Injustice ex machina

There are some things I think about but struggle to articulate, especially in the heat of an argument with a friend. Cory Doctorow succinctly captures one such idea here:

Empiricism-washing is the top ideological dirty trick of technocrats everywhere: they assert that the data “doesn’t lie,” and thus all policy prescriptions based on data can be divorced from “politics” and relegated to the realm of “evidence.” This sleight of hand pretends that data can tell you what a society wants or needs — when really, data (and its analysis or manipulation) helps you to get what you want.

If you live in a country ruled by a nationalist government tending towards the ultra-nationalist, you’ve probably already encountered the first half of what Doctorow describes: the championship of data, and quantitative metrics in general, the conflation of objectivity with quantification, the overbearing focus on logic and mathematics to the point of eliding cultural and sociological influences.

Material evidence of the latter is somewhat more esoteric, yet more common in developing countries where the capitalist West’s influence vis-à-vis consumption and the (non-journalistic) media are distinctly more apparent, and which is impossible to unsee once you’ve seen it.

Notwithstanding the practically unavoidable consequences of consumerism and globalisation, the aspirations of the Indian middle and upper classes are propped up chiefly by American and European lifestyles. As a result, it becomes harder to tell the “what society needs” and the “get what you want” tendencies apart. Those developing new technologies to (among other things) enhance their profits arising from this conflation are obviously going to have a harder time seeing it and an even harder time solving for it.

Put differently, AI/ML systems – at least those in Doctorow’s conception, in the form of machines adept at “finding things that are similar to things the ML system can already model” – born in Silicon Valley have no reason to assume a history of imperialism and oppression, so the problems they are solving for are off-target by default.

But there is indeed a difference, and not infrequently the simplest way to uncover it is to check what the lower classes want. More broadly, what do the actors with the fewest degrees of freedom in your organisational system want, assuming all actors already want more freedom?

They – as much as others, and at the risk of treating them as a monolithic group – may not agree that roads need to be designed for public transportation (instead of cars), that the death penalty should be abolished or that fragmenting a forest is wrong but they are likely to determine how a public distribution system, a social security system or a neighbourhood policing system can work better.

What they want is often what society needs – and although this might predict the rise of populism, and even anti-intellectualism, it is nonetheless a sort of pragmatic final check when it has become entirely impossible to distinguish between the just and the desirable courses of action. I wish I didn’t have to hedge my position with the “often” but I remain unable with my limited imagination to design a suitable workaround.

Then again, I am also (self-myopically) alert to the temptation of technological solutionism, and acknowledge that discussions and negotiations are likely easier, even if messier, to govern with than ‘one principle to rule them all’.

The rationalists’ eclipse

The annular solar eclipse over South India on December 26 provided sufficient cause for casual and/or inchoate rationalism to make a rare public appearance – rarer than the average person who had decided to stay indoors for the duration of the event thanks to superstitious beliefs. Scientists and science communicators organised or participated in public events where they had arranged for special (i.e. protective) viewing equipment and created enough space for multiple people to gather and socialise.

However, some of these outings, spilling over into the social media, also included actions and narratives endeavouring to counter superstitions but overreaching and stabbing at the heart of non-scientific views of the world.

The latter term – ‘non-scientific’ – has often been used pejoratively but is in fact far from deserving of derision or, worse, pity. The precepts of organised religion encompass the most prominent non-scientific worldview but more than our tragic inability to imagine that these two magisteria could exist in anything but opposition to each other, the bigger misfortune lies with presuming science and religion are all there is. The non-scientific weltanschauung includes other realms, so to speak, especially encompassing beliefs that organised religion and its political economy hegemonise. Examples include the traditions of various tribal populations around the world, especially in North America, Latin America, Africa, Central and South Asia, and Australia.

There is an obvious difference between superstitious beliefs devised to suppress a group or population and the framework of tribal beliefs within which their knowledge of the world is enmeshed. It should be possible to delegitimise the former without also delegitimising the latter. Assuming the charitable view that some find it hard to discern this boundary, the simplest way to not trip over it is to acknowledge that most scientific and non-scientific beliefs can peacefully coexist in individual minds and hearts. And that undermining this remarkably human ability is yet another kind of proselytisation.

Obviously this is harder to realise in what we conceive as the day-to-day responsibilities of science communication, but that doesn’t mean we must put up with a lower bar for the sort of enlightenment we want India to stand for fifty or hundred years from now. Organising public eat-a-thons during a solar eclipse, apparently to dispel the superstitious view that consuming foods when the Sun has been so occluded is bad for health, is certainly not a mature view of the problem.

In fact, such heavy-handed attempts to drive home the point that “science is right” and “whatever else you think is wrong” are effects of a distal cause: a lack of sympathetic concern for the wellbeing of a people – which is also symptomatic of a half-formed, even egotistical, rationalism entirely content with its own welfare. Rescuing people from ideas that would enslave them could temporarily empower them but transplanting them to a world where knowledgeability rules like a tyrant, unconcerned with matters he cannot describe, is only more of the same by a different name.

B.R. Ambedkar and E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, a.k.a. Periyar, wanted to dismantle organised religion because they argued that such oppressive complexes pervaded its entire body. Their ire was essentially directed against autocratic personal governance that expected obedience through faith. In India, unless you’re a scientist and/or have received a good education, and can read English well enough to access the popular and, if need be, the technical literature, science is also reduced to a system founded on received knowledge and ultimately faith.

There is a hegemony of science as well. Beyond the mythos of its own cosmology (to borrow Paul Feyerabend’s quirky turn of phrase in Against Method), there is also the matter of who controls knowledge production and utilisation. In Caliban and the Witch (1998), Sylvia Federici traces the role of the bourgeoisie in expelling beliefs in magic and witchcraft in preindustrial Europe only to prepare the worker’s body to accommodate the new rigours of labour under capitalism. She writes, “Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalisation of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action. ‘Magic kills industry,’ lamented Francis Bacon…”.

To want to free another human from whatever shackles bind them is the sort of virtuous aspiration that is only weakened by momentary or superficial focus. In this setup, change – if such change is required at all costs – must be enabled from all sides, instead of simply a top-down reformatory jolt delivered by pictures of a bunch of people breaking their fast under an eclipsed Sun.

Effective science communication could change the basis on which people make behavioural decisions but to claim “all myths vanished” (as one science communicator I respect and admire put it) is disturbing. Perhaps in this one instance, the words were used in throwaway fashion, but how many people even recognise a need to moderate their support for science this way?

Myths, as narratives that harbour traditional knowledge and culturally unique perspectives on the natural universe, should not vanish but be preserved. A belief in the factuality of this or that story could become transformed by acknowledging that such stories are in fact myths and do not provide a rational basis for certain behavioural attitudes, especially ones that might serve to disempower — as well as that the use of the scientific method is a productive, maybe even gainful, way to discover the world.

But using science communication as a tool to dismantle myths, instead of tackling superstitious rituals that (to be lazily simplistic) suppress the acquisition of potentially liberating knowledge, is to create an opposition that precludes the peaceful coexistence of multiple knowledge systems. In this setting, science communication perpetuates the misguided view that science is the only useful way to acquire and organise our knowledge — which is both ahistorical and injudicious.

Accumulation then philanthropy

Peter Woit’s review of a new book about Jim Simons, the mathematician and capitalist who set up the Simons Foundation, which funds math and physics research around the world but principally in the West to the tune of $300 million a year, raises an intriguing question only to supersede its moral quandaries by the political rise of Donald Trump in the US. To quote select portions from the review:

In the case of the main money-maker, their Medallion fund, it’s hard to argue that the short-term investment strategies they use provide important market liquidity. The fund is closed to outside investors, and makes money purely personally for those involved with RenTech, not for institutions like pension funds. So, the social impact of RenTech will come down to that of what Simons and a small number of other mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists decide to do with the trading profits.

Simons himself has engaged in some impressive philanthropy, but one perhaps should weigh that against the effects of the money spent by Robert Mercer, the co-CEO he left the company to. Mercer and his daughter have a lot of responsibility for some of the most destructive recent attacks on US democracy (e.g. Breitbart and the Cambridge Analytica 2016 election story). In the historical evaluation of whether the world would have been better off with or without RenTech, the fact that RenTech money may have been a determining factor in bringing Trump and those around him to power is going to weigh heavily on one side.

This may be the Simons Foundation’s fate but what of other wealthy bodies that accumulate capital by manipulating various financial instruments – the way Jim Simons did – and then donate all or part of them to research? Bill Gates was complicit, as were his compatriots at Silicon Valley, in the rise of techno-optimism and its attendant politics and fallacies, but the foundation he and his wife run today is becoming instrumental in the global fight against malaria. Gates’s Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen has a similar story, as did Jeffrey Epstein, as do many other ‘venture capitalists’ who had to accumulate capital – a super-sin of our times – before redistributing it philanthropically to various causes, benign and otherwise.

If these various organisations hadn’t acquired their wealth in the first place, would their later philanthropy have been necessary? A follow-up: There’s an implicit tendency to assume the research that these foundations fund can only be a good but is it really? Aside from the question of science’s, and scientists’, relationship with the rest of society, I wonder how differently research efforts would be spread around the world if the world had been spared the accumulation-then-philanthropy exercise. If there is a straightforward argument for why there’s likely to be no difference, I’m all ears; but if such an argument doesn’t exist, perhaps there’s an injustice there we should address.

Exploring what it means to be big

Reading a Nature report titled ‘Step aside CERN: There’s a cheaper way to break open physics‘ (January 10, 2018) brought to mind something G. Rajasekaran, former head of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, told me once: that the future – as the Nature report also touts – belongs to tabletop particle accelerators.

Rajaji (as he is known) said he believed so because of the simple realisation that particle accelerators could only get so big before they’d have to get much, much bigger to tell us anything more. On the other hand, tabletop setups based on laser wakefield acceleration, which could accelerate electrons to higher energies across just a few centimetres, would allow us to perform slightly different experiments such that their outcomes will guide future research.

The question of size is an interesting one (and almost personal: I’m 6’4” tall and somewhat heavy, which means I’ve to start by moving away from seeming intimidating in almost all new relationships). For most of history, humans’ ideas of better included something becoming bigger. From what I can see – which isn’t really much – the impetus for this is founded in five things:

1. The laws of classical physics: They are, and were, multiplicative. To do more or to do better (which for a long time meant doing more), the laws had to be summoned in larger magnitudes and in more locations. This has been true from the machines of industrialisation to scientific instruments to various modes of construction and transportation. Some laws also foster inverse relationships that straightforwardly encourage devices to be bigger to be better.

2. Capitalism, rather commerce in general: Notwithstanding social necessities, bigger often implied better the same way a sphere of volume 4 units has a smaller surface area than four spheres of volume 1 unit each. So if your expenditure is pegged to the surface area – and it often is – then it’s better to pack 400 people on one airplane instead of flying four airplanes with 100 people in each.

3. Sense of self: A sense of our own size and place in the universe, as seemingly diminutive creatures living their lives out under the perennial gaze of the vast heavens. From such a point of view, a show of power and authority would obviously have meant transcending the limitations of our dimensions and demonstrating to others that we’re capable of devising ‘ultrastructures’ that magnify our will, to take us places we only thought the gods could go and achieve simultaneity of effect only the gods could achieve. (And, of course, for heads of state to swing longer dicks at each other.)

4. Politics: Engineers building a tabletop detector and engineers building a detector weighing 50,000 tonnes will obviously run into different kinds of obstacles. Moreover, big things are easier to stake claims over, to discuss, dispute or dislodge. It affects more people even before it has produced its first results.

5. Natural advantages: An example that comes immediately to mind is social networks – not Facebook or Twitter but the offline ones that define cultures and civilisations. Such networks afford people an extra degree of adaptability and improve chances of survival by allowing people to access resources (including information/knowledge) that originated elsewhere. This can be as simple as a barter system where people exchange food for gold, or as complex as a bashful Tamilian staving off alienation in California by relying on the support of the Tamil community there.

(The inevitable sixth impetus is tradition. For example, its equation with growth has given bigness pride of place in business culture, so much so that many managers I’ve met wanted to set up bigger media houses even when it might have been more appropriate to go smaller.)

Against this backdrop of impetuses working together, Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes – a book about how our biological experience of reality is mediated by microbes – becomes a saga of reconciliation with a world much smaller, not bigger, yet more consequential. To me, that’s an idea as unintuitive as, say, being able to engineer materials with fantastical properties by sporadically introducing contaminants into their atomic lattice. It’s the sort of smallness whose individual parts amount to very close to nothing, whose sum amounts to something, but the human experience of which is simply monumental.

And when we find that such smallness is able to move mountains, so to speak, it disrupts our conception of what it means to be big. This is as true of microbes as it is of quantum mechanics, as true of elementary particles as it is of nano-electromechanical systems. This is one of the more understated revolutions that happened in the 20th century: the decoupling of bigger and better, a sort of virtualisation of betterment that separated it from additive scale and led to the proliferation of ‘trons’.

I like to imagine what gave us tabletop accelerators also gave us containerised software and a pan-industrial trend towards personalisation – although this would be philosophy, not history, because it’s a trend we compose in hindsight. But in the same vein, both hardware (to run software) and accelerators first became big, riding on the back of the classical and additive laws of physics, then hit some sort of technological upper limit (imposed by finite funds and logistical limitations) and then bounced back down when humankind developed tools to manipulate nature at the mesoscopic scale.

Of course, some would also argue that tabletop particle accelerators wouldn’t be possible, or deemed necessary, if the city-sized ones didn’t exist first, that it was the failure of the big ones that drove the development of the small ones. And they would argue right. But as I said, that’d be history; it’s the philosophy that seems more interesting here.

Free market capitalism is relatively new in human history. Prior to the rise of capitalism, the way people amassed great wealth was by looting, plundering and enslaving their fellow man. Capitalism made it possible to become wealthy by serving one’s fellow man.

Walter E. Williams (via donttreadonvirginia)

To survive, capitalism must be accompanied by accountability.