Saturday, January 25, 2020

Suggested reading: Think again edition

This edition of "Suggested reading" takes another look at some assumptions and finds that there's often something unexpected to be discovered. In this post I'll be thinking again about:

Image: Alexander Coggin/New York Times

1. The Spice Girls microgeneration

In the mid-to-late 90s the Spice Girls were inescapable. That they were a mashup of Madonna's commercial feminism-with-eyebrow-raising-elements and pseudo-Riot Girrl slogans ("Girl Power") drained of actual politics, with music that lacked the innovation of the first or the anger-fueled power of the second, seemed too obvious to be worth stating at the time. I mean, the roles they embodied included "Posh" and "Baby," neither of which seemed like they were exactly advancing the cause of women's equality. And why was the sole black Spice Girl "Scary"?

But then, I was an adult male in 1996 when their first single came out. Had I been a 10-year-old girl I think I would have found it irresistible. For women born in the mid- to late 1980s, the Spice Girls were often their first pop crushes and the BFF-celebrating "Wannabe" their anthem.

Love of the Spice Girls, writes Caity Weaver in "The Rise of the Spice Girls Generation" (New York Times, 19 July 2019), "spans borders, races, income levels, sexual orientations, political parties, religions, and all other aspects of adult identity, demarcating a distinct microgeneration."

As she reports on the audience of 30-ish women attending the Spice Girls' 2019 reunion concert in Dublin, Weaver reconsiders the Spice Girl phenomenon, then and now. She shows that more than just marketing was at work:
  • The basis of their appeal was that "the Spice Girls were never meant to pass as kids; their skill was in depicting a young girl’s idea of adulthood. . .Being a Spice Girl seemed so easy and fun even a child could do it."
  • Members of the Spice Girls generation "are human bridges between two eras [i.e., pre- and post-internet]. . .Their ancestral parallels are the earliest drifters of the Lost Generation, born in the mid-to-late 1880s"—those born just before a sweeping social upheaval, and for whom the new world can't quite be taken for granted because they remember the old. It's nice, also, that this comparison is not belabored or overexplained, which would perhaps make it seem less true. Like a beer bottle set down on the sidewalk in the midst of a moving throng, it's dropped and then quickly left behind.
  • Speaking of which, Weaver uses a concert-goer's sidewalk "disposal" of her beer bottle as an illustration of the "breezy apologies particular to young women wherein the apology—often mistaken by other demographics for an expression of guilt—is in fact an announcement that the speaker is about to say or do whatever she wants. 'Gonna place that just there, sorry!'"
  • After the concert, the crowd exiting the stadium becomes a de facto Take Back the Night march: "At 11 p.m. on that May evening, after the concert let out, they floated by darkened alleyways, uncowed by the prospective dangers that, were they not traveling en masse, would have forced them onto less direct, better-lit routes. There was not just safety, but joie de vivre in numbers. Marketing ploy or not, 'Girl power' had become a self-fulfilling prophecy." At least for one night.

Image source: Southern Living

2. Microphones and women's voices

One of the barriers that women pop singers and other public figures have to overcome may be sound technology itself, which is not gender-neutral. As Tina Tallon writes in "A Century of 'Shrill': How Bias in Technology Has Hurt Women’s Voices," (New Yorker, 3 September 2019), as microphone and broadcasting technologies were being developed a century ago lower frequencies were favored. Women's voices tend to be in the higher frequency ranges, and so were less intelligible unless the volume was raised—but that made them sound strident, since our ears are more sensitive to higher frequencies than lower ones. As Tallon writes, this problem has persisted: "Even today, many data-compression algorithms and bluetooth speakers disproportionately affect high frequencies and consonants, and women's voices lose definition, sounding thin and tinny." The next time a woman politician is accused of being "shrill," consider "how the design of the technology that transmits human voices has shaped this gendered invective since the dawn of the broadcast era: everything from microphones to modes of transmission have been optimized for lower voices."

Image source: Vulcan Post

3. Dating apps and data sharing

In "Wannabe" the Spice Girls sing, "If you want my future, forget my past." Forgetting the past has become virtually impossible thanks to widespread data "sharing" (i.e., selling) by web-based commercial services. Dating apps, where users share intimate information, are among the worst offenders. The Norwegian Consumer Council found that dating apps such as Grindr and OkCupid transmitted personal data to multiple corporate "partners," each of which in turn could send the data to dozens or hundreds of other companies.

As reported by Natasha Singer and Aaron Krolik in "Grindr and OkCupid Spread Personal Details, Study Says" (New York Times, 13 January 2020), the system is not limited to dating apps: app developers routinely incorporate software from ad tech firms in order to display ads to users. The ad tech firm software tracks app use, location and other data using a tracking code unique to each mobile device, and sends that information to advertisers. Even without real names, your identity and location can be determined because the same tracking code is used over multiple apps and sites.

And the data shared is sometimes highly personal:
Grindr, the world’s most popular gay dating app, transmitted user-tracking codes and the app’s name to more than a dozen companies, essentially tagging individuals with their sexual orientation. . .Grindr also sent a user's location to multiple companies, which may then share that data with many other businesses, the report said. When The New York Times tested Grindr's Android app, it shared precise latitude and longitude information with five companies.
Being involuntarily outed can still have harmful or fatal consequences in many places. And it's impossible to determine exactly where the data is going:
Grindr's app, for instance, includes software from MoPub, Twitter's ad service, which can collect the app's name and a user's precise device location, the report said. MoPub in turn says it may share user data with more than 180 partner companies. One of those partners is an ad tech company owned by AT&T, which may share data with more than 1,000 "third-party providers". . .
And so on, and so on. The data is not limited to the name of the app and the user's location:
. . .the OkCupid app sent a user's ethnicity and answers to personal profile questions—like "Have you used psychedelic drugs?"—to a firm that helps companies tailor marketing messages to users. The Times found that the OkCupid site had recently posted a list of more than 300 advertising and analytics "partners" with which it may share users' information. . .
As that psychedelic drug use question suggests, data about users' medical histories and health status can be involved: "In 2018, another Norwegian nonprofit group found that [Grindr] had been broadcasting users' H.I.V. status to two mobile app service companies. Grindr subsequently announced that it had stopped the practice." The article doesn't say what remedy was proposed for all the people whose H.I.V. status was exposed without their knowledge or explicit consent before Grindr changed its practice.

Image source: ZDnet

4. Consumer surveillance and its consequences

Women of the Spice Girls generation may remember quaint pre-internet concepts like privacy. As the dating apps examples show, the consequences of the disappearance of privacy are much more serious than our potential embarrassment about the contents of our iTunes library. The vast and unprecedented appropriation of our personal data by both profit-seeking corporations and governments can determine how we are able to live our lives.

ZestFinance, a company founded by Google's former chief information officer Doug Merrill, considers that "all data is credit data." In "Stained in Red" (London Review of Books, 4 April 2019), a review of Josh Lauer's Creditworthy: A history of consumer surveillance and financial identity in America (2018), Rachel O'Dwyer writes that ZestFinance compiles thousands of details about our technology use and online activity, and has incorporated them into an algorithm that is used to instantly determine our creditworthiness:
These details include the content of text messages; online browsing behaviour and purchases; education history; records of online money transfers; data use; phone type; and activity on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. . .For example, people who fill out the ZestFinance loan application in capital letters are deemed to be riskier borrowers than those who write in a combination of upper and lower case. . .Others have discovered that such categories as browser type and screen resolution play a role in determining credit scores. . .And a mathematical 'score' is harder to contest than a decision made by a person.
Particularly a score generated by a proprietary algorithm where the data used to generate the score, together with the inner workings of the algorithm itself, are a trade secret.
The maths behind the assessment of our worth is becoming harder to untangle and dispute at the very time it is playing an increasing part in shaping our future. Facebook is experimenting with a 'trustworthiness score' for its more than two billion users. And the Chinese government is developing a 'social credit' system that will assign a score to each of its 1.4 billion citizens based on an aggregation of economic and social factors. While it remains unclear what kinds of 'social' behaviour will be rewarded or penalised (one journalist wondered whether women would be penalised for remaining single or not having children), the government has made it clear that poor scores will affect people’s access to public transport, employment and basic social services.
John Lanchester wrote in his LRB article about Facebook, "You are the product," that "Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens." Intrusive governments are doing their best to catch up.

5. Facial recognition software and bias

As algorithms make more and more decisions affecting fundamental aspects of people's lives we should be very concerned about their built-in biases. As O'Dwyer writes,
. . .studies of machine learning algorithms show that they mirror historical forms of racial, economic and gender discrimination. Critics point to the inherent biases of those who write the code, and note that the machine learns from historical data riddled with prejudiced inferences. . .this automated bias could have a huge impact.
A case in point is ImageNet, a database of over 14 million photos downloaded from the Internet by Stanford researchers. In "'Nerd,' 'Nonsmoker,' 'Wrongdoer': How Might A.I. Label You?" (New York Times, 20 September 2019), Cade Metz reports,
ImageNet was a way of training A.I. systems and judging their accuracy. By analyzing various kinds of images—such as flowers, dogs and cars—these systems learned to identify them.

What was rarely discussed among communities knowledgeable about A.I. is that ImageNet also contained photos of thousands of people, each sorted into their own categories. This included straightforward tags like "cheerleaders," "welders" and "Boy Scouts" as well as highly charged labels like "failure, loser, non-starter, unsuccessful person" and "slattern, slut, slovenly woman, trollop". . .
ImageNet is just one of the many data sets that has been widely used and reused by tech giants, start-ups and academic labs as they trained various forms of artificial intelligence. Any flaws in these data sets have already spread far and wide. . .The fundamental truth is that A.I. learns from humans—and humans are biased creatures. "The way we classify images is a product of our worldview,"[artist Trevor Paglen] said. "Any kind of classification system is always going to reflect the values of the person doing the classifying."

Image source: Minnesota Public Radio

6. A.I. and white-collar jobs

There's one way in which developing A.I. technology does not discriminate: it may replace people who have higher-income creative or managerial jobs as well as those doing lower-wage repetitive manual labor. Stanford graduate student Michael Webb was able to show correlations between declines in employment and wages in sectors where the language in technology patents could be cross-referenced with descriptions of occupational tasks used by the Department of Labor. As Sheelah Kolhatkar writes in "Could New Research on A.I. and White-Collar Jobs Finally Bring About a Strong Policy Response?" (New Yorker, 14 January 2020), Webb's latest analysis of patents
found them using verbs such as "recognize," "detect," "control," "determine," and "classify," and nouns like "patterns," "images," and "abnormalities." The jobs that appear to face intrusion by these newer patents are different from the more manual jobs that were affected by industrial robots: intelligent machines may, for example, take on more tasks currently conducted by physicians, such as detecting cancer, making prognoses, and interpreting the results of retinal scans, as well as those of office workers that involve making determinations based on data, such as detecting fraud or investigating insurance claims. . .The findings suggest that nurses, doctors, managers, accountants, financial advisers, computer programmers, and salespeople might see significant shifts in their work. . .(Notably, jobs at the very top of the earning scale, such as C.E.O., are not shown to be deeply changed.) 
(Notably, we might say instead, the only people who seem to be insulated from the effects of A.I. are those who make decisions about its deployment.)

Image source: Business Insider

7. What are we there for?

Technologies have consequences not only for individual lives, but for whole societies. A question that may have occurred to you: why, if the United States exports almost as much oil as it imports, has it spent so many years, so many lives, and so much of its wealth to maintain troops in the Middle East? Tom Stevenson, in "What are we there for?" (London Review of Books, 9 May 2019):
United States Central Command is based at al-Udeid airbase in Qatar, the largest air force base in the world, with more than ten thousand US troops. Bahrain is the permanent dock of the Fifth Fleet, as well as having a US airbase and seven thousand US military personnel. The US has five thousand permanent troops, two naval bases and an airbase in the United Arab Emirates. In Kuwait, it has access to three army bases and an air force base. In Oman, it has four airbases and two naval bases. In Iraq, the US still has troops stationed at al-Asad airbase north-west of Baghdad. . .In Saudi Arabia itself, the US operates a military training mission based in Eskan village. Only Iran, which broke away from the US system in 1979, houses no American military bases.
The vast US military presence is certainly not there to promote democratic values: Qatar, Oman, and Saudi Arabia are all hereditary absolute monarchies, and UAE is a federation of hereditary absolute monarchies. No, the answer is exactly what you think it is—oil—but not because of US consumption. The US exports nearly five times as much oil as it imports from Persian Gulf countries. Together those countries account for only 16% of US oil imports, while Canada alone provides 43%. But, strangely, there aren't any US military bases in Canada.

Military control of Middle Eastern oil gives the US, as the head of the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs division stated in 1945, "a stupendous source of strategic power" over oil-importing countries. The leading oil-importing country is now China; according to one source, in 2018 China's oil imports from states bordering the Persian Gulf amounted to over $100 billion, or over 40% of the country's total.
Three-quarters of Gulf oil exports go to Asian economies, and the five largest importers of gas from Qatar are Japan, South Korea, India, China and Singapore. US dominance in the Gulf gives it decisive strategic influence over any potential Asian rival. 
That's not the only benefit for the US. "Saudi Arabia and the other five members of the Gulf Co-operation Council are collectively the world’s largest buyer of military equipment by a big margin," most from the US. "The deals are highly profitable for Western arms companies. . .Arms sales are useful principally as a way of bonding the Gulf monarchies to the Anglo-American military. Proprietary systems—from fighter jets to tanks and surveillance equipment—ensure lasting dependence, because training, maintenance and spare parts can be supplied only by the source country."

There's more: as David Spiro has documented in The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony (1999), in the early 1970s Treasury Secretary William Simon made the US guarantees of military "protection" to Saudi and Arab Gulf states "conditional on the use of oil sales to shore up the dollar. Under Simon’s deal, Saudi Arabia agreed to buy massive tranches of US Treasury bonds in secret off-market transactions. In addition, the US compelled Saudi Arabia and the other OPEC countries to set oil prices in dollars, and for many years Gulf oil shipments could be paid for only in dollars." After the end of the gold standard in 1971, "a de facto oil standard replaced gold, assuring the dollar’s value and pre-eminence."

Could one reason for US technological and political foot-dragging on sustainable alternative energy sources be the strategic and economic leverage it enjoys due to the control of fossil fuels? Just asking. . .

Speaking of global technological consequences:

Image source: The Guardian

8. The data are "irrefutable."

The burning of fossil fuels, of course, is the major reason for the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which in 2018 averaged over 407 parts per million (ppm); in May 2019 it was measured at 414.7 ppm. The last time carbon levels were this high was 3 million years ago, when seas were 50-80 feet higher and average temperatures were at least 2-3 degrees Celsius hotter.

Average surface air temperatures for the first 5 months of 2019 put it on track to be the third warmest year since 1880, often taken as the baseline year for comparison of global climate records. The warmest year was 2016, and the second-warmest was 2015. In fact, the past five years are the hottest on record; if the 2019 numbers hold up, nine of the ten hottest are from the past ten years, and all are from the past two decades.

But average surface air temperatures are not the best measure of planetary warming, and the news is actually worse than these disastrous statistics would indicate. As Damian Carrington writes in "Ocean temperatures hit record high as rate of heating accelerates" (The Guardian, 13 January 2020), about a new study performed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other collaborators,
The world’s oceans are the clearest measure of the climate emergency because they absorb more than 90% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel burning, forest destruction and other human activities.
"The oceans are really what tells you how fast the Earth is warming," said Prof John Abraham at the University of St Thomas, in Minnesota, US, and one of the team behind the new analysis. "Using the oceans, we see a continued, uninterrupted and accelerating warming rate of planet Earth. This is dire news."
"We found that 2019 was not only the warmest year on record, it displayed the largest single-year increase of the entire decade, a sobering reminder that human-caused heating of our planet continues unabated," said Prof Michael Mann, at Penn State University, US, and another team member.
The average rate of ocean heating since 1987 is four and half times greater than the average rate over the previous three decades. Warmer oceans cause bigger and more destructive storms, more intense droughts, higher sea levels and the accelerated melting of sea ice. Warmer oceans hold less oxygen, impacting marine biodiversity and threatening the marine food supply. And finally, warmer oceans are less able to absorb carbon dioxide, increasing the amount that remains in the atmosphere, which further increases warming.
"The data we have is irrefutable, but we still have hope because humans can still take action," [Abraham] said. "We just haven’t taken meaningful action yet."
Actually, Prof. Abraham is wrong. We have taken meaningful action, just in the wrong direction: we've increased the rate at which we are pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the 1960s atmospheric carbon dioxide was increasing by about 0.6 ppm each year. In the decade following James Hansen's 1988 Congressional testimony warning about carbon dioxide and climate change, the rate averaged 1.3 ppm. In the first decade of the 2000s the average increase was 2.0 ppm; in 2017 it was 2.2 ppm; in 2018 it was 2.5 ppm. If through heroic efforts we are able to hold the annual increase at this level instead of increasing it still further, average atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will surpass 500 ppm 37 years from now. And this is a highly optimistic scenario; the latest (2012) edition of the OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050 anticipates crossing that threshold much sooner, sometime around 2040.

To bring this post full circle, if either scenario unfolds the Spice Girls are likely to still be around to see it. The oldest, Geri Halliwell, would turn 68 in 2040, and 85 in 2057. When she was born in August 1972 the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide was 326 ppm; within her lifetime it is likely to increase by more than 50%. The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were above 500 ppm was 25 million years ago. As the OECD report states, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide to such levels "might also exceed some critical 'tipping-points', causing dramatic natural changes [such as the release of methane from thawing tundra or the disappearance of ice from the Arctic in summer] that could have catastrophic or irreversible outcomes for natural systems and society."

Update 4 June 2020:  The data are in, and 2019 exceeded expectations: it was actually the second hottest year on record, after 2016. Ocean heat content was the highest ever recorded, and both the Arctic and Antarctic oceans recorded their second-smallest average annual sea-ice coverage since 1979.