🔮 Designing democracy; Amazon’s facial recognition; deep memes & fake ads++ #176
Once in a while I like to bring an alternative voice in Exponential View and this week, while I take a short family break, I’ve asked Anab Jain (@anabjain), co-founder of Superflux, a London-based studio, to step up. I first met Anab through my dear friend, Marko Ahtisaari (who co-curates the Exponential View Spotify playlist and just released a music video with his band Construction) and have followed her interdisciplinary work at the intersection of foresight, technology and speculative design with interest over the past decade.
Enjoy her Exponential View,
Together with designer and technologist Jon Ardern, I create tangible and provocative experiences that transport people directly into possible future worlds. Doing this work has led us to discover a powerful means of affecting change: by confronting and emotionally connecting people with future consequences in the present.
I have led foresight, technology and design innovation projects for a number of organisations, including the IFRC, UNDP, Mozilla, the BBC, and Microsoft Research.
I hope you enjoy my Exponential View this Sunday!
Dept of the near future
🧟 With political reality becoming ever more terrifyingly absurd, what better time to imagine the worst? Last month, the NYC Media Lab hosted the Fake News Horror Show. Think of a nightmarish science fair, showcasing demo upon demo of worst-case scenarios if computational propaganda and misinformation continue along their current trajectory.
😬 We, yet again, spent the last few days inside a live Fake News Horror Show. The data submitted to the DCMS (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) Committee by Facebook in July 2018 as part of the Committee’s inquiry into Fake News demonstrates the extent to which the fake, targeted Brexit ads by the Leave Campaign in the UK, was a political phishing scam. “Support steel? Save the whales? Vote Leave!” This could herald the end of easy growth for Facebook, argues Bloomberg. (See also, how FB really uses your data, illustrated.)
🚨 The ACLU is the latest organization to expose flaws of Amazon's surveillance technology. Its face recognition tool "Rekognition" falsely matched 28 members of the Congress as people who committed crimes (disproportionately, people of colour).
🤔 On the flip side, Joanne McNeill suggests that surveillance failures allow us to hide between the blind spots and overly simplistic algorithmic misclassifications within our algorithmically profiled selves. There, we can forge new identities and bask in accidental privacy. See also, EV reader Stephanie Hare and Anne-Marie Slaughter write about the two sides of unforgeable biometric identities.
💯 Tega Brain's thought-provoking essay critiques the framing of the environment as a system, arguing that such a perspective reinforces the sense that the world is ‘a system that can be controlled and manipulated’. Instead of considering big data and algorithmic capacities as a ‘fix’ for notoriously complex climate and environmental challenges, what if machine vision and remote sensing could be used to amplify environmental encounters and the arts of noticing our ecological entanglements?
Dept of alternate democracies
Democracy is, apparently, floundering. In the United States, support for being governed by elected officials has declined, especially amongst the young. And more than half of the people living in democracies think their voice is “rarely” or “never heard”, according to this recent research.
In many democratic countries, increasingly fragmented and entrenched ideological positions are compounding with the growing influence of media consumed on algorithmically influenced platforms.
In our studio in London, with Brexit looming heavy on the horizon, we have been looking at this phenomenon through the lens of various projects, public debates, and even an experiment using sortition - the use of random selection to gather together a representative sample of members of the public - for a discussion on algorithmic power. For all these reasons, thoughts on the challenges facing democracy are at the front of my mind and I suspect this might be something you’ve all been thinking about, too.
So, here’s a quick, but hopefully expansive screenshot of some of the current thinking in this space. There is a broad spectrum of ways in which democratic ideals, power, and governance models are being covertly organised and even contested.
Is truth a prerequisite for democracy? Michiko Kakutani’s upcoming book examines how truth and reason have become endangered species and their rarity threatens the future of our public discourse, politics and governance. But I wonder whether lurking beneath this idea that truth has been abandoned, lies the assumption that there was a singular truth at the foundations of democracy, to begin with. Perhaps, beneath Kakutani’s focus on post-truth and recursive media narratives is instead the weakening or erosion within Western democracies - at least here in the UK - of the notion of the public sphere. A shared space where publicity and plurality are recognised and celebrated. A place which nurtures the conditions that empower us to make sound judgments. Hannah Arendt writes about this prophetically in her seminal work Truth and Politics (1967) where she distinguishes between the non-political sphere, where a singular truth reigns, and the political sphere where truth is plural and factual.
If you’re interested in what happened in the UK specifically, this long read from John Lancaster explores the loss of public trust and the "sense of a system gone wrong" after the global financial crisis.
Israel has legally declared the right to national self-determination as the “nation state of the Jewish people.” Max Fisher interprets this as an identity prioritisation: Israel has chosen identity as a Jewish state above all else, including democracy. Unfortunately, this conflicts with the ideals of pluralism and democracy on which the Jewish state was founded. Fisher positions this within a wider swing towards national identity over democracy in Europe and beyond.
MIT Media Lab’s Professor Cesar Hidalgo suggests the cause of the wider crises in the democracy is because ‘it has a bad interface’. He asks:
What if, instead of bypassing politicians, we try to automate them?
He imagines a system of direct democracy with digital agents voting on issues on our behalf. Let the memes begin.
On the matter of suspicious digital agents, Russian AI ‘Alisa’ is apparently a product of (Artificial) ‘Emotional Socialism’. Voice AI’s ever-increasing capacity to understand and respond to our emotions manifests itself very differently in Alisa than Apple’s Siri. Alisa - a product of emotional socialism according to sociologist Julia Lerner - accepts suffering as unavoidable and so responds to the assertion “I’m lonely” with “No one said life was about having fun.” This is in stark contrast to Siri’s response to “Siri, I’m lonely” with the more sympathetic “I wish I had arms so I could hug you”. Regardless, Polina Aronson thinks both AI systems are technological embodiments of emotional regimes - rules and systems that regulate and manipulate how we conceive of and express feelings.
If you need another reminder that democracy is broken, then look no further than the compromised voting machines made by the U.S’s top voting machine maker. “Top voting machine vendor admits it installed remote-access software on systems sold to states” South of the border in Mexico, things aren’t looking much better, with elections blighted by bots, trolls and fakes.
So, what are the alternatives? Anarchy? Direct democracy? Moxie Marlinspike and Windy Hart chose to use an anarchist critique of democracy because they “recognize an inherent tension between democracy and the freedom of individuals to create their own lives as they see fit.” Why is democracy so successful at reproducing itself, and how does this play out in our everyday lives? Is radical democracy a viable alternative? Their critique covers democracy in all its various forms. From alienation, to the logic of contextualised decision-making, the reduction of ideas to opinions and the near-universal acceptance of “majority rule”. But, ‘it is not enough for democracy to be radical; it must be revolutionary’ argues Wayne Price as he reviews Markus Lundstrom’s ‘Anarchist Critique of Radical Democracy’. Or it could be considered as a framework for community-owned change.
This conversation with scholar Keller Easterling looks at moving past political ideologies and a solutionist mindset altogether. According to Easterling, “having the right answer in our current political climate only exacerbates the violence of binary oppositions.” She rejects the righteousness of manifestos and certainty of ideologies, urging ways of thinking better attuned to complexity and ambiguity.
Which brings us back full circle to Hannah Arendt’s emphasis on the importance of the publicity and plurality afforded to us by the public sphere.
Smart morsels to survive a dinner party
New animal species and behaviours are emerging within the urban sprawl, including fluorescent light loving arachnids and traffic exploiting, nut-cracking Japanese crows.
An extremely rare 19th-century leather-bound algorithm by computing pioneer Ada Lovelace has sold for £95,000.
🇨🇳 JD.com - the third-largest tech company in the world by revenue - is cracking markets in rural China using drone deliveries. (In other news from China, AI outperforms best Chinese doctors in diagnosing brain tumours.)
Finally, deep memes. This is likely to raise a laugh, but hopefully, those you shared a table with will consider the unintended consequences of AI generating memes on their way home. 😂
Azeem's end note
“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” is the famous line from a Winston Churchill speech.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were fewer than ten democracies in the world. By the turn of the 21st, that number had reached 80, with half of humanity governed by some form of democracy.
We should open to being able to continuously improve democratic systems, whether through some of the funky experiments Anab refers to above, experiments in e-voting, or an increase in direct democracy. (Listen, for example, to David Runciman’s excellent podcast on how we might use referenda more frequently to connect with citizens.)
It is naturally challenging to create new systems. But experiments, that allow us to tinker with and evolve our systems of government seem to make sense.
See you next week when I get back from Italy!
😎 Ciao belli!
P.S. Please take a moment to thank Anab (@anabjain) for delivering such a thoughtful Sunday read to us all. If you’re not on Twitter, share Anab’s Exponential View via email or Linkedin (or wherever you share the good stuff).