Facebook and Twitter are no angels of democracy

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Photo: BBC

The sighs of relief from all around the world were almost palpable when Donald Trump’s Twitter account was permanently banned this month. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Google (among others) have all ‘cancelled’ the president from their platform, giving many of us a satisfying sense of schadenfreude. Nobody thinks Trump’s tweets were acceptable and few will be sad that he is gone from our newsfeeds. On the other hand, the deplatforming of Trump sets a dangerous new precedent for democracy, with unelected tech executives choosing to silence the voice of a sitting president.

While it is not right to describe Trump as truly ‘censored’ (the man can call into Fox and Friends whenever he likes), do not underestimate the impact on a politician to lose access to Facebook and Twitter. Those companies own the most powerful platforms in politics, giving politicians direct access to hundreds of millions of voters. This gives the executives of those companies outsized power, and this is not necessarily something we should welcome — no matter how much we approve their guillotining of Donald Trump. …

A reflection on political will and the power of the state

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Photo by Ev on Unsplash

One of the most remarkable and under-reported aspects of New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 is how the government eliminated homelessness during the lockdown period. Rough sleepers were offered places in motels, supported with mental health and other wrap-around services, and guaranteed access to food and welfare support. In a matter of days, New Zealand ‘solved’ homelessness for a period of time and protected some of its most vulnerable from a rampaging virus. The total cost of this outrageous policy success? $22 million dollars.

Of course, motel rooms are not a long-term solution to chronic homelessness, and the price tag for addressing the various causes of homelessness is undoubtedly much higher. But it’s still noteworthy that the cost of eradicating national homelessness for over a month was less than the price of former Prime Minister John Key’s mansion in leafy Parnell. The truth is that the state has always had the capacity to emphatically address homelessness and even eradicate it altogether. $22 million is a tiny fraction of the government’s budget. Homelessness is a solvable public policy issue, and the government did solve it — temporarily at least — in 2020. …

Welcome to your personal ‘desirability’ score

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Image: Wiktor Karkocha

There is no doubt that on the whole, the economic impacts from the lockdown and pandemic will be devastating. But while most leisure activities were throttled by the lockdown, others thrived — just ask any of your friends that did Yoga With Adrienne (probably the same mates that brew their own kombucha). Another unlikely winner? Dating apps. Tinder and Bumble usage alone spiked by over 20%, with Tinder registering 3 billion swipes on 28 March alone.

However, the pandemic only accelerated a trend that was already in full force: finding love via apps. “Met online” is now the most common way that people report finding their significant other, streets ahead of boring old classics like “met in church” or “met in the neighbourhood”. While there are a range of massively popular dating apps, including Bumble and Grindr, Tinder continues to be the most popular platform by a significant margin.

Congress has a job approval of 18%. It’s a low bar for algorithms

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Salesforces’ AI Economist

The idea that the work of our elected representatives could be done better by a computer program would strike most sensible people as absurd. Managing the economy and all of its moving parts, for instance, is a herculean task for any government. Balancing the implementation of new policies with keeping a steady hand on the tiller is no easy feat, even with a legion of civil servants standing by to shower decision-makers with memos and white papers.

On the other hand, just a few years ago, the idea that a computer program (an AI) could write poetry was absurd. Now, AI can write poetry good enough to fool reputable judges into thinking it must have been written by a human. You can add cancer diagnosis, theoretical mechanics and professional poker to the list of surprising areas where AI performance can surpass the humble homo sapien. …

Why weaponised racism and lies still plague the platform

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Photo: NBC

Even before Covid-19 prevented most of us from leaving our homes, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter had become society’s main public square. We gather online in Facebook and WhatsApp chats and average two and a half hours a day on social media, trawling through never-ending feeds of updates and information. This has changed political life as well as the social fabric — for instance, even civil activism like the mass support of the Black Lives Matter movement is (at least in part) conducted online.

With these technology platforms becoming increasingly central, the way in which these online spaces have been designed by their overlords in Silicon Valley has come under heightened scrutiny. Facebook’s annus horribilis in 2016, from Cambridge Analytica to the invasion of Russian troll bots, has driven the company into taking steps to prevent the degradation of its platform. After initially trying to bluster through the criticisms, Mark Zuckerberg eventually conceded “we made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it.” …

The UN says we have entered “unacceptable moral territory”

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UN Secretary-General and no fan of killer robots, Antonio Guterres (Photo: Wiki)

On the otherwise celebratory occasion of the United Nation’s 75th anniversary in January this year, Antonio Guterres — the UN’s Secretary-General — gave a grim address best summarised by his description of the world as “off-track”. On Guterres’ list of existential threats were the climate crisis, geopolitical tensions and the abuse of new technologies — naming one in particular:

“Lethal autonomous weapons — machines with the power to kill on their own, without human judgment and accountability — are bringing us into unacceptable moral and political territory.”

While states might debate whether lethal autonomous weapon systems (or ‘killer robots’ in the popular imagination) are “unacceptably immoral”, there can be no doubt that Guterres is right on the urgency of the risk: development and use of autonomous weapons are both accelerating, and the stakes — ethical and political — are high. …

A perfect demonstration of why mass adoption is a while away

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Photo: John Phillips/Stringer/Getty Images

On what appeared to be an otherwise regular quarantine Friday night with a few Old-Fashioneds, J.K. Rowling opened the floodgates to Crypto Twitter with a single tweet:

Rowling was quickly engulfed with the full force of Crypto Twitter — literally thousands of replies, including every significant person in the cryptocurrency space. Seemingly everyone even vaguely interested in crypto chipped in, from Elon Musk to the @Bitcoin Twitter account. The result was predictable:

It only took a few hours for Rowling to conclude that bitcoin and cryptocurrency were too confusing for her to understand. The responses were so intense that she even felt she wouldn’t be able to log into Twitter again. Rowling might have asked her original question as a tipsy joke — and the future of cryptocurrency certainly does not ride on whether celebrities can grasp the underlying concept — but this was still a pretty embarrassing indictment of how the crypto community engages with the outside world. …

Do not trust pundits touting a non-existent “supply reduction”

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Photo: Dmitry Demidko

Bitcoin’s long-awaited halving took place earlier today, against a backdrop of genuine ecstasy among the cryptocurrency’s dedicated acolytes. There were countdowns, live-streamed video events and chants of “when moon?” It cracked the mainstream news and is regarded as the biggest event in crypto. The halving has driven seemingly every bitcoin owner on the face of the Earth into making enthused price predictions and posting them online.

All of this is categorically insane. Worse, it is built on a lie, or at least a piece of purposeful misdirection on the part of Bitcoin’s major boosters, who should know better.

There are just as many bitcoins today (18,375,000) as there were yesterday, before the…

Are algorithms stripping away our free will?

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Warning — this article contains no spoilers for the plot of Westworld Season 3, but does discuss some of the season’s themes and setting. If you prefer to avoid all coverage before you watch a show, best to close this piece and get streaming.

Though the sci-fi blockbuster Westworld is set in 2058, it’s not easy at first to spot the difference between the futuristic cities depicted on screen and our own. Season 3 of the show portrays a society glued to their smartphones, trying to climb corporate ladders and popping pills when it all gets too much. …

Fear of the pandemic is overwhelming our desire for privacy

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Photo: Waldemar Brandt

Covid-19 is a terrifying thing. The virus is incredibly contagious, lethal to the vulnerable, and we do not have a cure. It has killed over 100,000 people and the media is replete with models that suggest millions more may die. This dark and depressing picture has cultivated a pervasive atmosphere of fear — does that person coughing have the coronavirus? Does my flatmate, who went for a walk this morning? Do I?

In these circumstances, it’s understandable why so many have welcomed the emergence of mass surveillance as a weapon against the virus. Politicians and technologists alike have touted the potential of contact tracing in particular, which involves figuring out who an infected person has been in contact with, and trying to prevent them from infecting others. …


Matt Bartlett

Writing about the intersection of technology and society at https://technocracy.substack.com/.

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