Tag Archives: technology

The Future Of Trumpism

There’s little point in reiterating the obvious–that the insurrection at the nation’s Capitol represented a “security failure” that was very likely abetted by Trump sympathizers within the system. As an article in the usually staid and circumspect Foreign Affairs put it,

Law enforcement, which uses a heavy hand against Black Lives Matter protesters and prepares carefully to stop possible al Qaeda attacks, was apparently unprepared for the mix of white supremacists, anti-government extremists, conspiracy theorists, and other pro-Trump supporters who openly organized to “burn DC to the ground” to overturn an election at the behest of the president. Although it’s too early to point fingers, the Capitol Police and other security forces clearly have some explaining to do.

The ingredients of what we have come to call “Trumpism” are varied and complicated. Although virtually all of those ingredients include racist grievances, other social ills cause racial grievances to grow and metastasize. America’s gaping economic divide is certainly one of those, as is our demonstrably inadequate social safety net. (The irony here is that unwillingness to extend social welfare services to “those people” is a major reason for America’s lack of such a safety net. It’s all intertwined.)

Trumpism’s future will depend in large measure on whether the Biden Administration and those that succeed it can repair the major holes in our national fabric–not simply existing economic policies that are wildly favorable to those who are already well-off, but a range of  failings in areas as disparate as civic education, regulation of digital platforms, policing, environmental justice, and especially election laws.

People who have grievances– legitimate or not–are ripe for induction into what we might call the lost cause brigade. A recent New York Times op-ed by a historian issued that warning. She drew parallels between Trump’s lost cause and that of the Confederacy in 1865, and between Lee’s rhetoric after the South’s defeat and Trump’s.

Mr. Trump’s lost cause mirrors that of Lee’s. His dedicated followers do not see him as having failed them, but as a man who was failed by others. Mr. Trump best represents their values — even those of white supremacy — and the cause he represents is their cause, too. Just as Lee helped lead and sustain the Confederacy over four years, Mr. Trump has also been a sort of general — in a campaign of disinformation.

The author warned of the “dangerous consciousness” of Trump’s supporters, and predicted that– like Lee’s Lost Cause– it will not likely end. When Lee died just five years after the Civil War, the mythology about Confederate defeat was already growing exponentially. “The Lost Cause did not belong to Lee; Lee belonged to the Lost Cause — a cultural phenomenon whose momentum could not be stopped.”

Trump’s lost cause is the mythology he has created about voter fraud and fake news. Right now, that mythology is a “cultural and political phenomenon that shows no sign of ending,” because it has been aided and abetted by Republican members of Congress.

Whether the dire predictions in the Times column prove accurate will depend to a considerable degree on whether we can rein in a digital world still in its technological and cultural infancy. The ability of racists, conspiracy theorists and other lunatics to use the Internet to find each other and plan insurrections is more than worrisome, but there are also signs that the data they relinquish can be used to hold them accountable.

Apparently, before Parler was taken offline, a group of hackers captured  the personal data of upwards of  12 million of its users– white supremacists, QAnon adherents, Trumpists,  armed insurgents. ( Despite promises of anonymity, Parler was considerably less solicitous of users’ privacy than Facebook.)  Videos posted to the site captured GPS coordinates and the identities of rioters who carried their phones.  Hackers reportedly captured up to 70 terabytes of data, including users’ driver’s licenses, geolocations, deleted messages, and  videos.

What information technology will ultimately change, destroy or privilege is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps the most important predictor of Trumpism’s future, however, is whether America can finally eliminate gerrymandering. As Talking Points Memo reminds us:

It’s no coincidence that the vast preponderance of those who incited the insurrection by objecting to the counting of electoral votes were politicians who owed their perpetual re-election to gerrymandering. 

Granted, Trump owed his electoral success to the Electoral College, “a system that privileges a handful of unrepresentative swing states and renders the rest of the nation functionally irrelevant.” But the vast majority of Congressional Republicans who incited the insurrection owed their perpetual re-election to the gerrymandering that protects them from democratic backlash–but not from farther-right primary opposition.

Defeating Trumpism absolutely requires eliminating gerrymandering.

What Pictures Do And Don’t Tell Us

As we head into what promises (threatens?) to be a pivotal year for American democratic governance, we do so in an environment unlike any that we have previously occupied. The “disinformation” industry has really come into its own over the past several years–filling the void that has been created by the near-demise of local journalism, and taking advantage of the enormous influence of social media.

The most recent weapons against facts and accuracy are visual: “deep fakes” in which the alterations are nearly impossible to detect. The influence of those fabrications on people who have lived in a world where “seeing is believing” is difficult to predict.

In a recent article from Axios Future, philosophers considered the challenge presented by deep fakes.

One possibility they considered: Technology might “erode the evidentiary value of video and audio” with the result that we begin seeing them the way we now see drawings or paintings —  rather than as factual records. In that case, all bets are off.

As the article put it,

Normally, when you receive new information, you decide whether or not to believe it in part based on how much you trust the person telling you.

“But there are cases where evidence for something is so strong that it overrides these social effects,” says Cailin O’Connor, a philosopher at UC Irvine. For decades, those cases have included video and audio evidence.

These recordings have been “backstops,” Rini says. But we’re hurtling toward a crisis that could quickly erode our ability to rely on them, leaving us leaning only on the reputation of the messenger.

One huge implication is that people may be less likely to avoid bad behavior if they know they can later disavow a recording of their mischief.

Just think how technological advances in deep fakes can affect political campaigns.

Just in time for the presidential election, the Brookings Institution shares news about a new technique for making deep fakes, invented by Israeli researchers.  It creates highly realistic videos by substituting the face of another individual for the person who is really speaking.

Unlike previous methods, this one works on any two people without extensive, iterated focus on their faces, cutting hours or even days from previous deepfake processes without the need for expensive hardware. Because the Israeli researchers have released their model publicly—a move they justify as essential for defense against it—the proliferation of this cheap and easy deep fake technology appears inevitable.

Can videos of Joe Biden using the “n word” or Bernie Sanders vowing fidelity to communism be far behind? As the Brookings article notes,

If AI is reaching the point where it will be virtually impossible to detect audio and video representations of people saying things they never said (and even doing things they never did), seeing will no longer be believing, and we will have to decide for ourselves—without reliable evidence—whom or what to believe. Worse, candidates will be able to dismiss accurate but embarrassing representations of what they say are fakes, an evasion that will be hard to disprove.

In our incredibly polarized political environment, the temptation to “cherry pick” information–to give in to the very human impulse to engage in confirmation bias–is already strong. We are rapidly approaching a time when technology will be able to hand partisans a plausible reason to disbelieve inconvenient news about a preferred candidate, while giving others desired “evidence” about an opponent’s flaws.

We can also predict that a political party willing to employ gerrymandering, vote suppression and a wide variety of political “dirty tricks” will not hesitate to use these tools.

Uncharted territory, indeed…..

As If We Needed Another Looming Threat

If I didn’t have a platform bed, I’d just crawl under my bed and hide.

I’m frantic about the elections. I’m depressed about climate change and our government’s unwillingness to confront it. The last issue of The Atlantic had several lengthy stories about technologies that will disrupt our lives and could conceivably end them. (Did you know that the government is doing research on the “weaponizing” of our brains? That Alexa is becoming our best friend and confidant?)

And now there’s “Deepfakes.”

Senator Ben Sasse (you remember him–he talks a great game, but then folds like a Swiss Army knife and votes the GOP party line) has written a truly terrifying explanation of what’s on the horizon.

Flash forward two years and consider these hypotheticals. You’re seated at your desk, having taken your second sip of coffee and just beginning to contemplate the breakfast sandwich steaming in the bag in front of you. You click on your favorite news site, one you trust. “Unearthed Video Shows President Conspiring with Putin.” You can’t resist.

The video, in ultrahigh definition, shows then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin examining an electoral map of the United States. They are nodding and laughing as they appear to discuss efforts to swing the election to Trump. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump smile wanly in the background. The report notes that Trump’s movements on the day in question are difficult to pin down.

Alternate scenario: Same day, same coffee and sandwich. This time, the headline reports the discovery of an audio recording of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch brainstorming about how to derail the FBI investigation of Clinton’s use of a private server to handle classified emails. The recording’s date is unclear, but its quality is perfect; Clinton and Lynch can be heard discussing the attorney general’s airport tarmac meeting with former president Bill Clinton in Phoenix on June 27, 2016.

The recordings in these hypothetical scenarios are fake — but who are you going to believe? Who will your neighbors believe? The government? A news outlet you distrust?

Sasse writes that these Deepfakes — defined as seemingly authentic video or audio recordings — are likely to send American politics into an even deeper tailspin, and he warns that Washington isn’t paying nearly enough attention to them. (Well, of course not. The moral midgets who run our government have power to amass, and a public to fleece–that doesn’t leave them time or energy to address the actual issues facing us.)

Consider: In December 2017, an amateur coder named “DeepFakes” was altering porn videos by digitally substituting the faces of female celebrities for the porn stars’. Not much of a hobby, but it was effective enough to prompt news coverage. Since then, the technology has improved and is readily available. The word deepfake has become a generic noun for the use of machine-learning algorithms and facial-mapping technology to digitally manipulate people’s voices, bodies and faces. And the technology is increasingly so realistic that the deepfakes are almost impossible to detect.

Creepy, right? Now imagine what will happen when America’s enemies use this technology for less sleazy but more strategically sinister purposes.

I’m imagining. And you’ll forgive me if I find Sasse’s solution–Americans have to stop distrusting each other–pretty inadequate, if not downright fanciful. On the other hand, I certainly don’t have a better solution to offer.

Maybe if I lose weight I can squeeze under that platform bed…..

Humans: Clever, But Not Wise….

The election of Donald Trump (aka “Agent Orange”) is only one of many, many signs that we humans aren’t as smart as we think we are.

Consider our ability to invent technologies we then prove unable to use wisely.

Actually, being destroyed or enslaved by the machines we’ve created is a favorite theme of science fiction. Robots who turn on their makers, unanticipated consequences of laboratory experiments, the dehumanizing substitution of human-machine interaction for human contact–all are familiar scenarios of “futuristic” fantasy.

Being overwhelmed by our own inventions, however, is neither “futuristic” nor “fantastic.” Anyone who doesn’t believe that human society is being inexorably changed by social media and the Internet hasn’t been paying attention.

The Guardian recently ran a chilling column about those changes, and about our tendency to see new threats and challenges in terms of the past, rather than as harbingers of our future.

Both sides of the political divide seem to be awakening to the possibility that letting the tech industry do whatever it wants hasn’t produced the best of all possible worlds. “I have found a flaw,” Alan Greenspan famously said in 2008 of his free-market worldview, as the global financial system imploded. A similar discovery may be dawning on our political class when it comes to its hands-off approach to Silicon Valley.

But the new taste for techno-skepticism is unlikely to lead to meaningful reform, for several reasons. One is money. The five biggest tech firms spend twice as much as Wall Street on lobbying Washington. It seems reasonable to assume that this insulates them from anything too painful in a political system as corrupt as ours.

The FCC’s decision to repeal Net Neutrality despite the fact that 83% of the public want to retain the policy would certainly seem to validate the author’s assertion that our government responds to money, not public opinion.

The columnist, Ben Tarnoff, is especially concerned that the focus on Russia’s efforts to weaponize the Internet and influence the election is diverting our attention from far more serious issues. It is unlikely that Russian game-playing had much of an effect on the Presidential election (racism aka White Nationalism clearly played a far greater role), and while Congress fixates on Russia, far more significant threats go unnoticed.

As Tarnoff sees it, the focus on Russia isn’t just misplaced because that country’s social media influence wasn’t really all that effective. It’s misplaced because the Russians used the Internet platforms in precisely the way they’re designed to be used.

As Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out, the business model of social media makes it a perfect tool for spreading propaganda. The majority of that propaganda isn’t coming from foreigners, however – it’s coming from homegrown, “legitimate” actors who pump vast sums of cash into shaping opinion on behalf of a candidate or cause.

Social media is a powerful weapon in the plutocratization of our politics. Never before has it been so easy for propagandists to purchase our attention with such precision. The core issue is an old one in American politics: money talks too much, to quote an Occupy slogan. And online, it talks even louder.

Unfortunately, the fixation on Russian “cyberwarfare” isn’t likely to bring us any closer to taking away money’s megaphone. Instead, it will probably be used as a pretext to make us less free in other ways – namely by justifying more authoritarian incursions by the state into the digital sphere….

The tragedy of 9/11 has long been weaponized to justify mass surveillance and state repression. The myth of the “cyber 9/11” will almost certainly be used for the same ends.

Tarnoff reminds readers that–as usual–America’s wounds are largely self-inflicted.  We could and should take note of Russia’s efforts to subvert our election without ignoring the “deep domestic roots” of that catastrophe. As he reminds us,

Russia didn’t singlehandedly produce the crisis of legitimacy that helped put a deranged reality television star into the White House. Nor did it create the most sophisticated machinery in human history for selling our attention to the highest bidder.

It’s odd to blame Russian trolls for the destruction of American democracy when American democracy has proven more than capable of destroying itself. And rarely is it more self-destructive than when it believes it is protecting itself from its enemies.

We Americans are really, really good at whiz-bang technology. Creating a society that is just, fair and free? Not so much.

File Under: We Ain’t Seen Nuthin’ Yet…

A business school colleague of mine recently drew my attention to an article predicting how our lives will change in the next twenty years.

The changes that are predicted are all consequences of technology–mostly existing technology– and they are entirely plausible. If even half of them come to pass, however, we are likely to experience an economic and social upheaval that will far surpass the dislocations of the industrial revolution.

A few of those predictions:

  • Software will disrupt most traditional industries within the next 5-10 years. (We already see this with retailing.)
  •  Online legal advice (already widely available on the internet) will reduce the number of lawyers by 90%–only specialists will remain.
  • Self driving cars will be available in 2018;  by 2020, the entire auto industry will begin to be disrupted. People won’t own personal vehicles; they’ll call a car on the phone, it will show up and drive to the specified destination. (“You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s licence and will never own a car.”) The implications are enormous: fewer accidents will reduce the need for insurance–and the companies that sell it; many car companies will go bankrupt, millions of jobs (truck drivers, taxi drivers, etc.) will disappear. Land used for parking will be redeveloped. There’s much more.
  • Electricity will become incredibly cheap and clean: We will see the true impact of solar production, which has “been on an exponential curve for 30 years.”
  • Companies will introduce a medical device (called the “Tricorder” from Star Trek) that works with your phone, takes your retina scan and your blood sample and analyzes your breath.  It will then analyze 54 biomarkers that identify nearly any disease. It will be inexpensive enough to give everyone on the planet access to world-class medical analysis, nearly for free.
  • 3D printing will be ubiquitous. The price of the cheapest 3D printer went from $18,000 to $400 within 10 years, and over that same timeframe it became 100 times faster. Major shoe companies have already started 3D printing shoes; spare airplane parts are already 3D printed in remote airports, and the space station now has a printer that eliminates the need to stockpile large amount of spare parts as before. The Chinese have already 3D printed/built a 6-story office building.  By 2027, 10% of everything that’s being produced will be 3D printed.

These are just a few of the changes the article lists–there are many more.

It is difficult to envision the combined impact of these technologies; the author predicts that 70-80% of today’s jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. There will be new ones, of course, but it is unlikely that there will be enough new jobs to replace those going the way of the dinosaurs.

During my own lifetime, the pace of change has steadily accelerated. Much of the social and economic dysfunction we are currently experiencing is a direct outgrowth of that change–not just the economic stresses involved, but the disorientation people suffer as cultural attitudes shift and expectations about their future lives are upended.

If there is one thing that’s clear, it is that our current political system is not capable of meeting the challenges we will face. How will ideologues like Paul Ryan and those like him–lawmakers who think unemployed folks can just “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”– react to massive joblessness? What about the “alt-right” bigots who justify their anti-immigrant rhetoric with the claim that the newcomers are taking American jobs? What will those on the left do when they can no longer blame job losses on outsourcing and trade? Where will all these culture warriors turn without their overly-simplified, convenient culprits? And who will they turn on?

And a far, far more important question: how will the fortunate remnant–the still-employed, highly skilled specialists–respond to the needs of the suddenly un- and under-employed? What policy interventions will they support? What sort of social contract will they recognize?

Twenty years isn’t a long time. It’s practically tomorrow.