Sunday, January 30, 2011

Lumpenproleteriats Return

I've been looking for a Marxian take on the financial crisis. It seems there is a new book by David Harvey that takes a look at the crisis. I would have more to say if I weren't so busy on other things in my life, but nevertheless, this book review by Benjamin Kunkel is well worth a read. From the looks of it, this book is vaulting to the top of my reading list.

Friday, January 7, 2011

On the Nature of Evil, Technology, Corporations, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Apropos Ryan's post on military tech: in an article by Steve Lohr in the New York Times, we are introduced to some neat pieces of technology whose applications are, how do you say, terrifying.  Apparently there is a new generation of tech that can see, called "computer vision systems".  How would this tech be used?

Perched above the prison yard, five cameras tracked the play-acting prisoners, and artificial-intelligence software analyzed the images to recognize faces, gestures and patterns of group behavior. When two groups of inmates moved toward each other, the experimental computer system sent an alert — a text message — to a corrections officer that warned of a potential incident and gave the location.
In prisons. 

A few months ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s research arm, awarded the first round of grants in a five-year research program called the Mind’s Eye. Its goal is to develop machines that can recognize, analyze and communicate what they see. Mounted on small robots or drones, these smart machines could replace human scouts. “These things, in a sense, could be team members,” said James Donlon, the program’s manager.

In war.

A nurse walks into a hospital room while scanning a clipboard. She greets the patient and washes her hands. She checks and records his heart rate and blood pressure, adjusts the intravenous drip, turns him over to look for bed sores, then heads for the door but does not wash her hands again, as protocol requires. “Pardon the interruption,” declares a recorded women’s voice, with a slight British accent. “Please wash your hands.”
For health care.

The facial-analysis software, Mr. Ross said, could be used in store kiosks or with Webcams. Shopper Sciences, he said, is testing Affectiva’s software with a major retailer and an online dating service, neither of which he would name. The dating service, he said, was analyzing users’ expressions in search of “trigger words” in personal profiles that people found appealing or off-putting.
For sex. 

The quadrumvirate of American life circa 2011: prison, war, health care, and sex (ok, maybe not so much the latter).  At the risk of turning the Bee Hive into a niche blog, this article got me thinking about the nature of supply and demand, Evil Corporations, and technology.  

As we devote more and more resources to health care, incarceration, and war, we see more and more tech chasing these booming industries.  The logic behind it is perverse, but sound.  Demand, supply.  Yes, the results are kind of evil (unnecessary procedures, overflowing prisons, war in Central Asia), but there's nothing particularly nefarious about the corporations themselves.  

Ok, so that's fairly intuitive; where am I going with this?  Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, naturally.  

For those who haven't seen the show (and seriously, it's a great show), we follow a near-futuristic brothel in Los Angelas which provides Dolls (near-futuristic prostitutes) who have their brains re-wired to satisfy the fantasies of near-futuristic "johns", or to work as spies, hostage negotiators, jewel thieves, etc. for other companies or groups.  

There are many such brothels (Dollhouses) all over the world, all of which are subsidiaires of the Rossum Corporation.  In the second and final season of the series we begin to uncover the apocalyptic machinations of the leader of Rossum (there's a big twist, btw), who--surprise, surprise--is not interested in money!  

Mystery Leader's plan is dastardly to the extreme: his company will robo-call every single phone number in a city!  It gets worse. Everyone who answer's the call will have their brain/personality erased by the same technology that allows Rossum to program and de-program the Dolls.  They will then be re-programmed as Rossum Soliders to destroy all the people who didn't answer the phone.  

Naturally, this begs the question: why would a corporation want to do such a thing?  Where is the money in enslaving the world?  Mystery Leader's motivations are clear: the technology already exists, so either Rossum deploys the tech-weapons first, or they wait around for another company or terrorist group to do the same.    

Here we are faced with an issue that plagued Whedon's most popular show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as the slightly less popular (but still excellent!) spin-off, Angel.  In Buffy, the vampires and demons--when they are not sucking the blood or impaling the poor residents of Sunnydale--are always searching for new ways to End The World.  One particular vampire objects, asking why vamps would want to destroy all those little Happy Meals walking on legs.  

In Angel, we have a more direct example of corporate evil.  The Big Bad in this series is the law firm Wolfram & Hart, which is, as we later discover, the physical manifestation of Hell on Earth.  The firm is pure evil and, of course, bent on world domination.   

As much as I hate to admit it, Joss Whedon's best work (I'm sorry, Firefly just wasn't that good) is riddled with lazy depictions of the intersection of corporations and technology.  Perhaps it's just me, but I find the reality of skyrocketing medical costs, the surveillance state, and counterinsurgency operations far more frightening than world-ending robo-calls. 


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dog eat dog vs. the "Nanny" State

David Leonhardt has a good article in the NYT on the history of opposition to government health care plans. He talks in length about how vehement opposition rooted in claims of liberty and freedom have been endemic to progressive causes throughout the country's history. His take on the battle lines of this conflict seem a bit too simplistic:

The opposition stems from the tension between two competing traditions in the American economy. One is the laissez-faire tradition that celebrates individuality and risk-taking. The other is the progressive tradition that says people have a right to a minimum standard of living — time off from work, education and the like.
This seems to cast the progressive tradition as only calling for social safety nets, almost vulgar Marxist in nature. That notion that the free enterprise system only provides people's wants, but not their needs, thus progressives are the fighters for life's necessities. Though, this is a proper characterization of many of progressives' goals, i.e. health care for all, affordable housing, public transportation etc, this seems to not really answer Leonhardt's characterization of the laissez-faire tradition in relation to its view of the individual. You can support individual opportunity, yet still believe that health care for all allows the best opportunity for people to achieve that.

I think a better characterization of the conflict would be something I've seen repeated by Paul Starr over and over again in his seminal history of American medicine. His view of the conflict first appears in his discussion in the medical professions fight over licensing schemes. On one side, were the medical doctors that were following the experimental tradition of medicine. These doctors mirror modern doctors. They liked to focus on experimentation, and repetition of results that were effective. Furthermore, they put their utmost confidence in science's ability to come to grips with tackling emerging and existing disease. On the other side, were herbalist, spiritual healers, and generic quacks, who preached simple, sweeping cures for diseases, think cure-all elixirs here. They expounded on the notion that empiricist doctors were elitists trying to keep the common man from curing themselves. In the fight over licensing, their two viewpoints were put into direct contrast. The experimental, modern-method doctors argued that individuals did not have the information to assess the effectiveness of the medical practitioners they were visiting. In modern lingo, there was an information asymmetry that medical licensing was meant to solve. Consumers could just not ever really understand who was better, so licensing was there to provide an easy heuristic for individuals to determine which doctors were effective. On the other side, the quacks supported the notion that the individual had the right to choose, and if a doctor was bad then people would just not choose them, thus driving them out of business.

This seems to be the place where Leonhardt misses the fundamental difference in progressive and laissez faire traditions, how it grapples with the individual swimming through a sea of information. Laissez faire proponents believe in freedom to choose, while progressives, to borrow Louis' coinage, believe in the tyranny of choice, a la more choice does not make better decisions. Though, the health care bill attempted to solve many of the basic needs issues that Leonhardt discusses, with its requirements for basic benefits offered, no denial of pre-existing conditions and other aspects of the legislation, it also attempted to resolve some of these informational deficits. It's funding for increased comparative effectiveness research, the IPAB board in Medicare, as well as, the tax on cadillac plans, were all attempts to allow the consumer the best choices possible by informing, and in some cases, limiting them to the most effective treatment and insurance options. Overall a great article, though, well worth a read.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Military Tech Follow Up

Via Matthew Yglesias, Ellen Nakashima and Craig Whitlock of the the Washington Post have an article on a new surveillance plane the Air Force is set to deploy in Afghanistan. Known as Gorgon, after the Greek creature whose stare turned people into stone, this is supposed to be a revolutionary leap in surveillance technology. Instead of getting single images of actions on the ground, the surveillance system has multiple cameras mounted on a plane to allow a panoramic view of the entire battlefield. Unfortunately, having knowledge of the movements of people does not mean we know why those people are moving in the first place:

But other military officials caution that a counterinsurgency requires an understanding of the local population.

"That really only comes from human intelligence or boots on the ground," said Army Col. Steven A. Beckman, the former intelligence chief for coalition forces in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

"We can get the 3-D geo-intelligence that tells us what every building, what every street looks like in Marja," he said at the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation conference in New Orleans in November. But such intelligence needs to be "underpinned by a degree of local knowledge . . . to enable us to maximize that."
Say the military sees a group of young men rushing into a building in the path of a US siege of a city. Without any knowledge on the ground, it is impossible to determine whether those people are rushing for cover, or instead for a place to ambush. It seems the military is falling for the same fallacy that since conflicts are changing then technology must be the solution. Another telling quote from the article illustrates that point:
The hunger for these high-tech tools was evident at the conference, where officials told several thousand industry and intelligence officials they had to move "at the speed of war." Cartwright pressed for solutions, even partial ones, in a year or less.
It is not as if conflicts occur faster than they did before. Instead, the zones of combat and the combatants themselves are more fluid. But in the eyes of military brass, the changing nature of conflicts demands a natural progression in our technological capabilities in fighting it. This progression is not natural, however. It seems to be woven in how military procurement, as well as, defense contracting ties exist. In a world where the largest military technology corporations have the biggest sway on military policy then obviously more technology will be the solution.