Humanism, draughts, rotten tech, and Amazon

Thoughtful Net #48. Interesting links from the past few weeks.

It’s been almost a month since my last edition, and I missed its third anniversary. Three years on from my first issue I have a very different-looking publication from the one I originally set out to write in 2014. I think that’s OK, I’m quite pleased with the way it’s turned out.

I’d hoped to have a more positive collection of stories for this anniversary edition, but I’ll be honest: it’s been a pretty rotten few weeks of stories about technology. I’m still positive, I believe that tech makes lives better, but there are collateral effects that aren’t all positive.

But I think of how smartphones have transformed the lives of displaced people in Nigeria, of clans in drought-stricken regions of Somaliland suffering from drought, and of the railway porter in India who said:

Life has become better. Life has become faster. I wish I had it earlier. We wouldn’t be so backward.

And I think that, on balance, I’m right to be positive.

The Best

The Tech Humanist Manifesto. Kate O'Neill proposes a way forward for integrated selves in an integrated world. As a humanist working in tech, this rings all my bells.

We need technological progress. It will surely bring us cures for disease, interplanetary and someday even intergalactic travel, safe and efficient energy, new forms and modes of communication, as well as so much else. But for our own sake, and for the sake of humans who come after us, we need to wrap that progress around human advancement.

Rotten Tech

A Googler’s Would-Be Manifesto Reveals Tech’s Rotten Core. Last week’s big talking point was a Google Engineer’s argument that there are compelling biological and social reasons that pro-active diversity could be harmful to the company. Ian Bogost says this is indicative of a much more insidious problem in the tech world.

All told, the business of computing is infiltrated with a fantasy of global power and wealth that naturally coheres to the entrenched power of men over generations. To mistake such good fortune for inborn ability is to ignore the existence of history.

For the New Far Right, YouTube Has Become the New Talk Radio. How the ‘alt-right’ (I don’t subscribe to that term) are using Google’s video platform to spread propaganda and radicalise young white men — and doing it well. John Herrman is one of the best journalists writing about online.

YouTube’s political context is similar in some notable ways: the value it places on personalities; its reliance on monologue and repetition; its isolation and immunity from direct challenge; its promise to let listeners in on the real, secret story. Both are obsessed with persuasion and conversion, combined with a giddy disbelief at the sheer stupidity of liberals, who — and this is part of the fun — aren’t listening.

You Are the Product. John Lanchester — another journalist who writes the hell out of the tech landscape — on the negative aspect of the first site to be used by more than half of the connected human population.

For all the corporate uplift of its mission statement, Facebook is a company whose essential premise is misanthropic. It is perhaps for that reason that Facebook, more than any other company of its size, has a thread of malignity running through its story.

Creating the Honest Man. On China’s push to give every citizen a rating, allowing the ‘good’ extra societal benefits and restricting the rights of the non-conformists. By Kai Strittmatter.

China is currently trying something completely new. A society the world has never seen before. A dictatorship that is reinventing itself digitally. A system that screens every bit of every individual’s behavior and thoughts with the help of big data. This system then rates people based on the extent to which they observe the rules and norms laid down, in effect, by the Party.

Artificial Intelligence

How Checkers Was Solved. A quite lovely story, by Alexis C. Madrigal, of the greatest checkers (draughts, in my idiom) player of all time and the quest to make an algorithm to beat him.

Contemporary accounts played the story as a Man vs. Machine battle, the quick wits of a human versus the brute computing power of a supercomputer. But Tinsley and Schaeffer both agreed: This was a battle between two men, each having prepared and tuned a unique instrument to defeat the other.

Some advice for journalists writing about artificial intelligence. After recent overwrought headlines about Facebook ‘shutting down’ an AI project that became semi-sentient, Julian Togelius offers advice to journalists on how to write sensibly about AI.

Much of “artificial intelligence” is actually human ingenuity. There’s a reason why researchers and developers specialize in applications of AI to specific domains, such as robotics, games or translation: when building a system to solve a problem, lots of knowledge about the actual problem (“domain knowledge”) is included in the system.


Is Amazon getting too big?. Amazon are expanding aggressively, but are they at risk of becoming a monopoly? The EU and the US take differing views on this, and the EU’s view could be the one that prevails. By Steven Pearlstein, talking to Lina Khan.

American antitrust law has evolved to the point that it is no longer equipped to deal with tech giants such as, which has made itself as essential to commerce in the 21st century as the railroads, telephone systems and computer hardware makers were in the 20th.

“Alexa, Understand Me”. George Anders on Amazon’s push to make Alexa the next interface, the benefits of voice interaction, and the difficulty of understanding human language.

What makes voice-based AI so appealing to consumers is its promise to conform to us, to respond to the way we speak — and think — without requiring us to type on a keyboard or screen. That’s also what makes it so technically difficult to build.

The Thoughtful Net is an occasional (less than weekly, more than monthly) publication collecting great writing about the internet and technology, culture, information, soci­ety, science, and philo­sophy. If you prefer to receive it in your inbox you can follow this publication or subscribe to the email newsletter.

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