Sunday, February 8, 2015

Science Pursuing Profit

(Sorry about the odd formatting. I was trying to make the long quotes clearer.)

The following is a rather long quote from Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry"

"One used to hear a great deal about 'pure science.' The universities, one was given to understand, were full of scientists who were disinterestedly pursuing truth. 'Pure science' did not permit the scientist to ask so crude and pragmatic a question as why this or that truth was being pursued; it was just assumed, not only that to know the truth was good, but that, once the truth was discovered it would somehow be used for good. This is a singularly naive view of science (as it would be of any human enterprise), but it survived at least into the early days of space exploration, when a lot of aficionados of so-called high technology assumed that NASA existed to sponsor voyages of pure discovery: to learn whatever might be learned, to take pictures of the earth and other planets, and to provide extremely expensive mystical experiences to astronauts. Some people believed that this enterprise was really a sort of spiritual quest, and would always remain above the gross concerns of, for example, the military-industrial complex. It would promote instead renewed tenderness toward our 'planet' by such devices as pictures of half of said planet, taken at a distance that reduced it to a blue bauble something like a Christmas tree ornament. In our foolish insistence on substituting technology for vision, we forget that we are not the first to have seen "the whole earth" from such a distance. Dante saw it (Paradiso xxii, 133-154) from a higher level of human accomplishment, and at far less economic and ecological cost, several hundred years before NASA.
The possibility of pure science was significantly diminished, surely, by the time early scientists had invented metallurgy and then gunpowder, and it diminished steadily from then on. By now, when the possibilities of application have so enormously multiplied and the greed of corporations has grown so elaborate that they wish to patent discoveries before they have been discovered, it appears safest to assume that all sciences are 'applied.' Science may at times have been altruistically applied. But even such nominally altruistic sciences as medicine and plant-breeding have now become so deeply interpenetrated with economics and politics that their motives are at best mixed with, and at worst replaced by, the motives of corporations and governments."

I don't agree with all of the above, primarily that people thought NASA missions ever were intended to promote pure science. They were a reaction to Sputnik and the cold war, after all. But Berry's thesis that almost all science now is "applied" and corrupted by the profit or military motive strikes a chord with me.

Two articles from the New Yorker in the past couple weeks have disappointingly confirmed this point. In both, young scientifically-gifted computer scientists quickly turn from altruistic research to entrepreneurship and then abandonment of their better motives toward profit.

In the January 5, 2015 issue is an article called "The Virologist". At first I thought it would have something to do with viruses that causes illnesses. But this article was about an entrepreneur who knows how to make web pages "go viral."

The man, Emerson Spartz (now age 27), realized at a young age that he had a knack for identifying how to attract eyes to content, and he decided that eyes=influence. "The more influence you had, the more impact you could create... The ability to make things go viral felt like the closest that we could get to having a human superpower." He elaborated, "I realized that if you could make ideas go viral, you could tip elections, start movements, revolutionize industries." One of his employees agreed and added a moral aspect, "A tremendous amount of media attention means a lot of power. We're lucky that Emerson [Spartz] is inherently a good person, because if you had someone that smart who wasn't? Lord knows what would happen." And they seem to be correct, highly effective videos are recruiting young disenfranchised people around the world to leave their homes and fly to Syria to join ISIS.

But Emerson's company is relatively benign. He has used his intelligence to create a company that makes millions of dollars attracting eyes to advertising. His newest site is called Dose, as in a dose of vitamins or perhaps Vicodin. "A bored teen-ager absent-mindedly clicking links will eventually end up on a site like Dose. Sparz's goal is to make the site so 'sticky'--attention-grabbing and easy to navigate--that the teen-ager will stay for a while. Money is generated through ads--sometimes there are as many as ten on a page." But Dose doesn't create this content. The company creates algorithms that measure what is trending online. Then they steal the content, test a number of catchy headlines with another algorithm, and plaster the most successful one onto Facebook until it becomes the "hottest" viral page.

In today's world according to Spartz, "the ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it's quality. If someone wants to toil in obscurity, if that makes them happy, that's fine. Not everybody has to change the world."  Change the world to what end? True, he is spreading ideas, those that are the most banal, commercial and base.

The next article, "We Know How You Feel" (New Yorker, Jan 19, 2015) might be even more depressing because it profiles a young woman who created a company hoping to help people.

Back in the article about Mr. Spartz, Kathleen Sweeney, who teaches courses about viral media at the New School summed this trend up well. "There's a difference between 'I want to change the world' and 'I want to change the world, and along the way I want to make millions of dollars.'"

Rana el Kaliouby was an inspired, determined young woman. She made her way from Egypt to the most elite labs of MIT on pure initiative. There she worked with her mentor to investigate how computers can read human emotion. She excelled in her research and findings. She eventually hoped to develop a way for people with autism to get emotional cues from a small camera/computer device that would help them navigate the social world.

It was not long before the commercial world heard of her breakthroughs. The director of MIT's Media Lab eventually encouraged her to leave academia and build a company, Affectiva. According to the article, the director "argued that the marketplace would make the technology more robust and flexible: a device that could work for FOX could also better assist the autistic. It was possible, he said, to build a company with a 'dual bottom line'--one that not only did well but also changed people's lives."

Soon corporations were flocking hoping to spy on their employees or know how their customers are feeling. Soon the new CEO was "steering the company away from assistive technology and toward market research." An early researcher at the company was quoted in the article saying, "We began with a powerful set of products that could assist people who have a very difficult time with perceiving affect and producing affect. Then they started to emphasize only he face, to focus on advertisements, and on predicting whether someone likes a product."

Since then  the company's product Affdex has been used to test thousands of ads per year. Kaliouby works with Millward Brown, a global market research company, to record and analyze hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world on Web cams. Its programs analyze the nuances of emotion. According to the article, Kaliouby predicted that, "before long myriad devices will have an 'emotion chip' that runs constantly in the background, the way geolocation works now in phones. 'every time you pick up your phon, it gets an emotion pulse, if you like, on how you're feeling,' she said. 'In our research, we found that people check their phones ten to twelve times an hour--and so that gives this many data points of the person's experience.'"

While surfing the web, playing computer games, and logging into our digital lives, we have created an "economy of the bartered self." According to the article, in 2013 MA Representative Mike Capuano proposed the We Are Watching You Act that would let consumers know when sensing was taking place allow them to disable it. Verizon, Samsung, and an industry association began lobbying against it. He could not get a hearing for his bill.

The article ends with Kaliouby seeming to justify the shift from assistive technology to commerce her company has made.

"Kaliouby doesn't see herself returning to autism work, but she has not relinquished the idea of a dual bottom line. 'I do believe that if we have information about your emotional experiences we can help you be in a more positive mood and influence your wellness... I think there is an opportunity to build a very, very simple app that pushes out funny content or inspiring content three times a day... It can capture the content's effect on you, and then you can gain these points--these happiness points, or mood pints, or rewards--that can be turned into virtual currency. We have been in conversations with a company in that space. It is an advertising-rewards company, and its business is based on positive moments... And they monetize these moments."

Perhaps the company belongs to Emerson Spartz. But it could be any one of hundreds, perhaps thousands of startups trying to monetize and enhance our emotional experience while crowding out true community and our engagement with the natural world.

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