Oli Frost is my hero. He decided that he had gotten tired of giving his personal data away for companies to profit from so he decided to download his own data and putting it up for auction on eBay to the highest bidder. The highest bidder will get a flash drive of his personal data and the profit from the sale will be donated to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It seems that while people have no issue with giving our data away for profit, and we are encouraged to give blood, though there is an issue with selling our selves (prostitution) or even our body parts while they are alive. Case in point, search eBay for live kidney and there are no results but search for shrunken head (no- really. Try it) and you are met with more than 20 results. Interesting that it would be acceptable that we should give away the moments that make up our lives, even our life’s blood in many cases for the profit of others but our selling ourselves in whole or part would be taboo.
Of course, you know the old story, to boil a frog, you don’t drop it into a pot of boiling water but put it in cool water and slowly turn up the temperature to boiling. The same seems true of the ongoing debates over privacy and net neutrality. Lulled into a false sense of security or blinded by naiveté, we allow corporations to mine who we are and what we choose to treat us like horses with blinders on, seeing only what they want us to see, and now we want to give them the ability to fast track the online content of their choice while allowing other content to linger in the slow lane. It seems odd that the same legal bodies, corporations, that created the financial crisis in the savings and loan and mortgage industry, not to mention the opioid crisis in this country now want to create a world where they control our access to information for their personal gain. In an economy where the bottom line is at best the shareholder (or more frequently the executives) payout, why should we think our best interests are a concern. The entire point of the internet seemed to be to allow everyone accesses to knowledge for the betterment of all. If we allow our access to the free flow of information to be restricted, we will be no better than frogs in warm bath water on the stove.
In everyone’s life, in some way, you come to a place you say about something you are doing or not doing- is this really worth it? Malcolm Gladwell calls that the tipping point, or “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” at which change becomes either obvious or inevitable. It happens to all of us and in all sorts of situations, that moment when you realize that change is inevitable and perhaps the only choice. It seems that wiser minds than mine have come to this conclusion, as when I read in the BBC that African nations have begun to worry about the risk of job loss in Africa as robots automate many processes that can be brought back to the US or other nations and not depend on the cheap labour force that Africa and other nations have provided. Those who deride the coming economic disaster, suggest that if only the African nations would educate their children in the magic world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), all problems would be solved. These children would rise along with all the other stem fed children to ascend into the light of a technological new day. But don’t worry, for those who are left behind by the ever upward spiral of capitalism, there is always the promise of the universal basic income, a salary for everyone at the cost of social services, so that even those of us who are misplaced in this economic game of musical chairs can receive money to live and, of course, buy things to keep the whole spiral going. Yet, what happens to people with no other purpose than to consume to keep an antiquated and harmful system running? What is the meaning of a life that is only based on our ability to consume? What happens when we reach our tipping point and realize that we are no better than veal calf’s being fattened to make our masters fatter.
It is with a fair amount of interest that I have followed the debate in Europe over the role of AI and how it should be viewed or regulated. Readers of this post may remember the kerfuffle caused by Sophia, the robot that appeared at Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh and caused a stir as a robot, as a woman robot and as a woman robot in an Arab country without a hajib. Well, the discussion has come up again in Europe where the European Parliament, to the outrage of AI specialists, advised that robots be given legal status. Like a corporation, this would not hold the companies that created the robots legally responsible for their behavior. It seems to be step in the Alfred P Newman, “what, me worry?” theology that seems to be the order of the day. If guns don’t kill people, then why should we think that companies that make robots are responsible for what they do. And yet, what about the place of robots as human beings. Would they have all the rights of a human or would they have some fraction like the 3/5 voting rights proposed for slaves by the Constitutional Convention of 1787? We seem to have such a good track record of integration and inclusion in this country, it seems strangely natural that we would not even be the ones having this discussion. Europe is far ahead of us on matters of understanding and regulating the role of this new technology, asking questions that we do not seem yet to acknowledge as issues. We can only hope that the robots that we give human status will be better humans than we seem to be.
As the Christmas season fades into memory, my sons delight with his new PS4 continues but with some reservations. It seems that with his favorite video game when purchased, gives a certain level of play and access but for all the bells and whistles- playing on line with friends and other upgrades, you need to purchase a membership package, monthly, quarterly or yearly. While he is disappointed, the game still has its allure, it stands as an example of today’s move toward monetization of relationships. It seems like it wasn’t that long ago when you purchased a game and you had full access though there may have been a membership or club that you could join you basically had full access. Today it seems purchase is not the end result but the beginning of a slow financial drip to keep us engaged as long as possible. Not only games but web services among others have also run to this strategy. While LinkedIn is free, I am constantly swatting away the notices that, for a small fee, I can access the premium service which offers services that used to be offered as a part of the free service. Many other services are revising their free offerings and moving formerly free perks behind the velvet rope of membership or access fees. While companies eagerly swallow up our data exhaust to refine their marketing to us, we are asked to pay for what was once was in the free realm. We seem to be on our way to the monetization of everything, where every transaction comes with a price. With the defeat of net neutrality that seems to be more and more the norm- you can help yourself, but don’t take too much or you have to pay. God bless the child who’s got their own (bank account).
It has been interesting watching the ever-growing value of a bitcoin and it causes me to pause and consider what it is about them we find so alluring. In a nod to previous precious commodities, bitcoins are not generated but are mined like gold, which as you may know was the backing for US currency until President Nixon took us off the gold standard in 1971. So we think of this cryptocurrency as we do gold or other precious metals or at least use language to give it that allure. Earlier, President Eisenhower passed a law that stated “In God, We Trust” in 1957 must appear on all currency. It seems that this is another step in the long, withdrawing roar, moving from belief to belief. Recently, in an interview, an expert in cryptocurrency said that people are putting their money and hope in bitcoin due to its ever-changing code- supposedly unbreakable and secure- more secure than government-backed securities or gold. It seems we have found a new impenetrable mystery in which to place our faith. While we move from God to Gold to code, I am reminded of a line from Lori Andersons “O Superman”
‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice
And when justice is gone, there’s always force
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom!
Perhaps, today, when God is gone and Gold is gone, there is always code.