Posted by: Alastair McGowan | November 15, 2014

A letter to Nicky Morgan

Originally posted on The Bell Jar:

Here’s what our education secretary said recently at a conference to promote science and technology learning. Here’s my reply.

Dear Ms Morgan -

I left school in 1986. I did two humanities degrees. Jobs, as you may recall, were not thick on the ground. I did a business course first, not because I wanted to but because, oddly enough, I didn’t know what else to do. I thought it would give me a solid, useful career in which I could contribute to the national economy and make my father happy.

Then I came to my senses. I ran away from the business course, which made me want to kill myself and a number of other people, and did two humanities degrees. I spent eighteen happy, poorly-paid years in archaeology. My specialist field was – as it happens – the archaeology of industry, and particularly of mining, which was so vital…

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Posted by: Alastair McGowan | October 18, 2014

What Happens When

Your bank buys your social network profile and decides to turn down a loan, because the patterns in the data do not fit with the lending profile they want. When a prospective employer buys your social network data in order to check your pattern for a good match against specified culture and values desired by the leadership of the company. When? Now.

I do not share my social network profile as public but this does not prevent an analysis by the social network engineers based on criteria provided by the data analytics company who have been given my email address among many (encrypted) to search for those criteria in its database of everybody’s patterns. Only the ‘hits’ are then further selected for a job, a loan, or marketing, or suspicion of crime. The rest are never viewed. Within the criteria a range of validities and predictive power might apply. If searching for murderers in a specific area a low predictive validity occurs, it may help to save someone’s life but with a few false positives, corroboration then excluding them. False positives carry less weight against true positives in that case. However, when a job is refused and there is low predictive validity those false positives are potential employees turned down. Jobs offered to fewer people with a predicted higher profit value, based on having given them your attributes and associations by engaging in and presenting data on the social network platform in addition to your financial record. Or possibly more predictive than your financial record.

Let’s not do this. A Minority Report in Philip K Dick’s novel is one of three clairvoyants who does not see the predicted crime while the other two do see the pattern. This minority report is discarded and the person is jailed for pre-crime despite the lack of consensus. Basically that’s what corporations are trying to do because predictability increases profit, despite the consequences of false positives. That level of predictability could have a significant potentially negative effect on society, not to mention false positives when a person is discriminated against because of an algorithm.

In another example the police can search for the patterns of people who may be psychopaths, perhaps because a raised incidence of murder is associated with people who have this attribute. Profiling. Profiling of whole lives looking for particular attributes and association patterns with others. Criteria are set with a low threshold of likely behaviours occuring, but by default raising checks for patterns against all in that group. Many psychopaths do not do criminal harm even if they can create havoc and suffering all around them. Intrusive policing. Intrusive marketing, intrusive and discriminatory personnel selection. A large quantity of information about your attributes and your associations with others provides a fingerprint of behaviours that indicate what kind of person you are – to an employer. You give them your email address and it is simple. But the potential consequences are even worse.

How bad could it get? When we work for a company we work for a psychopath, the company is not its directors but a set of objectives and capabilities that follow the money. In Joel Bakan’s The Corporation “…the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV; Robert D. Hare, a University of British Columbia psychology professor and a consultant to the FBI, compares the profile of the contemporary profitable business corporation to that of a clinically diagnosed psychopath.”

OK, let me state it clearly because I am finding it hard to believe that we are doing this: Psychopaths and sociopaths are able to choose the kinds of people they need in order to create their team who exploit opportunities and people and the environment for profit.

Still not concerned? An area that I have researched is geospatial patterns. The movements of you mobile phone as you go about you daily life are a fingerprint, the way those movements interact with those of others are even more concrete in defining you and the way you live than your patterns of association on social media. If you do something that connects with activities of interest (an opposition political group for example) then it will show. We can pinpoint on the map where the good people are and where the persons of interest are, where they are going, whom they will meet with. We know where to place the road blocks in order to strictly control society. Easily.

What have we walked into?

We will only discover the extent to which analytics are affecting our lives some time after the grid has been welded in place. Perhaps up to 5 years after this seismic shift in the relationship between customers and corporations, citizens and state, after it enters public awareness.

Privacy can be achieved for example by using what is known as homomorphic encryption , patterns are analysed and if a suspicious pattern of terrorist activity is spotted a court order can permit unencryption of the names and addresses of the suspects, but when weighing the proportionality of predictability and the seriousness of the crime most applications for a warrant would never even be made. The point being that proportionality and the risks of minority reports would be tested in court.

And back to corporations being able to choose people it likes, rather than the people who fulfill job descriptions, that concerns me far more even than state intrusions of privacy. We are setting up a system where psychopaths can gain an even tighter grip on the world.

Privacy is something we need as a Magna Carta right.

Posted by: Alastair McGowan | September 2, 2014

The Drivers of Tyranny

Here is someone else who has spotted the link between extremism authoritarian personality and failures of reasoning. In fact, outright anti-reasoning.

Posted by: Alastair McGowan | August 25, 2014

The Threat to Democracy is not Terrorism but Power

How could a secret police use other surveillance databases: everyone’s calling records, everyone’s purchasing habits, everyone’s browsing history, everyone’s Facebook and Twitter history? How could these databases be combined in interesting ways? We need more research on the emergent properties of ubiquitous electronic surveillance.

Posted by: Alastair McGowan | June 29, 2014

Why (almost) everything leads to the Citizens’ Basic Income

Alastair McGowan:

Citizens Basic Income, an idea whose time is coming

Originally posted on clivelord:

Johnny Void’s blog gives a devastating criticism of the government’s merciless attack on the poor, but I want to take his message further. 23rd March on Osborne’s budget for rich kids is a must read. JV is angry, and rightly so.
As Johnny Void says, the only people with fifteen grand a year to spare to stash in an ISA to take advantage of George Osborne’s so-called saver’s revolution are George Osborne, his parents, and everyone he knows. The same could be said about David Cameron, Nick Clegg, David Miliband and even Nigel Farage.
There was nothing in that budget for the poorest: the families queuing at food banks, or disabled people living in fear of the next Atos assessment.
I remind myself of the youth who was referred to a psychiatrist for being obsessed with sex. The shrink showed him a card with just a square on it.

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Posted by: Alastair McGowan | January 19, 2013

The Law of the Land

A concise article on the restrictions of the British land use planning system that prevents low impact rural community development:  The Law of the Land “The current system is proving to be a serious obstruction to a vast, untapped potential which, if it were released, could see the English countryside literally spring to life.”

And my comment on it:

It is hard to see why this bias towards economic criteria should not be changed. Low impact applications that demonstrate how people could live resiliently with a mix of land use and local economic production has to be the next step in rural sustainability.

At present the planning system has developed in order to keep people off the land unless they are geared towards intensive and industrial land use practices. This lack of land use diversity needs to shift so that rural ecovillage practices can develop alongside industrial agricultural practices. Low impact pays less to public revenue, nor should it pay more in monetary terms. It’s value to society lies in its provision of a social and environmental safety net of diverse mutual activity and community.

Criteria for planning should shift to accommodate a diverse low impact resilient lifestyle for those who choose this vital and complementary alternative to complex technological civilisation.

Posted by: Alastair McGowan | January 10, 2013

Child care is critical

So many voices are telling us that Western ideas about child care are simply wrong. Jared Diamond’s recent book refers to on-demand childcare in traditional societies again rings so true. Corneilius Crowley’s experiences at the hands of the Catholic Church stand in direct contrast to this. Controlling and abusing children leads to a deep rot of fear and anti-social behaviour in society and its institutions. Until we resolve this human damage a sustainable way of life will be impossible

Posted by: Alastair McGowan | November 13, 2012

Advocating Change Starts Here: Resistance is Fertile

Understanding the cognition of resistance to change is the most powerful item in the sustainability advocate’s toolkit.

One of the most frustrating experiences that sustainability campaigners face is when a convincing logical well expressed argument for change is placed in a forum and a large section of the participants resist accepting its validity. What makes this so much hard draining work is that the locus of the resistance seems not to be in the discussion itself but deep in a belief system that is never permitted into the debate for examination. We are sometimes left wondering ‘why come to a debate if you are not going to play by the rules?’. Well, there are reasons for doing so, simply being there to front a position and repeat it as though it were empirical truth, that is one reason.

I recently listened to a debate on BBC Radio 4 between Harvard students under the currently popular rubric ‘Who built it?’ The discussion appeared to be aligned across the usual political left-right dimension. I was filled with expectation that we would get to the bottom of the issue and hear a conclusion that would inform as to whether common-interest or self-interest was considered to be of most value to society. I don’t know why I held my breath. Optimist I guess.

What I did glean from the discussion however, was that one section of debaters appeared to be arguing based on logical parsing of ideas and recourse to deeper foundations at each step, while the other group simply stated and repeated certain ideas and again and again stumbled when challenged to provide further support for those ideas. You can guess who was prepared to keep widening and supporting their arguments and who sought recourse to the vague, obfuscating and repetitive ‘truths’. For some people there is certainty in a belief system and for others a belief system is a circle of ever widening connecting of dots.

The Self narrows down to categorical belief systems to maintain its confidence in reality, and the Whole widens out to interconnected beliefs confident that reality need never be pinned down.

It is often said that opening minds in the educational process can be achieved through the teaching of critical thinking. But this misses the fact that emotion will always switch off critical thought process whenever logic challenges self-protecting belief systems. In the example above ‘Who built it?’ is a direct challenge to the belief in primacy of self which sits at the core of conservative values. Having a debate ain’t going to achieve anything here because the belief system is not negotiable. What results is a rather annoying and grinding process of logic versus faux logic and occasional loss of temper. Even more upsetting for those of us who want the discussion to progress is that in the interests of balance the chair sums up the stalemate but presenting both view points as somehow emerging from the ‘debate’ as equivalent but different in value. They are different in many ways but chiefly in that one is emotional and isolated and the other logical and empirical. Sadly this point is never made, perhaps because the moderator does not want chairs thrown about.

Sustainability sits in the same frame as the left-right dimension illustrated here. Proponents argue from facts and resistors repeat slogans from emotion. So what can we add to our toolkit? What we have to recognise is that by entering a forum of debate we can so easily offer equal credence to the repetition of an emotional worldview based on self-interest in the status quo. Solutions to this situation can then be devised. For example, better controlled debate processes can help to permit only facts to be laid out for a more ‘scientific’ examination – ‘this house concludes that based on the facts presented by each side the motion X is preferable’. The education of critical thinking can be done in a way that side-lines or negates techniques of oration so that balanced argument strikes out from the common record challenges that run to dead ends. There are a multitude of methods from the history of debate and philosophy that can be used but what is most important is that we come to the table always prepared for the empirical to shift to the emotional, which it almost always will.

A more sophisticated approach, the killer app in our toolkit, is to mould predictable emotional positions long before the public debate occurs so that we play chess with and capture or negate emotional positions = then turn resistance into fertile ground for co-option. This is the purpose of George Lakoff’s framing technique developed at the Rockridge Institute. I would like to recommend a resource which covers framing analysis and wider cognitive approaches to working with emotional resistance to change. Cognitive Policy Works

Emotional resistance is identifiable, it has known quantities, and we need to engage with it and turn its power into consensus.

Posted by: Alastair McGowan | October 7, 2012

Science vs Religion?

Why oh why oh why? Answer, power control and authority.

The God that Richard Dawkins rails against is the imagined supreme commander of right wing fundamentalist social groups. The authoritarian God of the Universe rather than the monotheistic God of Western civilisational religion. Read More…

Posted by: Alastair McGowan | September 1, 2012

Stigmergy: An Introduction

You have probably heard of hierarchy, and also anarchy. These two terms used socially refer to the way we organise our socio-economic lives. Well these are not mutually exclusive sole alternatives in our political lives.

Stigmergy is a concept which desccribes a different form of organisation, part self-organising and partly cohesive around leading principles. Stigmergy occurs in natur and society. Harnessing its processes could be key to creating a decentralised and hence more resilient human society. Read More…

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