How did the internet become a tangled web of misinformation? Miles speaks to danah boyd, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, founder of Data & Society, and Visiting Professor at New York University. boyd offers insight into the history of misinformation on the internet and the role social media plays in the proliferation of fake news. It’s an interview we did for our upcoming series on "junk news" for the PBS NewsHour.
Tagged with “culture” (154)
They might find beauty in the same things humans do, you never know.
Alien invasion is a constant theme of Hollywood science fiction, from War of the Worlds to Independence Day. But Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, author of the new book Enlightenment Now, argues that highly developed civilizations tend toward peace and tolerance, and that advanced aliens are much more likely to be friendly.
“I think it’s not inconceivable that wars between countries will go the way of slave auctions and dueling, just be seen as too ridiculous for any reasonable country to engage in,” Pinker says in Episode 296 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And maybe that’s the natural arc of civilizations, including ones on other planets.”
But wouldn’t alien brains be so different from ours that it would make mutual understanding impossible? On the contrary, since aliens would have been subject to the same evolutionary pressures as us, they would probably possess an appreciation of science—and maybe even beauty—similar to ours.
“It’s conceivable that other intelligences have a sense of beauty that is not wildly different from ours,” Pinker says, “because they too might be expected to be attuned to counter-entropic forces and patterns in nature.”
An example of this is our appreciation of the bright colors and symmetrical configuration of many flowers. “Flowers are designed to attract bugs,” Pinker says, “but they also attract us, and our brains are pretty different from bugs’ brains.”
But there are limits. Vast differences in culture and biology would definitely lead to some significant differences when it comes to art appreciation.
“It may be pushing things to say that little green men from Alpha Centauri would groove to Thelonious Monk,” Pinker says. “I don’t think I’d push it that far.”
Listen to the complete interview with Steven Pinker in Episode 296 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Steven Pinker on progress:
“Nowadays in the most conservative part of the world, namely the Islamic Middle East and North Africa, in many ways they are as liberal, even a bit more liberal, than people of the same age in, say, Sweden or Norway in the early 1960s. At first when I saw that graph I just couldn’t believe it, what are you talking about? People in Libya today are more liberal than people in Sweden in the early sixties? But if you actually think about it, if you go back to people’s attitudes in the sixties, the idea of say gay marriage—you ask a Swede in 1960 what they thought of gay marriage, they’d think you were nuts. Or women’s equality. We tend to underestimate how much the world has changed, particularly when it comes to generation by generation turnover.”
Steven Pinker on AI:
“If Elon Musk was really serious about the AI threat he’d stop building those self-driving cars, which are the first kind of advanced AI that we’re going to see. Now I don’t think he stays up at night worrying that someone is going to program into a Tesla ‘take me to the airport the quickest way possible,’ and the car is just going to make a beeline across sidewalks and parks, mowing people down and uprooting trees, because that’s the way the Tesla interprets the command ‘take me by the quickest route possible.’ That’s just idiotic, you wouldn’t build a car that way, because that isn’t an example of artificial intelligence — plus he’d get sued and there’d be reputational harms. You’d test the living daylights out of it before you let it on the streets.”
Steven Pinker on science fiction:
“If you take Moral Philosophy 101, or even better you dive into the technical literature in moral philosophy in the philosophy journals, it’s kind of all science fiction. It’s ‘what would happen if …?’ I mean, it’s not very good science fiction, as literature, but it’s putting together an imaginary world and exploring the consequences, to see what you really deep down believe. A simple example is the trolley problem—you know, imagine there’s a hurtling trolley and if it continues on its way it’ll kill five workers on the track who don’t see it coming, but if you flip the switch it’ll be diverted and kill only one person. Should you flip the switch? And all kinds of variations that start to go into the realm of science fiction. But it’s these stretches of the imagination that clarify what you really believe. So science fiction and moral philosophy are often pretty similar.”
Steven Pinker on academia:
“Just yesterday I got a slew of letters after I published an article in the Wall Street Journal just mentioning climate change, and a lot of the readers wrote back and said, ‘Don’t tell me you believe in climate change. That just comes out of universities and everyone knows that there’s just a left-wing echo chamber in the universities.’ Now that’s total and utter nonsense, I know these people—the climate scientists and planetary scientists and geophysicists, and they are not left-wing fanatics—but when you’ve got the university culture developing a reputation for orthodoxy and suppression of controversy, which is true in some parts of the university, it taints the university system as a whole, to the detriment of the entire society.”
James Bridle: The nightmare videos of children’s YouTube — and what’s wrong with the internet today | TED Talk
Writer and artist James Bridle uncovers a dark, strange corner of the internet, where unknown people or groups on YouTube hack the brains of young children in return for advertising revenue. From "surprise egg" reveals and the "Finger Family Song" to algorithmically created mashups of familiar cartoon characters in violent situations, these videos exploit and terrify young minds — and they tell us something about where our increasingly data-driven world is headed. "We need to stop thinking about technology as a solution to all of our problems, but think of it as a guide to what those problems actually are, so we can start thinking about them properly and start to address them," Bridle says.
Technology writer Claire Evans talks about her new book “Broad Band: The Untold Story of Women Who Made the Internet.”
How did cyberpunks and activists affect the tech industry? Do we understand the history of the internet? How much of what we know comes only from a man’s perspective? This week, Claire L. Evans tells us about her new book, Broad Band, and the women who created the internet.
There Were Women In The Room: This week Paul Ford and Gina Trapani sit down with Claire L. Evans to chat about her new book,
Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. We discuss the impact of online communities, how weird the dot-com era was, and the stories of the women who made things work. We also get a window into Y△CHT’s future project — the Broad Band Musical!
2:29 — Claire: “[This book is] a corrective if you will, of all the books we’ve all read and love about Silicon Valley, and the garage-to-riches stories of entrepreneurship… These are the stories about the women who were in the room the whole time, and nobody asked about them.”
5:06 — Paul: “Women get forgotten from activist histories too, and it was kind of an activist scene in the early days.”
5:22 — Gina: “Weird was welcome, in a way that is no longer the case.”
7:03 — Claire: “My big takeaway is how little we value long-term care and maintenance when it comes to building things… I profile Stacy Horn, who founded Echo BBS in the late 90s. It still exists. And she has devoted 25 years of her life to fostering and caring for this community. … She’s taking care of something, because she’s responsible for a community, and I think that’s really beautiful.”
8:24— Claire: “We mythologize the box, but it’s the users that change the world; it’s what you do with it. The culture work, the development of making things worth linking is almost as important as making the conventions for linking.
8:24 — Gina: “It’s broadening the definition of what making the web was. It wasn’t just about standardizing protocols and running code, it was about building the places where people wanted to come and connect and share.”
9:07— Paul: “Moderation…it’s critical, it’s key to these communities but it doesn’t get as much appreciation as ‘I wrote a page of code.’”
20:51 — Claire: “We’re all very siloed in the contemporary media landscape.”
Eating is a political act, as Wendell Berry reminded us. Which is why I was very happy to sample the food on offer by Syrian refugees in Hummustown.
Refugees selling the food of their homeland to get a start in a new life is, by now, a cliché. Khaled (in the photo) joined their ranks a year ago. But cliché or not, selling food is an important way to give people work to do, wages, and hope. If it’s happening on your doorstep, which it is, and the food is good, which it is, what’s a hungry podcaster to do? Go there, obviously, and report back. Which is why, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself, microphone in hand, waiting patiently in line for a falafel wrap.
Truth be told, there aren’t that many Syrian refugees in Italy. The most recent official statistics put the total at around 5000 with a little over 600 in Rome. Hummustown is helping a few of them.
The Enlightenment worked, says Steven Pinker. By promoting reason, science, humanism, progress, and peace, the programs set in motion by the 18th-Century intellectual movement became so successful we’ve lost track of what that success came from.
Some even discount the success itself, preferring to ignore or deny how much better off humanity keeps becoming, decade after decade, in terms of health, food, money, safety, education, justice, and opportunity. The temptation is to focus on the daily news, which is often dire, and let it obscure the long term news, which is shockingly good.
This is the 21st Century, not the 18th, with different problems and different tools. What are Enlightenment values and programs for now?
Claire L. Evans, Author of Broad Band- The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet | Internet History Podcast
Claire Evans is the author of the new book: Broad Band The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. This is the best tech history book I’ve read in a while and you know I read them all. Of special note, considering our 90s-heavy focus on this podcast, the book includes the stories of Word.com, which was a competitor to Feed.com (which we’ve previously covered) and Women.com which was a competitor to Ivillage (which, again, we’ve spoke at length about). But you also get an amazing portair of tech in the 1970s, hypertext as a movement outside of the web, and stories about amazing women like Grace Hopper and Jake Feinler.
We ask Prof Steven Pinker whether today’s doom and gloom headlines are a sign we’re worse off than in centuries gone by, or if human wellbeing is at an all-time high
Two ways to save humanity
Mann titled his talk “The Edge of the Petri Dish.”
He explained, “If you drop a couple protozoa in a Petri dish filled with nutrient goo, they will multiply until they run out of resources or drown in their own wastes.”
Humans in the world Petri dish appear to be similarly doomed, judging by our exponential increases in population, energy use, water use, income, and greenhouse gases.
How to save humanity?
Opposing grand approaches emerged from two remarkable scientists in the mid-20th century who fought each other their entire lives.
Their solutions were so persuasive that their impassioned argument continues 70 years later to dominate how we think about dealing with the still-exacerbating exponential impacts.
Norman Borlaug, the one Mann calls “the Wizard,” was a farm kid trained as a forester.
In 1944 he found himself in impoverished Mexico with an impossible task—solve the ancient fungal killer of wheat, rust.
First he invented high-volume crossbreeding, then shuttle breeding (between winter wheat and spring wheat), and then semi-dwarf wheat.
The resulting package of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizer, and irrigation became the Green Revolution that ended most of hunger throughout the world for the first time in history.
There were costs.
The diversity of crops went down.
Excess fertilizer became a pollutant.
Agriculture industrialized at increasing scale, and displaced smallhold farmers fled to urban slums.
William Vogt, who Mann calls “the Prophet,” was a poor city kid who followed his interest in birds to become an isolated researcher on the revolting guano islands of Peru.
He discovered that periodic massive bird die-offs on the islands were caused by the El Niño cycle pushing the Humboldt Current with its huge load of anchovetas away from the coast and starving the birds.
The birds were, Vogt declared, subject to an inescapable “carrying capacity.“
That became the foundational idea of the environmental movement, later expressed in terms such as “limits to growth,” “ecological overshoot,” and “planetary boundaries.”
Vogt spelled out the worldview in his powerful 1948 book, The Road to Survival.
The Prophets-versus-Wizards debate keeps on raging—artisanal organic farming versus factory-like mega-farms; distributed solar energy versus centralized fossil fuel refineries and nuclear power plants; dealing with climate change by planting a zillion trees versus geoengineering with aerosols in the stratosphere.
The question continues: How do we best manage our world Petri dish?
Can humanity change its behavior at planet scale?
Mann ended by pointing out that in 1800 slavery was universal in the world and had been throughout history.
Then it ended.
Prophets say that morally committed abolitionists did it.
Wizards say that clever labor-saving machinery did it.
Maybe it was the combination.
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