Category Archives: Society

Mega-buildings could become cultural bubbles

My regular readers, both of them in fact, will know I am often concerned about the dangerous growth of social media bubbles. By mid-century, thanks to upcoming materials, some cities will have a few buildings over 1km tall, possibly 10km (and a spaceport or two up to 30km high). These would be major buildings, and could create a similar problem.

A 1km building could have 200 floors, and with 100m square floors, 200 hectares of space.  Assuming half is residential space and the other half is shops, offices or services, that equates to 20,000 luxury apartments (90 sq m each) or 40,000 basic flats. That means each such building could be equivalent to a small town, with maybe 50,000 inhabitants. A 10km high mega-building, with a larger 250m side, would have 60 times more space, housing up to 300,000 people and all they need day-to-day, essentially a city.

Construction could be interesting. My thoughts are that a 10km building could be extruded from the ground using high pressure 3D printing, rather than assembled with cranes. Each floor could be fully fitted out while it is still near ground level, its apartments sold and populated, even as the building grows upward. That keeps construction costs and cash flow manageable.

My concern is that although we will have the technology to build such buildings in the 2040s, I’m not aware of much discussion about how cultures would evolve in such places, at least not outside of sci-fi (like Judge Dredd or Blade Runner). I rather hope we wouldn’t just build them first and try to solve social problems later. We really ought to have some sort of plans to make them work.

In a 100m side building, entire floors or groups of floors would likely be allocated to particular functions – residential, shopping, restaurants, businesses etc. Grouping functions sensibly reduces the total travel needed. In larger buildings, it is easier to have local shops mixed with apartments for everyday essentials, with larger malls elsewhere.

People could live almost entirely in the building, rarely needing to leave, and many might well do just that, essentially becoming institutionalized. I think these buildings will feel very different from small towns. In small towns, people still travel a lot to other places, and a feeling of geographic isolation doesn’t emerge. In a huge tower block of similar population and facilities, I don’t think people would leave as often, and many will stay inside. All they need is close by and might soon feel safe and familiar, while the external world might seem more distant, scarier. Institutionalization might not take long, a month or two of becoming used to the convenience of staying nearby while watching news of horrors going on elsewhere. Once people stop the habit of leaving the building, it could become easier to find reasons not to leave it in future.

Power structures would soon evolve – local politics would happen, criminal gangs would emerge, people would soon learn of good and bad zones. It’s possible that people might become tribal, their building and their tribe competing for external resources and funding with tribes in other mega-buildings, and their might be conflict. Knowing they are physically detached, the same bravery to attack total strangers just because they hold different views might emerge that we see on social media today. There might be cyber-wars, drone wars, IoT wars between buildings.

I’m not claiming to be a social anthropologist. I have no real idea how these buildings will work and perhaps my fears are unjustified. But even I can see some potential problems just based on what we see today, magnified for the same reasons problems get magnified on social media. Feelings of safety and anonymity can lead to some very nasty tribal behaviors. Managing diversity of opinion among people moving in would be a significant challenge, maintaining it might be near impossible. With the sort of rapid polarization we’ve already seen today thanks to social media bubbles, physically contained communities would surely see those same forces magnified everyday.

Building a 10km mega-building will become feasible in the 2040s, and increased urban populations will make them an attractive option for planners. Managing them and making them work socially might be a much bigger challenge.

 

 

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Hull in 2050

I wrote a piece for KCOM on what we can expect to feature in the city by 2050.

KCOM illustration

Highlights and KCOM commentary at: https://www.kcomhome.com/news/articles/welcome-to-the-hull-of-the-future/

If you want my full article, they have allowed me to share it. Here is a pdf of my original article, but it’s just text – I can’t do nice graphics:

 

Hull 2050

They also have a great project called We Made Ourselves Over, set in 2097. Here’s one of their graphics from that:

Graphic from http://wemadeourselvesover.com/

The age of dignity

I just watched a short video of robots doing fetch and carry jobs in an Alibaba distribution centre:

http://uk.businessinsider.com/inside-alibaba-smart-warehouse-robots-70-per-cent-work-technology-logistics-2017-9

There are numerous videos of robots in various companies doing tasks that used to be done by people. In most cases those tasks were dull, menial, drudgery tasks that treated people as machines. Machines should rightly do those tasks. In partnership with robots, AI is also replacing some tasks that used to be done by people. Many are worried about increasing redundancy but I’m not; I see a better world. People should instead be up-skilled by proper uses of AI and robotics and enabled to do work that is more rewarding and treats them with dignity. People should do work that uses their human skills in ways that they find rewarding and fulfilling. People should not have to do work they find boring or demeaning just because they have to earn money. They should be able to smile at work and rest at the end of the day knowing that they have helped others or made the world a better place. If we use AI, robots and people in the right ways, we can build that world.

Take a worker in a call centre. Automation has already replaced humans in most simple transactions like paying a bill, checking a balance or registering a new credit card. It is hard to imagine that anyone ever enjoyed doing that as their job. Now, call centre workers mostly help people in ways that allow them to use their personalities and interpersonal skills, being helpful and pleasant instead of just typing data into a keyboard. It is more enjoyable and fulfilling for the caller, and presumably for the worker too, knowing they genuinely helped someone’s day go a little better. I just renewed my car insurance. I phoned up to cancel the existing policy because it had increased in price too much. The guy at the other end of the call was very pleasant and helpful and met me half way on the price difference, so I ended up staying for another year. His company is a little richer, I was a happier customer, and he had a pleasant interaction instead of having to put up with an irate customer and also the job satisfaction from having converted a customer intending to leave into one happy to stay. The AI at his end presumably gave him the information he needed and the limits of discount he was permitted to offer. Success. In billions of routine transactions like that, the world becomes a little happier and just as important, a little more dignified. There is more dignity in helping someone than in pushing a button.

Almost always, when AI enters a situation, it replaces individual tasks that used to take precious time and that were not very interesting to do. Every time you google something, a few microseconds of AI saves you half a day in a library and all those half days add up to a lot of extra time every year for meeting colleagues, human interactions, learning new skills and knowledge or even relaxing. You become more human and less of a machine. Your self-actualisation almost certainly increases in one way or another and you become a slightly better person.

There will soon be many factories and distribution centres that have few or no people at all, and that’s fine. It reduces the costs of making material goods so average standard of living can increase. A black box economy that has automated mines or recycling plants extracting raw materials and uses automated power plants to convert them into high quality but cheap goods adds to the total work available to add value; in other words it increases the size of the economy. Robots can make other robots and together with AI, they could make all we need, do all the fetching and carrying, tidying up, keeping it all working, acting as willing servants in every role we want them in. With greater economic wealth and properly organised taxation, which will require substantial change from today, people could be freed to do whatever fulfills them. Automation increases average standard of living while liberating people to do human interaction jobs, crafts, sports, entertainment, leading, inspiring, teaching, persuading, caring and so on, creating a care economy. 

Each person knows what they are good at, what they enjoy. With AI and robot assistance, they can more easily make that their everyday activity. AI could do their company set-up, admin, billing, payments, tax, payroll – all the crap that makes being an entrepreneur a pain in the ass and stops many people pursuing their dreams.  Meanwhile they would do that above a very generous welfare net. Many of us now are talking about the concept of universal basic income, or citizen wage. With ongoing economic growth at the average rate of the last few decades, the global economy will be between twice and three times as big as today in the 2050s. Western countries could pay every single citizen a basic wage equivalent to today’s average wage, and if they work or run a company, they can earn more.

We will have an age where material goods are high quality, work well and are cheap to buy, and recycled in due course to minimise environmental harm. Better materials, improved designs and techniques, higher efficiency and land productivity and better recycling will mean that people can live with higher standards of living in a healthier environment. With a generous universal basic income, they will not have to worry about paying their bills. And doing only work that they want to do that meets their self-actualisation needs, everyone can live a life of happiness and dignity.

Enough of the AI-redundancy alarmism. If we elect good leaders who understand the options ahead, we can build a better world, for everyone. We can make real the age of dignity.

Tips for surviving the future

Challenging times lie ahead, but stress can be lessened by being prepared. Here are my top tips, with some explanation so you can decide whether to accept them.

1 Adaptability is more important than specialization

In a stable environment, being the most specialized means you win most of the time in your specialist field because all your skill is concentrated there.

However, in a fast-changing environment, which is what you’ll experience for the rest of your life, if you are too specialized, you are very likely to find you are best in a filed that no longer exists, or is greatly diminished in size. If you make sure you are more adaptable, then you’ll find it easier to adapt to a new area so your career won’t be damaged when you are forced to change field slightly. Adaptability comes at a price – you will find it harder to be best in your field and will have to settle for 2nd or 3rd much of the time, but you’ll still be lucratively employed when No 1 has been made redundant.

2 Interpersonal, human, emotional skills are more important than knowledge

You’ve heard lots about artificial intelligence (AI) and how it is starting to do to professional knowledge jobs what the steam engine once did to heavy manual work. Some of what you hear is overstated. Google search is a simple form of AI. It has helped everyone do more with their day. It effectively replaced a half day searching for information in a library with a few seconds typing, but nobody has counted how many people it made redundant, because it hasn’t. It up-skilled everyone, made them more effective, more valuable to their employer. The next generation of AI may do much the same with most employees, up-skilling them to do a better job than they were previously capable of, giving them better job satisfaction and their employer better return. Smart employers will keep most of their staff, only getting rid of those entirely replaceable by technology. But some will take the opportunity to reduce costs, increase margins, and many new companies simply won’t employ as many people in similar jobs, so some redundancy is inevitable. The first skills to go are simple administration and simple physical tasks, then more complex admin or physical stuff, then simple managerial or professional tasks, then higher managerial and professional tasks. The skills that will be automated last are those that rely on first hand experience of understanding of and dealing with other people. AI can learn some of that and will eventually become good at it, but that will take a long time. Even then, many people will prefer to deal with another person than a machine, however smart and pleasant it is.

So interpersonal skills, human skills, emotional skills, caring skills, leadership and motivational skills, empathetic skills, human judgement skills, teaching and training skills will be harder to replace. They also tend to be ones that can easily transfer between companies and even sectors. These will therefore be the ones that are most robust against technology impact. If you have these in good shape, you’ll do just fine. Your company may not need you any more one day, but another will.

I called this the Care Economy when I first started writing and lecturing about it 20-odd years ago. I predicted it would start having an affect mid teen years of this century and I got that pretty accurate I think. There is another side that is related but not the same:

3 People will still value human skill and talent just because it’s human

If you buy a box of glasses from your local supermarket, they probably cost very little and are all identical. If you buy some hand-made crystal, it costs a lot more, even though every glass is slightly different. You could call that shoddy workmanship compared to a machine. But you know that the person who made it trained for many years to get a skill level you’d never manage, so you actually value them far more, and are happy to pay accordingly. If you want to go fast, you could get in your car, but you still admire top athletes because they can do their sport far better than you. They started by having great genes for sure, but then also worked extremely hard and suffered great sacrifice over many years to get to that level. In the future, when robots can do any physical task more accurately and faster than people, you will still value crafts and still enjoy watching humans compete. You’ll prefer real human comedians and dancers and singers and musicians and artists. Talent and skill isn’t valued because of the specification of the end result, they are valued because they are measured on the human scale, and you identify closely with that. It isn’t even about being a machine. Gorillas are stronger, cheetahs are faster, eagles have better eyesight and cats have faster reflexes than you. But they aren’t human so you don’t care. You will always measure yourself and others by human scales and appreciate them accordingly.

4 Find hobbies that you love and devote time to developing them

As this care economy and human skills dominance grows in importance, people will also find that AI and robotics helps them in their own hobbies, arts and crafts, filling in skill gaps, improving proficiency. A lot of people will find their hobbies can become semi-professional. At the same time, we’ll be seeing self-driving cars and drones making local delivery far easier and cheaper, and AI will soon make business and tax admin easy too. That all means that barriers to setting up a small business will fall through the floor, while the market for personalized, original products made my people will increase, especially local people. You’ll be able to make arts and crafts, jam or cakes, grow vegetables, make clothes or special bags or whatever, and easily sell them. Also at the same time, automation will be making everyday things cheaper, while expanding the economy, so the welfare floor will be raised, and you could probably manage just fine with a small extra income. Government is also likely to bring in some sort of citizen wage or to encourage such extra entrepreneurial activity without taxing it away, because they also have a need to deal with the social consequences of automation. So it will all probably come together quite well. If the future means you can make extra money or even a full income by doing a hobby you love, there isn’t much to dislike there.

5 You need to escape from your social media bubble

If you watch the goings on anywhere in the West today, you must notice that the Left and the Right don’t seem to get along any more. Each has become very intolerant of the other, treating them more like enemy aliens than ordinary neighbors. A lot of that is caused by people only being exposed to views they agree with. We call that social media bubbles, and they are extremely dangerous. The recent USA trouble is starting to look like some folks want a re-run of the Civil War. I’ve blogged lots about this topic and won’t do it again now except to say that you need to expose yourself to a wide subsection of society. You need to read paper and magazines and blogs, and watch TV or videos from all side of the political spectrum, not just those you agree with, not just those that pat you on the back every day and tell you that you’re right and it is all the other lot’s fault. If you don’t; if you only expose yourself to one side because you find the other side distasteful, then I can’t say this loud enough: You are part of the problem. Get out of your safe space and your social media tribe, expose yourself to the whole of society, not just one tribe. See that there are lots of different views out there but it doesn’t mean the rest are all nasty. Almost everyone is actually quite nice and almost everyone wants a fairer world, an end to exploitation, peace, tolerance and eradication of disease and poverty. The differences are almost all in the world model that they use to figure out the best way to achieve it. Lefties tend to opt for idealistic theoretical models and value the intention behind it, right-wingers tend to be pragmatic and go for what they think works in reality, valuing the outcome. It is actually possible to have best friends who you disagree with. I don’t often agree with any of mine. If you feel too comfortable in your bubble to leave, remember this: your market is only half the population at best , you’re excluding the other half, or even annoying them so they become enemies rather than neutral. If you stay in a bubble, you are damaging your own future, and helping to endanger the whole of society.

6 Don’t worry

There are lots of doom-mongers out there, and I’d be the first to admit that there are many dangers ahead. But if you do the things above, there probably isn’t much more you can do. You can moan and demonstrate and get angry or cry in the corner, but how would that benefit you? Usually when you analyse things long enough from all angles, you realize that the outcome of many of the big political battles is pretty much independent of who wins.  Politicians usually have far less choice than they want you to believe and the big forces win regardless of who is in charge. So there isn’t much point in worrying about it, it will probably all come out fine in the end. Don’t believe me. Take the biggest UK issue right now: Brexit. We are leaving. Does it matter? No. Why? Well, the EU was always going to break up anyway. Stresses and strains have been increasing for years and are accelerating. For all sorts of reasons, and regardless of any current bluster by ‘leaders’, the EU will head away from the vision of a United States of Europe. As tensions and conflicts escalate, borders will be restored. Nations will disagree with the EU ideal. One by one, several countries will copy the UK and have referendums, and then leave. At some point, the EU will be much smaller, and there will be lots of countries outside with their own big markets. They will form trade agreements, the original EU idea, the Common Market, will gradually be re-formed, and the UK will be part of it – even Brexiters want tariff-free-trade agreements. If the UK had stayed, the return to the Common Market would eventually have happened anyway, and leaving has only accelerated it. All the fighting today between Brexiteers and Remainers achieves nothing. It didn’t matter which way we voted, it only really affected timescale. The same applies to many other issues that cause big trouble in the short term. Be adaptable, don’t worry, and you’ll be just fine.

7 Make up your own mind

As society and politics have become highly polarised, any form of absolute truth is becoming harder to find. Much of what you read has been spun to the left or right. You need to get information from several sources and learn to filter the bias, and then make up your own mind on what the truth is. Free thinking is increasingly rare but learning and practicing it means you’ll be able to make correct conclusions about the future while others are led astray. Don’t take anyone else’s word for things. Don’t be anyone’s useful idiot. Think for yourself.

8 Look out for your friends, family and community.

I’d overlooked an important tip in my original posting. As Jases commented sensibly, friends, family and community are the security that doesn’t disappear in troubled economic times. Independence is overrated. I can’t add much to that.

Google and the dangerous pursuit of ‘equality’

The world just got more dangerous, and I’m not talking about N Korea and Trump.

Google just sacked an employee because he openly suggested that men and women, (not all, but some, and there is an overlap, and …) might tend to have different preferences in some areas and that could (but not always, and only in certain cases, and we must always recognize and respect everyone and …) possibly account for some of the difference in numbers of men and women in certain roles (but there might be other causes too and obviously lots of discrimination and …. )

Yes, that’s what he actually said, but with rather more ifs and buts and maybes. He felt the need to wrap such an obvious statement in several kilometers thick of cotton wool so as not to offend the deliberately offended but nonetheless deliberate offense was taken and he is out on his ear.

Now, before you start thinking this is some right-wing rant, I feel obliged to point out just how progressive Futurizon is: 50% of all Futurizon owners and employees are female, all employees and owners have the same voting rights, 50% are immigrants and all are paid exactly the same and have the same size offices, regardless of dedication, ability, nature or quality or volume of output and regardless of their race, religion, beauty, shape, fitness, dietary preferences, baldness, hobbies or political views, even if they are Conservatives. All Futurizon offices are safe zones where employees may say anything they want of any level of truth, brilliance or stupidity and expect it to be taken as absolute fact and any consequential emotional needs to be fully met. No employee may criticize any other employee’s mouse mat, desk personalisation or screen wallpaper for obvious lack of taste. All employees are totally free to do anything they choose 100% of the time and can take as much leave as they want. All work is voluntary. All have the same right to respectfully request any other employee to make them coffee, tea or Pimms. All employees of all genders real or imagined are entitled to the same maternity and paternity rights, and the same sickness benefits, whether ill or not. In fact, Futurizon does not discriminate on any grounds whatsoever. We are proud to lead the world in non-discrimination. Unfortunately, our world-leading terms of employment mean that we can no longer afford to hire any new employees.

However, I note that Google has rather more power and influence than Futurizon so their policies count more. They appear (Google also has better lawyers than I can afford, so I must stress that all that follows is my personal opinion) to have firmly decided that diversity is all-important and they seem to want total equality of outcome. The view being expressed not just by Google but by huge swathes of angry protesters seems to be that any difference in workforce representation from that of the general population must arise from discrimination or oppression so must be addressed by positive action to correct it. There are apparently no statistically discernible differences in behavior between genders, or in job or role preference, so any you may have noticed over the time you’ve been alive is just your prejudice. Google says they fully support free speech and diversity of views, but expression of views is apparently only permitted as long as those views are authorized, on penalty of dismissal.

So unless I’m picking up totally the wrong end of the stick here, and I don’t do that often, only 13% of IT engineers are women, but internal policies must ensure that the proportion rises to 50%, whether women want to do that kind of work or not. In fact, nobody may question whether as many women want to work as IT engineers as men; it must now be taken as fact. By extension, since more women currently work in marketing, HR and PR, they must be substituted by men via positive action programs until men fill 50% of those roles. Presumably similar policies must also apply in medical bays for nursing and other staff there, and in construction teams for their nice new buildings. Ditto all other genders, races, religions; all groups must be protected and equalized to USA population proportions, apparently except those that don’t claim to hold sufficiently left-wing views, in which case it is seemingly perfectly acceptable to oppress, ostracize and even expel them.

In other words, freedom of choice and difference in ability, and more importantly freedom from discrimination, must be over-ruled in favor of absolute equality of diversity, regardless of financial or social cost, or impact on product or service quality. Not expressing full and enthusiastic left-wing compliance is seemingly just cause for dismissal.

So, why does this matter outside Google? Well, AI is developing very nicely. In fact, Google is one of the star players in the field right now. It is Google that will essentially decide how much of the AI around us is trained, how it learns, what it learns, what ‘knowledge’ it has of the world. Google will pick the content the AI learns from, and overrule or reeducate it if it draws any ‘wrong’ conclusions about the world, such as that more women than men want to be nurses or work in HR, or that more men than women want to be builders or engineers. A Google AI must presumably believe that the only differences between men and women are physical, unless their AI is deliberately excluded from the loudly declared corporate values and belief sets.

You should be very worried. Google’s values really matter. They have lots of influence on some of the basic tools of everyday life. Even outside their company, their AI tools and approaches will have strong influence on how other AI develops, determining operating systems and platforms, languages, mechanisms, interfaces, filters, even prejudices and that reach and influence is likely to increase. Their AI may well be in many self-driving cars, and if they have to make life or death decisions, the underlying value assumptions must feature in the algorithms. Soon companies will need AI that is more emotionally compliant. AI will use compliments or teasing or seduction or sarcasm or wit as marketing tools as well as just search engine positioning. Soon AI will use highly expressive faces with attractive voices, with attractive messages, tailored to appeal to you by pandering to your tastes and prejudices while thinking something altogether different. AI might be the person at the party that is all smiles and compliments, before going off to tell everyone else how awful it thinks you are. If you dare to say something not ‘authorized’, the ultra-smart AI all around you might treat you condescendingly, making you feel ashamed, ostracized, a dinosaur. Then it might secretly push you down a few pages in search results, or put a negative spin on text summaries about you, or exclude you from recommendations. Or it might do all the secret stuff while pretending it thinks you’re fantastic. Internal cultural policies in companies like Google today could soon be external social engineering to push the left-wing world the IT industry believes in – it isn’t just Google; Facebook and Twitter are also important and just as Left, though Amazon, Samsung, IBM and other AI players are less overtly politically biased, so far at least. Left wing policies generally cost a lot more, but Google and Facebook will presumably still expect other companies and people to pay the taxes to pay for it all. As their female staff gear up to fight them over pay differences between men and women for similar jobs, it often seems that Google’s holier-than-thou morality doesn’t quite make it as far as their finances.

Then it really starts being fun. We’ll soon have bacteria that can fabricate electronic circuits within themselves. Soon they’ll be able to power them too, giving the concept of smart yogurt. These bacteria could also have nanotechnology flagella to help them get around. We’ll soon have bacterial spies all over our environment, even on our skin, intercepting electronic signals that give away our thoughts. They’ll bring in data on everything that is said, everything that everyone even thinks or feels. Those bacteria will be directly connected into AI, in fact they’ll be part of it. They’ll be able to change things, to favor or punish according to whether they like what someone believes in or how they behave.

It isn’t just right-wing extremists that need to worry. I’m apparently Noveau Left – I score slightly left of center on political profiling tests, but I’m worried. A lot of this PC stuff seems extreme to me, sometimes just nonsense. Maybe it is, or maybe I should be lefter. But it’s not my choice. I don’t make the rules. Companies like Google make the rules, they even run the AI ethics groups. They decide much of what people see online, and even the meaning of the words. It’s very 1984-ish.

The trouble with the ‘echo chambers’ we heard about is that they soon normalize views to the loudest voices in those groups, and they don’t tend to be the moderates. We can expect it will go further to the extreme, not less. You probably aren’t left enough either. You should also be worried.

Independence Day 2.0 – dual democracy

Last year on Independence Day, I wrote that the independence that really matters is independence of thought:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2016/07/04/on-independence-day-remember-that-the-most-important-independence-is-independence-of-thought/

This year, I’m digging out an old idea for recycling. It’s obvious that the West has moved much more to a bathtub electorate with a large extreme left, a large center/centre right, a tiny extreme right and not much else. My circular politics model argues that extreme left is pretty much the same as extreme right anyway so we can conveniently merge them:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/05/18/is-politics-now-circular/ to make a society across the whole of the West composed of an extreme left and a centre.

I think it is time to make plans for a dual democracy. People are drifting apart ever faster  and ideological conflict between them is increasing, albeit so far mainly vicious words and angry demonstrations rather than actual violence. We could just carry on ignoring that trend and wait for it to progress inevitably to the Great Western War, or we can offset the strains by implementing a dual democracy soon. That would likely happen after such a war anyway, so we might as well save the bother of having of the war.

In a dual democracy, two self-governing communities (e.g. left and right) would peacefully share the same countries, with some shared and negotiated systems, services and infrastructure and some that are restricted to each community. People will decide which community to belong to, pay taxes and receive benefits accordingly, and have different sets of rules governing their behaviors. Migrating between the communities will be possible, but will incur significant costs. We may see a large-state left with lots of services and welfare, and lots of rules, but high taxes to pay for it, and a small state right with increased personal freedom and lower taxes, but less generous welfare and services.

The alternative is escalation of hatred and tribalism until civil war occurs. This independence day, think about whether it is now time to advocate independence of left and right to allow peaceful coexistence of their incompatible ideologies and value sets. Each group can fund and build the world they want to live in, without forcing the other half to pay for it or submit to its rules.

 

How much do your twitter follower numbers matter?

Sunil Malhotra  just asked a question: To what degree is your number of followers an indication of your influence on Twitter? Asking for a friend. 😉

Well, I am ahead of my deadlines today so I have time to respond and it’s a subject most of us have wondered about once in a while.

Answer: a small degree

If you have millions, like Katy Perry, with 100 million, then obviously you would have more influence than a village class pub singer. But her influence is restricted almost entirely to the sort that worship celebs. That’s a big market for sure, but I rather suspect that she doesn’t have much influence in physics circles, or philosophy, or finance, or anything other than fashion, celeb and pop culture. Celebs overestimate their political influence all the time, but recent elections and referenda have shown that they are actually mostly irrelevant.

Many twitter accounts follow huge numbers of people, because they want to get lots of followers, and many accounts automatically follow back, as if it were good manners or something. Many big number accounts that follow me unfollow a few days later because I haven’t followed them back, and other users say the same. I’d say that almost 100% of those followers and accounts are of zero relevance. Nobody can read tweets from more than a few hundred people. If I have a spare few minutes, I can only just keep up with the tweets that come in from the 440 or so that I follow, and some of those have died or must have left twitter, since I haven’t noticed anything from them for ages. Probably only 200 are active.

So if someone follows you who has 100,000 followers, and follows 100,000 people, marketers might say they are valuable because of their retweeting potential, but I’d say they are of very little value because they won’t see anything you tweet. Also, if they are trying to get all those followers, it’s because they are marketing their own material, so are unlikely to engage with yours, and are also more likely to be using social media scheduling apps to tweet regularly, so won’t even be on to see anyone’s tweets, let alone the 1 in 100,000 you wrote. So ignore the ones who follow large numbers of people.

The accounts that are most valuable are those that are very focused, such as industry sector magazines or other aggregators, because they quickly supply tweets that keep you up to date on what’s happening in your field, and that’s why most of us are on Twitter isn’t it? Most have massive numbers of followers but only follow a few accounts. Most people read magazines or papers but few write them, so that’s fair enough.

Next up are the many individuals who notice things of relevance or who say insightful or stimulating or encouraging things, people like Sunil for example. They are the other reason why we are on Twitter apart from keeping up with our sector news. Insight is valuable, stimulation and encouragement are too. Many such people have few followers. That’s not because they don’t matter, it’s because there are simply so many people out there who occasionally say something you would want to hear, but you can only follow a few hundred accounts tops, and many of those will be sector news feeds, so you can only listen to 200 others. Bear in mind that most people don’t use twitter, and most of those that do are professional people who have something worthwhile to say once in a while. Dividing the number of good personal accounts by the large numbers on twitter and multiplying by 200 means that each only gets a few followers.

Some of these people will have obviously have more influence than others. They may say more insightful or stimulating things, so they add more value, so are worth listening to. Those that talk more are heard more too, so numbers of tweets relates to numbers of followers eventually, though you can quickly lose some if you say anything controversial. That’s true in any area of life. But the differences are small. A few thousand followers is quite common, but a few hundred is far more common. There will always be people more popular, louder, more extrovert, more eloquent, more important, funnier, whateverer. That’s life.

Far more important than the number of people who follow is whether they read your tweet, think about it, are engaged by it, and maybe retweet it. Even Twitter understands that and they offer lots of advice on increasing engagement, like tweeting at weekends, including pictures, using careful wording, latching on to current trends.

So it’s quality rather than quantity that matters, as always. But another important factor is that retweeting is not a direct measure of influence. For what it’s worth Sunil, I see a lot of your tweets, and they often make me think, and you will remain one of the valuable accounts I follow for that reason. If I don’t often retweet them, it’s because I try to keep my own account on theme as much as I can, and while I find them good to read, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are best suited to a futures sector account. So it is probably true that influence rides far higher than retweets. Many people will have been made to think, but for any of many reasons, retweeting is inappropriate.

The fact is that most of us know all of these things anyway, and we just tweet our stuff when we feel like it, and if someone engages, great, and if they don’t, so what? Don’t worry about it.

https://www.fastcompany.com/3023067/10-surprising-twitter-statistics-to-help-you-reach-more-followers

OK, Sunil’s question dealt with. What about twitter’s state of health?

Twitter seems to be in a permanent state of voluntary decline. The design and values decisions the company makes often seem to be either invisible or aimed at self-destruction. The change most of us noticed and hated most was the idiotic change to the timeline, which shuffles all the tweets from the accounts you follow, to show the most relevant first apparently. In practice, since I check only now and then, it means I see many tweets several times and many presumably not at all. If I wanted to see only those accounts that Twitter thinks are most relevant, I wouldn’t be following the others, would I? If Twitter thinks it knows best what I should see, why bother letting me choose who to follow at all?

Allowing scheduled tweets has eroded its usefulness enormously. Some that I follow send the same tweets again and again, presumably using some social networking app or other. That means that you quickly get annoyed at them, though not quite enough to unfollow them, you quickly get annoyed at Twitter, though not quite enough to leave, and because their computer is attending twitter instead of them, they probably aren’t even seeing your tweets either, so you wonder whether it is worth bothering with, but not quite enough to stop. So this change alone has dragged twitter to the very edge of the usefulness cliff, and presumably many have already gone over the edge. Its profitability hangs forever in the balance because of idiotic decisions like that.

Allowing photos and auto-playing videos is two-edged. It takes longer to read, and an insightful text tweet is hidden among pages of brain-dead video repeats. On the other hand, it is nice to see the occasional cute kitten or an instantly informative picture or video clip. So I guess that one balances out a bit.

The last bunch of redesigns totally escaped my notice until they were discussed in a newspaper article, and some of the things that had changed, I had never even noticed before. This is a problem common to many industry sectors, and especially in marketing circles, not just a twitter issue. People who think of themselves as the professionals and experts are far more interested in the opinions of their peers than those of their customers. They want to show that they are in their industry elite, bang up to date with the latest fashions in the industry, but often seem to know or care little about what customers care about. So tiny changes in the shape of a bird that most users had never even noticed take on massive significance for the designers.

As for its politicization, I am very aware of it, but I don’t really care. All media seems politicized so I am well used to filtering and un-spinning.

If Twitter stop allowing social media schedulers, allow people to choose how tweets are organised, make it easier to do basic things like copying user IDs and pasting them in, then I for one would find it 10 times more useful and 10 times less annoying. Their user base would increase again, people would use it more, it would be more valuable and their financial woes would end. But they won’t, because they believe they know better, so they are doomed.

The new dark age

dark age 2017coverAs promised, here is a slide-set illustrating the previous blog, just click the link if the slides are not visible.

The new dark age

Utopia scorned: The 21st Century Dark Age

Link to accompanying slides:

https://timeguide.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/the-new-dark-age.pdf

Eating an ice-cream and watching a squirrel on the feeder in our back garden makes me realize what a privileged life I lead. I have to work to pay the bills, but my work is not what my grandfather would have thought of as work, let alone my previous ancestors. Such a life is only possible because of the combined efforts of tens of thousands of preceding generations who struggled to make the world a slightly better place than they found it, meaning that with just a few years more effort, our generation has been able to create today’s world.

I appreciate the efforts of previous generations, rejoice in the start-point they left us, and try to play my small part in making it better still for those who follow. Next generations could continue such gains indefinitely, but that is not a certainty. Any generation can choose not to for whatever reasons. Analyzing the world and the direction of cultural evolution over recent years, I am no longer sure that the progress mankind has made to date is safe.

Futurists talk of weak signals, things that indicate change, but are too weak to be conclusive. The new dark age was a weak signal when I first wrote about it well over a decade ago. My more recent blog is already old: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/stone-age-culture-returning-in-the-21st-century/

Although it’s a good while since I last wrote about it, recent happenings have made me even more convinced of it. Even as raw data, connectivity and computational power becomes ever more abundant, the quality of what most people believe to be knowledge is falling, with data and facts filtered and modified to fit agendas. Social compliance enforces adherence to strict codes of political correctness, with its high priests ever more powerful as the historical proven foundations of real progress are eroded and discarded. Indoctrination appears to have replaced education, with a generation locked in to an intellectual prison, unable to dare to think outside it, forbidden to deviate from the group-think on pain of exile. As their generation take control, I fear progress won over millennia will back-slide badly. They and their children will miss out on utopia because they are unable to see it, it is hidden from them.

A potentially wonderful future awaits millennials. Superb technology could give them a near utopia, but only if they allow it to happen. They pore scorn on those who have gone before them, and reject their culture and accumulated wisdom replacing it with little more than ideology, putting theoretical models and dogma in place of reality. Castles built on sand will rarely survive. The sheer momentum of modernist thinking ensures that we continue to develop for some time yet, but will gradually approach a peak. After that we will see slowdown of overall progress as scientific development continues, but with the results owned and understood by a tinier and tinier minority of humans and an increasing amount of AI, with the rest of society living in a word they barely understand, following whatever is currently the most fashionable trend on a random walk and gradually replacing modernity with a dark age world of superstition, anti-knowledge and inquisitors. As AI gradually replaces scientists and engineers in professional roles, even the elite will start to become less and less well-informed on reality or how things work, reliant on machines to keep it all going. When the machines fail due to solar flares or more likely, inter-AI tribal conflict, few people will even understand that they have become H G Wells’ Eloi. They will just wonder why things have stopped and look for someone to blame, or wonder if a god may want a sacrifice. Alternatively, future tribes might use advanced technologies they don’t understand to annihilate each other.

It will be a disappointing ending if it goes either route, especially with a wonderful future on offer nearby, if only they’d gone down a different path. Sadly, it is not only possible but increasingly likely. All the wonderful futures I and other futurists have talked about depend on the same thing, that we proceed according to modernist processes that we know work. A generation who has been taught that they are old-fashioned and rejected them will not be able to reap the rewards.

I’ll follow this blog with a slide set that illustrates the problem.

AI Activism Part 2: The libel fields

This follows directly from my previous blog on AI activism, but you can read that later if you haven’t already. Order doesn’t matter.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/ai-and-activism-a-terminator-sized-threat-targeting-you-soon/

Older readers will remember an emotionally powerful 1984 film called The Killing Fields, set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge’s activity in Cambodia, aka the Communist Part of Kampuchea. Under Pol Pot, the Cambodian genocide of 2 to 3 million people was part of a social engineering policy of de-urbanization. People were tortured and murdered (some in the ‘killing fields’ near Phnom Penh) for having connections with former government of foreign governments, for being the wrong race, being ‘economic saboteurs’ or simply for being professionals or intellectuals .

You’re reading this, therefore you fit in at least the last of these groups and probably others, depending on who’s making the lists. Most people don’t read blogs but you do. Sorry, but that makes you a target.

As our social divide increases at an accelerating speed throughout the West, so the choice of weapons is moving from sticks and stones or demonstrations towards social media character assassination, boycotts and forced dismissals.

My last blog showed how various technology trends are coming together to make it easier and faster to destroy someone’s life and reputation. Some of that stuff I was writing about 20 years ago, such as virtual communities lending hardware to cyber-warfare campaigns, other bits have only really become apparent more recently, such as the deliberate use of AI to track personality traits. This is, as I wrote, a lethal combination. I left a couple of threads untied though.

Today, the big AI tools are owned by the big IT companies. They also own the big server farms on which the power to run the AI exists. The first thread I neglected to mention is that Google have made their AI an open source activity. There are lots of good things about that, but for the purposes of this blog, that means that the AI tools required for AI activism will also be largely public, and pressure groups and activist can use them as a start-point for any more advanced tools they want to make, or just use them off-the-shelf.

Secondly, it is fairly easy to link computers together to provide an aggregated computing platform. The SETI project was the first major proof of concept of that ages ago. Today, we take peer to peer networks for granted. When the activist group is ‘the liberal left’ or ‘the far right’, that adds up to a large number of machines so the power available for any campaign is notionally very large. Harnessing it doesn’t need IT skill from contributors. All they’d need to do is click a box on a email or tweet asking for their support for a campaign.

In our new ‘post-fact’, fake news era, all sides are willing and able to use social media and the infamous MSM to damage the other side. Fakes are becoming better. Latest AI can imitate your voice, a chat-bot can decide what it should say after other AI has recognized what someone has said and analysed the opportunities to ruin your relationship with them by spoofing you. Today, that might not be quite credible. Give it a couple more years and you won’t be able to tell. Next generation AI will be able to spoof your face doing the talking too.

AI can (and will) evolve. Deep learning researchers have been looking deeply at how the brain thinks, how to make neural networks learn better and to think better, how to design the next generation to be even smarter than humans could have designed it.

As my friend and robotic psychiatrist Joanne Pransky commented after my first piece, “It seems to me that the real challenge of AI is the human users, their ethics and morals (Their ‘HOS’ – Human Operating System).” Quite! Each group will indoctrinate their AI to believe their ethics and morals are right, and that the other lot are barbarians. Even evolutionary AI is not immune to religious or ideological bias as it evolves. Superhuman AI will be superhuman, but might believe even more strongly in a cause than humans do. You’d better hope the best AI is on your side.

AI can put articles, blogs and tweets out there, pretending to come from you or your friends, colleagues or contacts. They can generate plausible-sounding stories of what you’ve done or said, spoof emails in fake accounts using your ID to prove them.

So we’ll likely see activist AI armies set against each other, running on peer to peer processing clouds, encrypted to hell and back to prevent dismantling. We’ve all thought about cyber-warfare, but we usually only think about viruses or keystroke recorders, or more lately, ransom-ware. These will still be used too as small weapons in future cyber-warfare, but while losing files or a few bucks from an account is a real nuisance, losing your reputation, having it smeared all over the web, with all your contacts being told what you’ve done or said, and shown all the evidence, there is absolutely no way you could possible explain your way convincingly out of every one of those instances. Mud does stick, and if you throw tons of it, even if most is wiped off, much will remain. Trust is everything, and enough doubt cast will eventually erode it.

So, we’ve seen  many times through history the damage people are willing to do to each other in pursuit of their ideology. The Khmer Rouge had their killing fields. As political divide increases and battles become fiercer, the next 10 years will give us The Libel Fields.

You are an intellectual. You are one of the targets.

Oh dear!