from such freedom [of speech], inconveniences may sometimes arise,” he wrote. …

The Moral Panic Behind Internet Regulation

This is a contribution to “Who Controls the Platform?”—a multi-part Quillette series. Submissions related to this series may be directed to pitch@quillette.com. In the present era of growing polarization, one thing that people from across the political spectrum now agree on is their dislike of Big Tech. The political Left complains that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Amazon have become “monopolies.” They also blame global technology platforms for Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, and white nationalism. It is much easier, after all, to blame online manipulation for the downfall of the center-left than acknowledge the disconnect between the intelligentsia and the working-class voters that the Left once represented. Meanwhile, critics on the Right blame Big Tech for a comparable shopping list of evils, including being biased against conservatives, giving a platform to terrorists, enabling pedophiles to groom children and distribute indecent images, and boosting populist figures on the Left and Right who threaten the center-right’s own electoral base. This is mixed, particularly in the U.K., with a traditional conservative refrain of “Please, won’t someone think of the …

Sexualization in Gaming: Advocacy and Over-Correction

Even before its April 2019 release, the eleventh installment of the popular fighting game Mortal Kombat was generating waves for its presentation of female characters. But the grumblings are not what one might expect. After years of being criticized for sexualizing female characters, Mortal Kombat is now under fire from fans—including women—for not allowing the female characters to be sexy enough. Did Mortal Kombat’s developer overshoot the mark? Or are we beginning to see a reassessment of concerns that sexualized games are responsible for sexist attitudes toward women—an argument that increasingly became a mantra of progressive games criticism? Historically, games have catered to male audiences, even as increasing numbers of women and girls have joined the ranks of gamers. Given the rapidly changing gamer demographic, it was perhaps inevitable that games would eventually come in for criticism for under-representing playable female characters, and for presenting them as hyper-sexualized images when they were available. Much of this criticism was deserved, particularly the lack of alternative options featuring strong, less-sexualized playable characters. Indeed, I am on record …

Video Games and the (Male) Meaning of Life

Virtual worlds give back what has been scooped out of modern life . . . it gives us back community, a feeling of competence, and a sense of being an important person whom people depend on. —Jonathan Gottschall When I was seven, my parents bought me and my brother an Atari 2600, the first mass game console. The game it came with was “Asteroids.” We played that game an awful lot. One night, we snuck down in the middle of the night only to discover my Dad already playing. My brother and I loved going to local arcades and try to make a few quarters last as long as possible. It was the perfect set of incentives—you win, you keep playing. You lose, you’re forced to stand there and watch others play, hoping that someone is forced to leave their game in the middle so you can jump in. We became very good at video games. My favorite was “Street Fighter II.” I memorized the Mortal Kombat fatalities to inflict graphic harm on defeated enemies. …

A World Without Animal Farming

A Review of The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System, by Jacy Reese (Beacon Press, November 6 2018, 240 pages).  In a world distressingly full of evil, we can discern moral progress by looking at the benighted past. Only two lifetimes ago educated people endorsed chattel slavery. The raises the sobering question: how might present arrangements appear to inhabitants of a more enlightened future civilization? Supposing that moral progress continues, there’s good reason to expect that our descendants will wince when they reflect upon our treatment of animals. Every year, tens of billions of land animals, and more sea creatures, are killed in so-called “factory farms,” having lived lives of unrelieved mental and physical anguish, because humans enjoy eating their flesh. A chilling line in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars comes to mind. The Greek historian reports a dialogue between a group of Athenian emissaries and the representatives of Melos, a city-state that wanted to remain neutral in the war between Athens and Sparta. The emissaries bluntly assert that …

What Can Artificial Intelligence Teach Us About Political Polarization?

It’s become increasingly difficult to ignore the exponential progress that’s been made in the field of artificial intelligence. From self-driving cars to nearly flawless speech synthesis, things most of us thought impossible only a decade ago are now a practical reality. Virtually all of these developments have exploited what has turned out to be one of the most fruitful analogies ever made: that of the human brain to a computer. In particular, the development of neural networks—arguably the most successful family of artificial intelligence models—was explicitly inspired by the structure and function of the brain. For about a decade, we’ve exploited the brain/computer analogy by drawing inspiration from the brain to build better and better AI systems. But now that our technology has in many respects caught up to, and even exceeded, human performance, it’s worth asking the question in reverse: what insights can we borrow from artificial intelligence, to better understand our own brains and reasoning processes, and how they can go wrong? As it turns out, there are quite a few, and they …

Google’s China Ambitions Threaten U.S. National Security

A month before the 2024 elections the Chinese dictator issues an ultimatum to the U.S. president: Abandon defense of Taiwan or Google will politically destroy you. If your navy does not immediately leave the Taiwan Strait, Google’s algorithms will send each American the news articles that would make them the most likely to vote against your party. But why, you might ask, would Google ever help China blackmail the American president?  Google has probably discussed altering search results to influence U.S. elections. The tech giant is also probably willing to censor information in China as the price of admission to that country’s market. It doesn’t seem too great a leap forward to imagine Google biasing search results in the U.S. to appease the Chinese Communist Party. While today China might be satisfied putting spy chips on hardware used by American tech companies, in the future it could use its economic power to dictate what these businesses do during times of international crisis. I don’t blame Google for being willing to bend its ethical standards to …

Banning Bitcoin to Complete Big Tech Censorship

Bitcoin’s survival might prove intolerable to our Internet gatekeepers. To rid the web of troublesome opinion makers you ban them from online platforms while terminating their ability to raise funds from supporters.  Corporate giants can use their control over Internet and financial chokepoints to almost accomplish this, but Bitcoin’s decentralized network means that regardless of how much corporate America hates some commentator, it can’t stop you from sending her cryptocurrency.  If a Democrat wins the Presidency in 2020, I predict a serious attempt to close this loophole by criminalizing Bitcoins. Big tech has awoken to its power and started suppressing views it deems hateful.  The Nazi website Stormfront was kicked off the Internet.  Facebook, Apple, YouTube, and Spotify all decided, on the same day, to deplatform Alex Jones.  Islam critic Lauren Southern has been kicked off Pateron, a service many use to raise funds from supporters.  YouTube has demonitized and restricted videos from Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, and Gad Saad.  President Trump has accused social media of “totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices.” Big tech wants …

Why Politics Needs the Futuristic Perspective

Politicians are constantly fighting for policies that future generations will find laughable at best, morally atrocious at worst. Just consider “Jobs for Everyone!” or “Build the Wall!”—except imagine it’s 100 years from now and there are no jobs or national borders…  Taking this 100-year view, many of the best-known politicians quickly fade into irrelevance. There is one political figure who comes prominently into focus in this view, however. That’s Zoltan Istvan, the unsuccessful but often newsworthy former candidate for US president and California governor. Even if you’re opposed to libertarianism (Zoltan’s adopted political platform) and uninspired by tranhumanism (Zoltan’s political hobbyhorse), still, it’s worth considering the unique perspective Zoltan Istvan brings to our chronically shortsighted political landscape. Unlike any other political figure, he champions long-view causes like you’d never believe. Unapologetically, he’s one-hundred percent all-in for long-view causes. Here’s a taste. If you were an interviewer, you’d likely want to ask Mr. Istvan about some hot button issue, like…abortion. Well—that’s an easy one! He’s a libertarian, so he’ll likely just begin by vocalizing libertarian standardisms. …

Diversity and Discrimination in Open Source

Back in May, I decided to leave the LLVM project, to which I was a contributor. I announced this decision in an open letter to my colleagues, which received some coverage in the technical press at the time, and a number of requests for further comment, which I declined. In what follows, I want to elaborate upon my reasons for leaving and explain what I think is going wrong in open source generally, and at LLVM in particular. First, for those unfamiliar with the tech world, a little background. Software is commonly developed and made available to the public in one of two ways: either proprietary software is developed privately inside a company and sold for a fee, or open source software, as the name implies, is developed in the open for anyone to use and improve. Microsoft’s Office is an example of the former, and the Linux operating system is an example of the latter. Among programmers, there are ongoing discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of both models. I have been attracted to the open …