On the day when Apple are supposed to be launching a new iPhone with facial scanning capability, the Guardian has delightfully timed a piece warning of the dangers of the technology. Its functions potentially extend to predicting sexual orientation, political disposition, or nefarious intent. What secrets can remain in the face of this extraordinary power! Indeed, it’s two years ago since I heard Martin Geddes talking about people continuing to wear face masks in Hong Kong not because of the smog, but to avoid facial scanning technologies deployed by an overbearing security apparatus. There’s no hiding from the data, no forgetting.
Iván Szelényi’s course on the Foundations of Modern Social Theory is a fascinating trip through some key thinkers, from political philosophers to economists, psychologists and more broadly based social scientists. If anything, perhaps, it shows how blurred the lines are between the disciplines; linking Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Weber to me at least was not clear: Marx was either a political scientist or an economist; Nietzsche was an existentialist philosopher; Freud was a psychologist; and Weber a sociologist. Where they coalesce, Szelényi suggests, is that they are all critical theorists. They are concerned with consciousness, with what is in the mind. Giving voice to their common purpose, he said they are suggesting that ‘[w]hat is in your mind is not necessarily what you think it is. Let’s subject your consciousness to critical scrutiny.’ His heavily accented presentation is both compelling and dramatic, and the course is to be recommended, as is the Open Yale program in general. A fabulous educational resource.
There has been much written in recent times about post-truth politics, and much associated naval gazing as commentators, analysts and politicians themselves have tried to understand how to deal with all this. Leave campaigners in the UK promised £350m a week for the NHS; Donald Trump still thinks he opposed the war in Iraq; and Vladimir Putin claimed no involvement with the war in Ukraine. Populism, reactionism, anti-intellectualism – call it what you will, it’s certainly got currency.
Speaking of currency, the pound has taken a pounding since the Brexit vote, and overnight trading on the 6th-7th October witnessed a flash crash that traders have struggled to explain. David Bloom at HSBC put it that the pound had become the de facto opposition in Britain. ‘Sterling,’ he said, ‘has become a structural and political currency.’ I’d go further than that. It’s the algorithms providing the opposition. The algorithms governing the trading desks even scrape news feeds to see potentially influential stories (one commentator suggested that comments from Francois Hollande on the Brexit negotiations may have triggered the ‘flash crash’). They sense and learn, and respond, constantly scoring and valuing political decisions and the smallest market moves.
The algorithms then form their own truth. This isn’t post-truth politics, it’s absolute truth. And that is potentially a whole lot worse.
I had the pleasure this week of addressing the Royal Irish Academy on the subject of Digital Citizenship, which, rather than addressing the narrow construct of person-state relationship, instead took in a broad sweep of life in the digital world. Part of a series themed around the constitution, it focused on issues of growing up a teenager in the digital world, data protection (there were a lot of lawyers in the room, not least my fellow presenter Oisín Tobin of Mason Hayes & Curran), privacy, artificial intelligence and the politics of all that. In two hours, it was a hurried skip across disciplines and dystopias, which illustrated in equal measure the interest and enthusiasm people have for addressing the issue (there was barely a seat left in the hall), and the strange paucity (it seems to me, at least) of opportunities that there are to pursue in particular the ethical, policy, and political implications of our digital lives. Convened by Dr John Morrison, the Academy Chair of the Ethical, Political, Legal and Philsophical Committee, and expertly chaired by Dr Noreen O’Carroll, perhaps this is the beginning of an attempt to address that.