Monday, October 22, 2018

We are doomed. Part 2: The internet.

At the start of the 20th century, humanity experienced remarkable technological change, at a speed and scale that is difficult for our contemporary minds to comprehend. Science and new inventions redefined what was possible. Within a few years, we had electric light, the telephone, radio, and flight.

For a brief moment, it looked like this technology would usher in a utopia. Then World War I happened, and every single new technology was turned into a horrific weapon of war.

The internet and social media are no different. For a brief moment, it looked like this technology would usher in a utopia. Information would be free. Artists would finally flourish, with the ability to distribute their art, instantly, worldwide. All the world's knowledge would be available to everyone equally. Rapid dissemination of truth would hold governments accountable, and topple unjust regimes. Greater understanding would bring peace and prosperity.

You know how it all turned out. Social media has become a weapon of war and a tool of oppression. Truth loses out to rapid dissemination of disinformation. Knowledge drowns in a sea of trivia. 

Removing the middlemen and gatekeepers allowed anyone with a voice to reach millions. We didn't get brilliant new artists or any insights that traditional media wouldn't support. We got Logan Paul and Lil Tay and Alex Jones, and new channels for the existing media companies to dominate or push the same old stuff they'd been pushing.

Truth shatters into a million mirror-bright shards, and we grab the one that reflects the world we already wanted to see.

We Are Stupid

Humans have frequently developed technologies which exceed our ability to wield them safely and responsibly, and seldom manage to keep them under control, no matter the cost. Everybody knows smoking is terrible for you, and yet people still do it. And then we find new ways to smoke. We make cars that require a high degree of skill to operate, and then people operate them while texting and distracted or drunk or just plain badly, and shrug as the exhaust poisons our skies and people die in crashes. We create foods that have nearly no nutritive value, but are such potent combinations of things we find irresistible that we all become fat and unhealthy.

Social media is no different. By intentional design or simply market forces, we have built systems that exploit humanity's cognitive biases. We increasingly gravitate towards those who agree with everything we espouse and shun those who do not. We forward articles after glancing only at the clickbait headline, pleased that it confirms what we already believe. We do not read critically. We do not check the sources.

Some of us think we're smarter, and cynically or darkly say "well, it has always been this way" or "the media is just a business, you know" or "I don't trust anybody".

Maybe you are one of the really smart people. You have your social media settings dialed in to keep things relatively private. You do the work of pruning and maintaining your friend list. You try to read things critically and carefully. You don't forward garbage. But you still occasionally comment on other people's articles, and find yourself drawn into unwinnable internet arguments.

You have also already handed over your information to companies that have proven to be terrible stewards of that information. Even if you haven't given them everything, they will either create a shadow profile, or their entire business is built on building unauthorized profiles of you that you cannot even see.

Maybe you aren't the problem, but your family and your terrible "friends", with their beyond-ignorant comments, their re-posting of the fake Ray-Ban discount, and their poor grasp of language and logic, most certainly are. They're in your network.

And there are far more of them than there are of you.

We are just too stupid to handle social media. Social media is the Doritos of the mind, and we are all crunching our way through a bottomless bag, unable and unwilling to stop. And just like excessive consumption of junk food leads to physical problems, consumption of mental junk food leads to mental problems.

That junk food has replaced the daily newspaper and evening news for most people, and has become the front end and frame for news for everyone else. Social media and its pandering has infected the news, forcing even institutions like the New York Times to resort to click-bait headlines, gimmicks, and "engaging with their audience". Maybe that's good. No, I just read some of the comments. It's not.

The Technological Assault On Truth

Aggressive use of social media to spread things that are obviously untrue is bad. But figuring out what is untrue is about to get far more difficult.

In 1985, I read a great article in Whole Earth Review about a new program called "Photoshop", and how it was "The End of Photography as Evidence of Anything. This was well before digital cameras rose to prominence. So far, we believe most official attempts at faking photographic evidence have been clumsy and easily detectable. That may be due to the fact that undetected fakes raise no alarm.

Even when we know what we are looking at is doctored (every magazine cover and many images within), we still almost instinctively accept it as true, no matter the harm. And again, even if we know this technology ultimately makes us feel bad, we do it to ourselves. Manipulated imagery becomes the norm.

And that is before further technological amplification and complication. Artificial intelligence is now being applied to create not just convincing photographic images, but astounding video footage. It looks real, but it isn't. Deep Blue begets Deep Fakes.

We have already observed how quickly blatant untruth races through our social media. I am sure deep-faked video will be far worse. At least for the moment, careful observation of the video and comparing against facts reported by reliable media can quickly extinguish faked video. But within a few years, techniques will have improved (driven by Star Wars and Marvel movies, no doubt) and the increasingly overwhelmed (and discredited and ignored) media won't be able to keep up with the volume of garbage "truth" flooding into our screens.

You Are The Botnet

Once computers were networked, hackers created viruses that could subvert the machines. First, they copied information, or held it for ransom. Then they began using the machines as part of concentrated attacks on other targets. In other words, without your knowledge or consent, your computer was turned into someone else's weapon.

Social media is doing the same thing to your social presence, and your mind. You are being used as someone else's weapon. This is not just for disinformation, it is for influencing elections and even the course of actual armed conflicts. Social media posts and data move Overton windows (or their equivalents) and help regimes decide what is and isn't acceptable, or what to target next.

Agents and actors post, and then legions of bots amplify that message, causing it to go viral and appear in everybody's feeds, which the news dutifully reports ("Some people on Twitter are saying..."), further legitimizing and amplifying the propaganda. The gullible are gulled, the rest of us are impacted.

Beyond the actual computer network, constant exposure to The Big Lies erodes people's sense of truth. Bias and doubt slip in. You cannot help it if you are surrounded by the noise. Like radiation, that misinformation is getting into you, whether you like it or not.

Even if you have hardened your computers, social profiles, and minds to a point where you believe you are not easily manipulated, remember there are over 3.2 billion people on the internet -- half the world's population. It only takes one person to infect every computer on your network, and only one of your "friends" to amplify garbage posts through your network.

Your actions do not matter. The idiots rule, or at least enable the Koch brothers, ISIS, and Putin to rule.

China Is The Future

Just as China's repressive autocracy suggests how governments will likely respond to catastrophic climate change, China's Orwellian Social Credit System points the way to our societal future. Individuals and businesses will be coerced and controlled in ways that were previously unbelievable.

The system uses 200 million surveillance cameras connected to facial recognition systems to identify people, and then matches that against financial, medical, legal, and other records. It looks at what you do, and it scores you. Take public transit? Maybe you get 5 points. Good boy. Play video games for too long? Buy the wrong products? Lose 5 points, you slacker. 

High scores might get you nice perks, like free recharges of your mobile phone at a coffee shop or low-interest loans or a great new job. Low scores might get you fined, have your internet speed slowed down, prevent you from getting a job, restrict your ability to travel, have the police come by, or even have you imprisoned or dragged off for "re-education", if not being forced to issue a public apology.

In true grade-school-classroom fashion, the system doesn't just score you, it scores your friends and family. So if you do something really bad, like post something negative about the government, it doesn't just decrease your score, it decreases the scores of the people in your network. So they will all pressure you to get with the program.

Before you dismiss this as science fiction or speculation, you should know China started implementing this in 2015, and expects to have their entire population of 1.4 billion people registered by 2020. That's in less than 2 years.

The Chinese government says the goal is algorithmic governance, which will "allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step."

The United States already has secret scores driven by mysterious criteria that exercise massive control over our lives: credit scores. These scores were developed by three private companies who build your profile without your consent and (until laws were reluctantly passed) would charge you to tell you where you stood. These scores determine what kinds of loans you can get, and thus what kind of house or car you can buy. Some landlords use them to determine whether they will rent to you. Some employers use them to determine whether or not you are trustworthy enough to hire.  We are already used to it.

Not that long ago, if you had asked most people to post who their friends were, what they liked, where they were going, and their political opinions in a public square, they would have looked at you like you were insane, or said "that's private", or wondered which government agency you were working for. They would have thought something was off about you.

Today, it is those who do not participate in social media that seem off. We treat those who don't participate with the same mix of pity and reverence we afford those who say "I don't drink".

China has gamified compliance and oppression. Given how rapidly and completely humans have fallen for both social media and the gamification of everything else, I suspect it will be incredibly effective.

We Are Doomed

We have already allowed social media to ensnare us all, and it has allowed us to polarize our society in frightening ways. Is it social media's fault, or ours?

For the moment, you have a choice to not participate. You can follow the recommendations of Jaron "don't get rich off technology like I did" Lanier, and delete your social media accounts.

But sooner or later, you will have no practical choice and will be required to be part of the system. It might be like China, where the government forces you in, or it might be a more capitalist system where your social media profile (or lack of same) makes it difficult to get a job (because your prospective employer can't stalk you) or cross borders (because Homeland Security cannot check up on you), or get a loan or find a place to live.

And then the very systems that promised to allow us to express our truest selves openly and freely will be used to force us all to smile, think corporate, and be mutual, lest the hammer of Big Brother fall on us. 

We already punish thoughts expressed on social media that deviate from our tribal party lines, whatever they are. You can (and will) lose your job for something you post outside of (and unrelated to) work. We don't need the government to start, we have done it to ourselves.

As we are destroying our physical environment, we are also destroying our intellectual environment. We have taken the most potent tools for truth and knowledge and turned them into weapons of deception and ignorance. We cannot help ourselves.

Should we somehow manage to avoid impending ecological catastrophe, I remain doubtful we will avoid the information catastrophe.


Monday, October 15, 2018

We are doomed. Part 1: The world outside.

The recent United Nations report on global warming is clear and unequivocal: Carbon emissions caused by human activity are warming the planet, and -- unless dramatic, unprecedented measures are taken -- that warming will cause catastrophic damage to the environment and our civilization within two decades. Hundreds of millions of people will face extreme heat, drought, floods, famine, and poverty.

The report is notable for several reasons. For one, the timeline is much shorter than previously thought. Previous research indicated the world was facing serious trouble due to carbon emissions, but that the effects would not kick in for 50 - 100 years. Instead, the recent report finds this will  begin to happen within our lifetimes.

The report also challenged existing climate research by concluding that a much lower degree of warming -- 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit -- would be sufficient to cause damage. This is a lower threshold than previously estimated.

The research is sound, and the conclusions sobering. We have much less time than we thought, and much less margin for error.

I do not believe we will make it.

To date, nearly everything climate researchers have predicted is happening. As individuals, as a nation, as a species, we have demonstrated an inability and unwillingness to change a thing. Instead, we run faster towards the cliff's edge.

For much of human history, the failure to mitigate carbon emissions lay in ignorance. We did not know it was going to be a problem. By the time of the ecology movement of the 1970s and research into the 1980s, smart people began to suspect and figure out what was happening. That was over 30 years ago. This depressing but complete article from the New York Times Magazine covers it well.

We also did not comprehend how much sustained and rapid population growth would compound these climate issues, especially as less-developed nations like China took large and quick steps to modernize.

Now, even in the face of all-but-incontrovertible facts and research, we face self-made obstacles, to say nothing of the megatons of carbon already in the atmosphere.

Our society has tremendous inertia. The rapid changes required to avert catastrophe would be a tough sell under the best of circumstances. Given current realities, I believe it is all but impossible.

The Grid and The System

Massive investment in changing over the power grid is required. Coal has to virtually vanish, replaced by solar, wind, nuclear, and other non-emitting sources. Building new power plants is a glacially slow and excruciatingly expensive process, frequently beset by environmental concerns (think of the owls! think of the waste!) which now seem trivial against the stakes of the problem, NIMBYism, and a general disagreement over what kind of power should go where. Here in the USA, we have been able to coast for nearly 100 years on the massive infrastructure work implemented by the TVA and other huge government projects that wired our nation in the 1920s. It is inconceivable in our current moment that we would have the will to do something similar.

The entirety of the gasoline-powered transportation world must change. People need to drive their gasoline cars, trucks, planes, and boats much, much less. Everyone needs to shift to electric vehicles as quickly as possible, and those vehicles need to get their electricity from non-emitting sources.

We have to get nearly every existing car and truck off the roads within 20 years. We need to change how people think about jets and boats and lawnmowers and chainsaws and dirtbikes and portable generators.

It will be expensive -- the governments will need to subsidize this change, through some combination of vehicle buy-backs, incentives on new cars, and penalties for continuing to drive emitting vehicles. There will need to be credits and incentives to shut down gas stations.

Every single living person will need to change their habits. This may be less of a hit for urbanites in high-density areas with lots of public transportation, but there will still be changes for them, regardless. It will mean a dramatic, profound shift for suburbanites and rural folks, who rely on personal gas-powered vehicles for everything.

Petroleum infrastructure is fundamentally built into and drives our modern society. Gas stations. Gas trucks. Storage. Refineries. Drilling sites. Pipelines. All of that has to be shut down, and replaced by clean power infrastructure.

Even people's diets must change. Production and consumption of meat, particularly beef, has substantial environmental impact. In America, we can't get people to change what they eat, even as it bloats and kills them. Americans aren't going to stop eating cheeseburgers, even if "their" president tells them to.

Perhaps more dramatically, people should stop having so many children, as the absolute population load is a huge contributor and multiplier of existing bad effects, and the Western lifestyle contributes more than anything else.

At a high level, I have long thought that part of the climate change problem was that small, short-term individual actions -- driving to work today, eating a burger for lunch, accepting the power that comes out of your wall without question -- collectively add up to a large, long-term problem. It is extremely difficult to get people to change their behavior under those conditions.

The People and The Governments

Government is not going to save us. Government is us, and we are the problem. Humans are not good at comprehending large numbers, or the idea that the drop they individually contribute becomes to an ocean of trouble. People in the USA do not even believe their vote matters. How can you possibly convince them to take on further inconvenience?

All of that assumes there is political will and force to make these changes happen. Instead, at the present moment, the United States government is some combination of captive to oil-and-gas industry donors like the Koch brothers, short-sightedly stuffing their pockets with money (as though that will hold back the sea) and too afraid or too stupid to understand and accept the truth of the problem. Our representatives don't believe climate change is a real problem, or won't let themselves believe it is a real problem, or are paid by special interests to deny it is a real problem

The United States is one of the top two contributors to greenhouse gases, and has been for decades. And yet we will do nothing to solve this problem, nothing to help. Indeed, we will continue to argue the science is fraudulent or bad, that it isn't real, or that everyone else must go first, or that some yet-to-be-invented magic technology will fix everything, even as apocalyptic storms shred the country and Florida sinks under the sea.

But for a moment, imagine the USA did the right thing. Do we really believe the rest of the world will follow? That China and Russia will sign on, follow the USA, and enact similarly radical changes in their countries?

One might have imagined the EU capable of something like this, but infected with nationalism, it only takes one right-wing ideologue to tell the idiots what they want to hear and prevent it from happening. Success for that destructive model in one nation just makes it difficult for every other nation -- Why should Spain sacrifice when Britain is not doing a thing? Then you must face the Third World and explain to them why they can't have cars and jets and gasoline.

We Are Doomed

There is little to be done. Your individual actions contributed to this problem, but now even the most radical change on your part will do little to halt it, given how easy it is for the rest of the country (if not the world) to undo whatever benefit you are providing.

There are 7.4 billion people in the world.  Your actions do not matter.

Some will argue this post and others like it are a way to continue to do nothing, to justify refusing to change lifestyles. Perhaps. 30 years ago, everyone assumed we would fix the problem later. Now, as the clock runs out, we blame the past for everything -- for making the systems we are trapped in, for not doing anything, for not making gentle turns when they could still be made.

We could have done something, and we chose not to.

We could still do something. We will choose not to.

The most likely scenario is everything the report describes: extreme heat, drought, flooding, famine, and increased poverty, accompanied by nearly endless war (over land, water, food, and resources) as the global economy shrinks in reaction to ecological disaster and mass migration. It will hit the poor hardest, but it will hit all of us.

Every country will go some flavor of authoritarian, China-style, as it is the only way to force the population to do what is required to survive. We will all lose our "freedom" in exchange for "survival". The global order will fray as every nation locks its doors in a futile effort to protect itself, as though tariffs, walls, and guns could stop the carbon-laden air from drifting across their borders.

Recent events have reminded me that nothing lasts forever. Everything dies, including societies. Humanity will likely survive in some form, but it is difficult for me to envision what the other side of this inflection point looks like.

I am afraid I will live long enough to find out.