#32: 1-2-3 Tech Miscellany

Computer Says No?


I’m Scott Bryan, a designer writing about ethics in tech. You’re reading this because you, most likely, signed up for my weekly newsletter, 1-2-3 Tech Miscellany.

If you find yourself here via some other serendipitous path, feel free to subscribe below.

Each week, I’ll introduce you to 1 ethical dilemma, 2 good news stories and 3 random quotes, tweets or other oddities.


Reading time: 3 minutes

Part 1 - Ethical Dilemma

Computer Says No?

Philosophers of antiquity met with all kinds of bizarre ends.

Heraclitus suffocated after burying himself in cow dung, Empedocles dived into the crater of a simmering volcano, while Chryisppus died from fits of laughter (if you’ve ever seen a donkey trying to eat a fig, you’ll understand). 

But it seems Hippasus of Metapontum had the most ‘ordinary’ downfall of the lot. He was drowned by fishermen. They were freaked out by his unsettling mathematical theories.

You see, Hippasus was a member of a Pythagorean sect. And like any self-respecting cult full of vegetarian mathematicians, they were fans of numerological mysticism. Pythagoreans believed the world and the heavens reflected the harmonious relationship found in numbers. This is otherwise known as ratios.

Hippasus’ discovery of "irrational numbers” however, - think π and √2 - put an end to the pythagorean’s wet dream. They realised, if the universe has the ordered nature of a mathematical ratio, but numbers can themselves be irrational, then the very foundation of the cosmos must be irrational too.

This was too much to bear. Hippasus was murdered so the pythagorean's worldview could survive.

A Commitment To Rationality

Like the pythagoreans, this blind commitment (albeit a less murderous one) to rationality still exists today. 

It can be found in Silicon Valley.

Here, technology is primed as an opportunity to settle all arguments once and for all. Technological evangelists herald the arrival of super-intelligent computers, as the solution to all of humankind’s problems:

  • “Should I eat breakfast?"

  • “How can I be more productive?"

  • "Did such-and-such a person commit the crime?

  • "Should we bomb that country or not?”

To find answers to these questions, the hyper-rationalists believe, that with enough information, and a powerful computer, humans can remove themselves from such dirty work. 

All you need to do is enter the relevant data, press the ‘return' key and, hey presto, the master algorithm spits out the answer.

The master algorithm has, of course, answered many worthwhile questions. But it also has a lot to answer for: From echo chambers to surveillance capitalism, the unflinching faith in technological solutionism has pulled us in an unexpected direction.

The current crises facing liberal democracy is a crisis of rationality. The problems of polarisation and shrinking attention spans are crises of the same source too.

So where does that leave us?

A Crisis Of Reason

Over two thousand years ago, they began worshipping ratios but ended up murdering mathematicians. This century, we began worshipping Silicon Valley but ended up - well, who knows? Questions remain and continue to nag. 

But such adoration begs the question: is outsourcing rationality really all it's cracked up to be?

Irrationality, on the other hand, contributes a lot to humanity. Art, literature, and the very act of dreaming itself, are products of disorder. 

So before we condemn unreason outright, we should simply be more critical, more wary, even more philosophical about emerging technologies. Especially those promising their particular version of rationality will change the world for the better.


Part 2 - Good news you may not have heard

1. “Hey Siri, I’m getting pulled over.”

Uttering these six words* will trigger a chain of events on your iPhone.

The Siri shortcut pauses your blaring music, reduces the iPhone’s brightness, and switches to "do not disturb” mode. It then texts a predetermined contact, before recording the interaction, using your iPhone's front-facing camera.

*It’s not a default setting. You need to install the shortcut first.

Read more on CNN

2. Privacy as the ultimate status symbol

Privacy must be for everyone. It’s not about status. It’s about a basic human right.

But in a world of fetishistic oversharing and privacy breaches, if caring about your privacy online is becoming ‘cool’, it must be seen as a forward step.

I would worry however, that as with the status symbols of old, scarcity adds value, and privacy online should never be seen as a luxury.

Read more on Elle


Part 3 - Quotes, Tweets And Oddities

  1. Jathan Sadowski on dismantling invasive surveillance infrastructure:

    "Think of it as a Marie Kondo, but for technology. Does this thing contribute to human well-being or social welfare? If not, toss it away!”

  2. New Zealand ‘porn stars’ highlight web safety in this funny ad.

Until next week, thanks for reading.