Vänta-på-flyg-latte

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Det är väl känt bland familj och vänner att jag är en nervös resenär. Jag vill inte stressa till gaten, eller stå och stampa i security. Hellre då tid att dricka kaffe, och läsa litet på flygplatsen. Jag trodde länge att det hade med brist på rutin att göra, men efter det gångna året är det inte längre en särskilt övertygande hypotes. Så det handlar om något annat – om en viss resstil. Jag är inte så zen att jag kan säga att det är resan som spelar roll snarare än målet – jag vill verkligen komma fram – men jag tror att de små ögonblicken mellan städer och kontexter är underskattade. De är en sorts fragmentariska undantagstillstånd, sprickor i livet där ljus och mörker sipprar in. Tid på flygplatser fungerar som en sorts terapi, en samtalsterapi med tillfälligheter i en värld där ingen hör hemma.

Douglas Adams skrev en gång ungefär att “inget språk någonsin producerat uttrycket ‘vacker som en flygplats'” – en onekligen bitande iakttagelse. Men nog har dessa små rum något som gör dem värda att utforska närmare? Undrar om det finns någon som skrivit en flygplatsernas sociologi. Det måste det väl göra?

Kolumn i SvD: Om skiljelinjen mellan politisk optimism och pessimism

Kolumn i dag i Svenska Dagbladet: om politisk pessimism och optimism och om att söka asyl i optimismens republik:

Det kändes som en annan politisk gemenskap, en sorts optimismens konspiration grundad på en förvissning om att politiken utgör ett verktyg för att forma den ljusnande framtid, inte en smärtstillande medicin som skall lindra det långa, oundvikliga förfallet.

 

Law and time I: Building organizations that last … forever?

In the New York Times on the 5 of December there was an interesting article about trusts established for eternity. The article raises doubts from legal academic Robert T Sitkoff about whether these trusts are constitutional (a recent paper of his suggests that they are not), but the more interesting question may be if a society should allow the freedom of disposition of one’s property to extend into an unknown future. Should we be legally able to establish trusts that last forever? Should organizations be able to exist forever? Or should we perhaps set a legal limit on an organizations life span? That seems absurd on the face of it, but if we think about the institutional legacy environment that we live in, it seems clear that we could end up in a situation where “dead man’s control” of enormous resources actually becomes a significant influence for future generations.

As we extend this question across religious organizations, family foundations and others we see that organizations, institutions and time seem to make up a very specific set of legal problems, worth discussing and studying. I will start compiling a few notes on it and we will see what we end up finding. But the questions are many and interesting:

1) Cross-generational freedom of disposition (i.e. does the individual will cease, decrease or stay the same after the death of an individual (and what about what that individual does to preserve the chance of returning from death as in cryogenic experiments or DNA-depositions?)

2) Law and time generally (what is the perspective on time in legal systems?). This is enormously interesting and a subject of some complexity: the way time is regulated, the way time cures certain legal deficits, the way that we apply law across time — this set of problems need to be unpacked and discussed separately, but seem to present an especially interesting mine of questions.

3) The legal rights of organizations. Is dead man’s control in fact live organization’s control? As organizations acquire and develop artificial intelligence – if they do – will that matter. Can we imagine a world in which we end up having eternal, artificial individuals? And what would that do with the legal system?

And much more. A good area of study!

Dataskyddet och medborgarens relation med staten: vad hände med samkörningen?

När dataskyddet infördes i början av 1970-talet handlade det till stor del om att definiera och reglera relationen mellan medborgare och stat. Analysen var enkel: staten hade tillgång till en kapacitet som gjorde det möjligt att utöva mer makt över individen, och genom att staten fick en bättre bild av individen kunde denna makt skräddarsys så att staten i detalj kunde styra oss medborgare. Dataskyddet utgick också från att skyddsintresset – medborgarnas integritet – var höggradigt fragmenterat eftersom ingen enskild person kunde begränsa statens hela användning av teknik. Därför behövdes både en reglering – persondataskyddet – och en institution som kunde ta vara på detta skyddsintresse – Datainspektionen.

De regleringsmekanismer och idéer som denna analys byggde på gav 1980 års OECD-principer och därur grodde sedan de flesta olika dataskyddslagstiftningar.

Bland de största riskerna som lagstiftningen då ansågs behöva minimera fanns det som kallades “samkörning” – att staten lade samman informationen i två databaser. Samkörningen ansågs vara den handling varigenom staten fick en så klar bild av individen att maktrelationen mellan individ och stat förvreds bortom det acceptabla.

Spola så fram till i dag. En av de största utmaningarna för de statliga systemen är att de inte kan utbyta information. I länder som Estland och Kroatien skapas i dag kontaktpunkter mellan stat och medborgare där målet är att medborgaren bara ska behöva kontakta staten en enda gång – allt annat skall ske bakom kulisserna, och det uttalade målet är att medborgaren inte ska behöva bry sig om vilken myndighet som har uppgifterna. I vissa stater är målet med regelförenklingen att staten endast skall få fråga efter uppgifter en enda gång och att det sedan är statens ansvar att se till att rätt uppgift når rätt beslutsfattare.

Samkörningen har liksom gått från synd till dygd.

Här kan man landa på olika sätt i debatten. Å ena sidan finns de som menar att den ursprungliga analysen var helt riktig och att det som nu sker innebär en farlig snedvridning av relationen mellan medborgare och stat. Dessa originalister menar att vad den ursprungliga lagstiftningen utgick ifrån var den grundläggande principen att staten måste utformas så att den kan tas över av onda politiker utan att medborgarna hotas. Denna designprincip kräver alltså att samkörning förbjuds och att statens förmåga att se medborgarna som data reduceras till fragment och pusselbitar.

Å andra sidan finns de som menar att statens förmåga att tjäna medborgaren beror av att ha tillgång till data och förmå att tydligt hantera och lösa problem som medborgarna behöver hjälp med. Denna falang menar också att frågan går djupare än så: ett förbud mot samkörning innebär en farlig reduktion av rättssäkerheten i statens myndighetsutövning: hur skall man kunna fatta goda beslut utan data? Samkörning blir därmed inte bara tillåtet utan påbjudet. Den designprincip som här tillämpas utgår från att statens teknikanvändning måste utformas så att beslutskvaliteten optimeras så mycket som möjligt.

Det finns ett tredje sätt att lösa upp spänningen här, och det är att skifta fokus från samkörningen som regleringsobjekt till något annat. Här finns flera alternativ: vi kan exempelvis säga att det finns en lösning som uppfyller båda designprincipernas krav och det är att skapa mycket starka dataportabilitetslösningar i staten. Den som företräder denna lösning skulle också kunna påpeka att genom att ge medborgaren rätt att ta ut sin information och kanske även radera den så skulle staten vara tvungen att förtjäna sin legitimitet som beslutsfattare. En sådan lösning skulle ge medborgaren en nödlösning om det ser ut som om staten kommer att tas över av mörkerkrafter, och samtidigt låta medborgaren dela så mycket information som möjligt för att förbättra beslutskvaliteten.

Nå, nu finns det åtskilliga problem med denna lösning också: för vad skulle det innebära om en individ raderade sig från alla statliga databaser? Och skulle man till exempel kunna ta sina data och istället söka medborgarskap i Estland som redan nu har en tekniskt avancerad infrastruktur för medborgarskap? Portabelt medborgarskap skulle också ställa intressanta frågor om de politiska gemenskapernas nivåer. Varför skulle man inte kunna bli medborgare i en stad?

Här finns inga givna svar, eller enkla lösningar, förstås. Men studier av dataskyddets utveckling är både fascinerande och lärorikt som en inblick i hur vi som samhälle tänker kring relationen mellan stat och medborgare, och hur denna relation i dag präglas av teknikens utveckling. Hans Jonas, den tyske teknikfilosofen, hade rätt när han konstaterade att all teknikanvändning är maktutövning – och därmed förskjuter och förändrar tekniken existerande maktrelationer. Exakt hur detta sker är, tror jag, ännu inte studerat i grunden.

P.S. Den andra intressanta utvecklingslinjen är förstås utvecklingen av relationen mellan kommersiella aktörer och individer, liksom den mellan individerna i samhället i sig självt. Mer om detta vid ett senare tillfälle.

Biological boundaries of conceptual spaces

Is not the whole debate about super intelligence and AI a debate about a series of concepts that we have access to only in biologically bounded conceptual spaces? That is: we are projecting concepts of intelligence we know into an abstract future where the underlying processes may be radically different. It is like speaking of artificial
boredom or artificial sorrow. But the question of how a machine mourns is a question that shows the limits of a concept, nothing else. An old observation of a wittgensteinian nature but I think it cuts deeper than some realize. What we create when we replicate evolving intelligence in other domains may well be something radically new, and perhaps inaccessible.

Quoted in New York Times on democracy and media

We’re caught between our hopes and our fears when it comes to technology. Our hope is this new technology will be “Socratic,” that it will allow us to deepen dialogue, that it will allow us to really become more engaged in democracy, that it will provide more voices to more people.

Our fear is that it will be a sophistic technology, providing only the tools of rhetoric to a small, powerful elite. […]

Some remarks from a panel in Athens on democracy just appeared in the New York Times. The event was actually very interesting, and I am lucky to have been invited: discussing democracy in Athens and with the splendid set of people was a pleasure.

Quote looking for source

So this is alternatively sourced to Marcus Aurelius and Oswald Spengler “The secret of victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious”. I would love to know the source, mostly because I would like to read what comes next. I really think that there is a profound truth to be explored along those lines, one that would resonate with Lidell-Hart as well as with Borges. And what a tag line…”The organization of the non-obvious”. I will use that from here on on.

Our shadows of data and the end of hypocrisy – a mini dialogue about the book Dataclysm

Verus and Timon argue about the new book Dataclysm, in which the author highlights the gap between stated intention and preference and actual behavior in a way that shows what an abyss there exists between the two. 

Verus: The book really is an interesting corrective to any future politically correct nonsense. This is who we are, as the author says “when no one thinks we are looking”. This is who we _really_ are.

Timon: Well, that seems both a bit rich and not quite true. The book finds difference between what people say and what they do, what is the new thing in that? Sure, men’s preference for younger women, our hidden racism and other glaring inconsistencies in our thinking seem very well documented by the data, but that really does not say anything does it? What we see in all of these experiments is actually not what people do – but the rich and disturbing complexity of our emotional lives. If you look at life and society in general the evidence is rather that we are able to overcome these swirling irrationalities and act in an ethical way…

Verus: Really? I think you are far too generous to mankind. I think that while our prejudice and our almost tribal instincts have become less visible they still determine our actions, our social structures and the lives of millions. Just think about the example of the applications for jobs with names that sounded African-american vs those that sounded Caucasian. Everywhere in our society our prejudice structurally disadvantages whole groups on a routine basis.

Timon: So our shadows of data reveal our hypocrisy, you mean? I just don’t buy that. I think the patterns in the data are far from born out in the real world. I do think that we are all complex, cruel, selfish and with an infinite capacity for evil – but with the same infinite capacity for good.

Verus: That is sweet, but what data sets do you have that speak for you?

Timon: Is that where this will end? That the production of a data set now will lead to the conclusion that we need to redesign society and engineer solutions that save us from our darker angels?

Verus: Why not? Hypocrisy exposed is hypocrisy you can fight. If we use data to reveal hidden biases we will be able to articulate defenses against them! And not deny them reflexively as you seem to be doing.

Timon: I don’t disagree with that, actually. I think revealing hidden biases is not a bad thing, but all of the data misses something – and what it misses is this: society has progressively become more equal and more just over the last 500 years. And that has happened without the articulation by data, it has been driven by something else. It has been driven — dear I say it — been driven by the human capacity for good deeds, for acting in a way that is just and right. Even without data to support it. In fact, I think if anything the data risks weakening that innate human ability for acting justly —

Verus: Come on, how can reveal bias actually make people act less responsible or justly?

Timon: Because just actions flow not from an understanding of data, but from a constant examination of your own soul and your own decisions. A constant battle with yourself and with your baser instincts. And data makes it into a collective structural artifact and not an individual responsibility. I believe that the way to a more just society – even in the future – is through the constant cultivation of socratic dialogue, incessant questioning of what justice really is. Not through data analytics. With data we risk externalizing the individual ethical responsibility and we actually give people an excuse: they can now say that well, it is not my problem – it is a social problem. We need laws, not individual self-examination.

Verus: I disagree, violently, with that. Big data will reveal us as we are, and our shadows of data will give us the menu for a political reform agenda that will allow us to really end structural racism, chauvinism and other diseases of the human mind once and for all. And through nudges and social engineering we will be able to build a social machine that can help us do so – individual responsibility just won’t do. Everyone is responsible today, and look at what has happened!

Timon: Well, look at the social progress we have done without data the last 500 years. Where did that then come from?

Verus: But it has flatlined! With data we can make the same kind of progress that we could make in science once we were able quantify the object of our studies. We will now be able to do the same with mankind — social physics, as MIT-professor Alex Pentland calls it.

Timon: Socrates turned away from natural science, because he believed that the examination of our own souls is necessary for any political animal. And that cannot be quantified. I am not a data point, and you are not a pattern.

Verus: But we are. And therein lies our salvation: we can quantify the parameters of our own moral shortcomings and correct them. We can close the gap between what we say and do. This spells the start of the end of hypocrisy.

Timon: I agree we can – but never through measuring what we do and using that to change what we say. We need to start with examining what it is we say in the light of eternal ideals of justice and with on-going human dialogue.

The night fell silently as their discussion continued, but we leave them there. In human dialogue or as data points in a pattern made available through data sets? We don’t really know.

“Don’t tell me” – 30 years later

In 1984 – a glorious year for music generally – a small group called Blancmange released the amazing album “Mange tout”. It is in many ways one of the best albums of the time, and it has receded far too fast into oblivion. Here is the lead single, “Don’t tell me”:

It is a brilliant piece of music, and the lyrics are just as good. Pure pleasure. But the best is yet to come. Their following album was released in 1985, and contains some of the most sublime music of that age – and for that reason it never was a hit. In -85 the world had moved on. Sadly.

The end of Solvay?

I remember first reading about quantum physics with a sense of relief and liberation: the world was not a humean table of billiards, but a probabilistic chaos of possibilities. Now, since I have come to be much less convinced that probabilistic chaos is more free than deterministic order, but at some less reflective level I have always felt that if chance is at the root of things that would be, well, a good thing. Determinism always seemed a dreary proposition. It now turns out that this may have been a temptation shared by the Solvay-conferences dominant flank when they sketched out their view of what the world is based on quantum physics. Einstein famously objected that he felt uncomfortable with the randomness of it all in his comment “God does not play dice” – but Bohr dismissed that with asking that Einstein not tell God what to do. In a new article in Wired we can now read about deterministic accounts of quantum physics, and maybe, just maybe, we learn again that betting against the smartest person in the room is never a good thing to do. We also, however, are back at the drawing table from a philosophical viewpoint: if the world is deterministic – does it matter what we do? Were we determined to ask that question and to then act in a certain way in answering it and drawing our conclusions from it? Is there any space for meaning in an oil-droplet universe? Answers range from Chalmer’s notion of consciousness as a basic force in the universe to an in-depth study of the language games we are playing and how they are related – and why no single one has precedence over any other. A longer discussion. But one that suddenly became more interesting again – as the philosophical ramifications of the deterministic worldview in physics have remained largely unexplored since Solvay.