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The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens

July 17, 2013

From RSAnimate:

Author and journalist Evgeny Morozov presents an alternative take on ‘cyber-utopianism’ – the seductive idea that the internet plays a largely emancipatory role in global politics.


A Tapestry of Pain

July 15, 2013

Chuanfei Chin in The Berlin Review of Books:


‘Without pain our life is unthinkable. With it, life is hardly to be endured’ (7). Most of us share the capacity to feel pain. We accept that having this general capacity is part of being human, yet we avoid specific experiences of pain. This is the first of our seemingly paradoxical attitudes to pain, with which Arne Johan Vetlesen, professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo, opens his book. Secondly, we fear pain and condemn those who wantonly inflict it, though its forms and meanings fascinate us. It has a ‘Janus face’. Thirdly, we alone must endure the pain in our own bodies. Yet we readily observe pain in others and expect that they suffer from it as we do. What is privately suffered is assumed to be potentially shared. Such attitudes alert Vetlesen to the possibility that pain ‘contains something inherently desirable’. He is ‘prepared to be a spokesman for such an opposite view’ (10) – to decry a western culture that has developed ‘the most negative ever’ view of pain (8).

If his opening stance impresses, it has to be conceded that his defence of pain’s desirability disappoints. So far as I can tell, this is summed up later in an aside: Being susceptible to pain means being ‘sensitive’ and so ‘able to experience what is good’. It also makes us ‘want to enrich and expand ourselves through contact with the good’ and motivates us ‘to protect everything that is good’ (92). These ideas – that the capacity for suffering is constitutively and causally related to goodness – have been explored by many who wrestle with the problem of evil. Vetlesen echoes the ideas without responding to the challenges that have been posed to them. (…)

Vetlesen’s model leads to two insights when he adds a social dimension to his cultural criticism. Firstly, when a society suffers from ‘symbolic impoverishment’, its members stop processing their pain on the ‘inside’. Instead, they transport it automatically to the ‘outside’. Violence towards others becomes the ‘favoured answer’ to pain: it is ‘handed down from generation to generation’ as a social norm (115). The result, as observed by others, is a wider ‘culture of callousness’ (117). Secondly, it is not enough for a society to produce ‘good symbolic resources’ which can be used to transform pain. These resources must be distributed to reach those ‘groups’ which need them ‘most of all’ (125). [More]

Every Breath You Take

July 11, 2013

Mark P. Mills in City Journal:

mobile-phone-police-surveillance-feature-largeCovering everything that’s happening today with information technology in one book is a monumental challenge. As if to acknowledge that difficulty, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, authors of Big Data, begin by describing the data’s magnitude. They note, for instance, that the amount of data now stored around the world is an estimated 1,200 exabytes (itself an already dated and debatable number), which can be expressed as an equally incomprehensible 1.2 zettabytes. “If it were all printed in books, they would cover the entire surface of the United States some 52 layers thick.”

Big Data’s authors observe that humanity is marching into unfamiliar territory: “Ultimately big data marks the moment when the ‘information society’ finally fulfills the promise implied by its name. The data takes center stage. All those digital bits that we have gathered can now be harnessed in novel ways to serve new purposes and unlock new forms of value.” Put more simply, the emergence of “big data”—whatever we think we mean by that term—marks the pivot in history when computing will finally become useful for nearly everyone and everything. (…)

For science fiction aficionados, Isaac Asimov anticipated the idea of using massive data sets to predict human behavior, coining it “psychohistory” in his 1951 Foundation trilogy. The bigger the data set, Asimov said then, the more predictable the future. With big-data analytics, one can finally see the forest, instead of just the capillaries in the tree leaves….Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier begin their exploration of analytics with an oft-cited example: Google data about the location and frequency of searches for “the flu” are already more effective in tracking the rise and vector of an epidemic than anything the Centers for Disease Control can do.

The fascinating thing about the scale of massive data sets is that, as Asimov predicted, they can reveal trends, even behaviors, that tell us what will happen without the need to know the “why.” (That was the trope in the movie Minority Report, based on a 1956 story by another great sci-fi writer, Philip K. Dick.) With robust correlations, you don’t need a theory to predict; you just know….The “why” of many things that we observe, from entropy to evolution, has eluded physicists, philosophers, and theologians. What’s new about big data is the extension of our observational powers into so much, from the profound to the trivial.

There are important, even troublesome, public-policy and social implications. The ongoing controversy over government and NSA investigation methods using analytics is just one example: “In addition to challenging privacy, these uses of big data raise another unique and troubling concern: the risk that we may judge people not just for their actual behavior but for the propensities the data suggest they have.” [More]

The End of the American Dream?

July 8, 2013

Niall Ferguson in Newsweek/Daily Beast:


“The United States is where great things are possible.” Those are the words of Elon Musk, whose astonishing career illustrates that the American dream can still come true.

Musk was born in South Africa but emigrated to the United States via Canada in the 1990s. After completing degrees in economics and physics at the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to Silicon Valley, intent on addressing three of the most “important problems that would most affect the future of humanity”: the Internet, clean energy, and space. Having founded PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, he has pulled off an astonishing trifecta. At the age of 42, he is worth an estimated $2.4 billion. Way to go!

But for every Musk, how many talented young people are out there who never get those crucial lucky breaks? Everyone knows that the United States has become more unequal in recent decades. Indeed, the last presidential election campaign was dominated by what turned out to be an unequal contest between “the 1 percent” and the “47 percent” whose votes Mitt Romney notoriously wrote off.

But the real problem may be more insidious than the figures about income and wealth distribution imply. Even more disturbing is the growing evidence that social mobility is also declining in America.

The distinction is an important one. For many years, surveys have revealed a fundamental difference between Americans and Europeans. Americans have a much higher toleration for inequality. But that toleration is implicitly conditional on there being more social mobility in the United States than in Europe.

But what if that tradeoff no longer exists? What if the United States now offers the worst of both worlds: high inequality with low social mobility? And what if this is one of the hidden structural obstacles to economic recovery? Indeed, what if current monetary policy is making the problem of social immobility even worse? [More]

Happy Independence Day!

July 4, 2013

5 Surprising Fourth of July Facts From LiveScience:

statue-liberty-fireworksWhen the grills get going and the fireworks launch this Fourth of July, what will you remember about America’s most patriotic holiday? Here are five surpring facts to help you bone up on your Independence Day trivia:

1. John Adams thought Americans would celebrate July 2

The Continental Congress officially declared its freedom from British rule on July 2, 1776, the day that John Adams wrongly thought would be commemorated by future generations. July Fourth, meanwhile, marks the day Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. As copies of the declaration spread across the colonies, celebrations kicked off. Americans lit bonfires, fired celebratory shots from their guns, rang bells, and took down symbols of the British monarchy. At that point, the Boston Tea Party and the Battles of Lexington and Concord had already happened, but the American Revolutionary War wouldn’t end until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.

2. Three presidents died on the Fourth of July

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson passed away within hours of each other on July 4, 1826. The two had been political rivals and then friends later in life, and both signed the Declaration of Independence. James Monroe, the nation’s fifth president, was the next U.S. leader to die, and he passed away on July 4, 1831. Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, is the only U.S. chief to have been born on the Fourth of July.

3. Songs in today’s patriotic canon don’t have Revolutionary roots

Before the Revolution, “Yankee Doodle” was originally sung by British military officers who mocked the unorganized and buckskin-wearing “Yankees” with whom they fought during the French and Indian War. Our national anthem didn’t originate in the war for independence, either. The “Star Spangled Banner” is a poem Francis Scott Key wrote in 1814, when the British relentlessly attacked Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. It was later put to music and became the official national anthem in 1931.

4. The oldest celebration is in the smallest state

It took some time for the Independence Day parties to become the extravagant fireworks-filled spectacles they are today. Most celebrations didn’t become regular until the 19th century, but the Bristol Fourth of July Parade in Bristol, R.I., claims to be the oldest continuous Independence Day celebration in the United States, held every year since 1785.

5. The number of Fourth of July revelers has increased by more than a hundredfold

Only 2.5 million people lived in the United States when the colonies first declared independence, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, the nation is much bigger than 13 wee states and it’s more crowded, too. This estimated population on for July 4, 2013, is 316.2 million people. [More]

The Heart of the Matter

June 27, 2013

From The American Academy of Arts & Sciences:

“The humanities are what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said ‘the pursuit of happiness’ — this is not a pursuit of objects in a marketplace of things; this is the pursuit of ideas in a marketplace of our future.” – Ken Burns

“Measurable is what we know, and the immeasurable is what the heart searches for. The humanities are the immeasurable. … If we leave behind the humanities and see it as unimportant, I think we’ll lose our ability to dream.” – Billie Tsien

The Veritas Forum: Religion and the Public Sphere

June 23, 2013

From Harvard Gazette:

1886_10151568465488060_712950993_nWith a nod to that venerable religious tradition, the Veritas Forum, a nonprofit founded at Harvard by a group of students, faculty, and ministers in 1992 to explore “life’s big questions,” asked two renowned political philosophers on Tuesday to discuss the hot topic: “Does religion have a role in public life?”

Harvard’s justice guru Michael Sandel and Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School explored how the teachings of myriad faiths can help inform civic discourse. In his remarks, Sandel suggested that a public discourse that disregards moral and religious convictions is “a mistake.” Ignoring such input, said the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government, means we “cut ourselves off from a range of considerations that ought to matter in the way we govern our lives together.”

Critics of the notion of a firm separation of church and state, he said, miss the point. “One of the strongest arguments for the separation of church and state is precisely to allow free scope for pluralist argument and engagement from all traditions — secular and faith traditions — in politics.”

While welcoming competing voices and opinions encourages a “clamorous and contentious” debate, it also encourages a “morally more robust one than the kind we have become accustomed to,” said Sandel. “Rather than aspire to a toleration of avoidance,” he added, “we should aspire to a pluralism of engagement about hard moral, spiritual, and religious questions.”

Sandel, whose most recent book is “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” offered the nation’s widening income gap as sobering proof of the need to include the “habits and attitudes and virtues that often find articulation and expression in various faith traditions.”

He fears that those who are well off increasingly accept the assumption that they alone possess the talents and gifts that society values, and therefore they alone deserve the rewards. “That leads to a warped attitude toward one’s own success,” he said, “that is corrosive and overreaching.” [More]