Power in the Age of AI

With all the talk of AI of recent, I picked up "Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence" (2023) by Paul Scharre to see where the new changes might fit into courses I have covered of recent (political economy, ethics, evaluation). A complaint to start: many figures in my copy of this book were blank, grey useless boxes. Clearly a printing error on the part of the publisher, but frustrating nonetheless. The book has eight parts. Part 1 is a good summary of the key issues (data, computational power, talent, institutions), which is probably the most useful high-level part of this book. Part 2 begins to cover ethics, introduces a number of stories, and the role of corporate engagement. Parts 3 and 5 are largely anti-China (that is not to defend China; that is only to point out that the negative examples this ex-US army ranger chooses are Chinese ones; when discussing consent, privacy, and monitoring we learn all about Chinese evils, but no mention of the NSA or Snowden, or others – this consistent inclusion/exclusion bias makes the book largely pro-American and anti-Chinese). Part 4 covers the unhealthy information environment we all live within, but is largely outdated (expectedly, books are slow to publish). Part 6 returns to US military projects (a common theme of the book, not surprisingly given the author's background). Part 7 outlines some of the problems with AI: bias, risks, limitations, vulnerabilities. Part 8 concludes with perspectives on the future of war. A few notes:

"AI has many constructive applications. AI will save lives and increase efficiency and productivity. It is also being used as a weapon of repression and to gain military advantage. This book is about the darker side of AI." (p. 4)

"In fact, machine learning systems are often so narrowly constrained by the datasets on which they've been trained that their performance can often drop if they are used for tasks that are not well-represented in the training data. For example, a facial recognition system may perform poorly on people of races or ethnicities that are not adequately represented in its training data. A machine learning algorithm used for predictive maintenance on one aircraft won't work on another aircraft—it would need to be retrained on data for the new aircraft. It may not even be effective at predicting maintenance needs on the same aircraft in a new environment, since maintenance needs may differ based on environmental conditions, such as in a desert where sand can clog parts or in a maritime environment where there is saltwater corrosion." (p. 21)

"Facial recognition systems are being merged with other tools for big data analysis in the Ministry of Public Security's "Police Cloud" system. Police cloud computing data centers, which are being implemented in numerous cities and provinces across China, include not only criminal records, facial recognition, and other biometric data, but also addresses, religious affiliations, medical records, birth control records, travel bookings, online purchases, package deliveries, and social media comments. These databases are not merely repositories of information but are intended to automatically fuse and analyze data for police. They could be used to monitor and track individuals of interest and also connect them to associates." (p. 89) 

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The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

We are increasingly surrounded by technology, the data collection it employs is not only pervasive but also seemingly unescapable. In 2019 Shoshana Zuboff wrote "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power", which has gone viral (for a social sciences academic-ish book), being cited nearly 10,000 times so far. The book is 691 pages and well beyond possible to summarize in a few lines. And, an amazing amount has changed since 2019 alone. The book may be longer than it needed to be, as the author weaves in personal and historical stories (which add layers of interesting nuance), however these also may attract a broader readership for a book than is more engaging and storytelling than a typical academic one. A few quotes to spark interest for anyone who has not yet read it.

The book begins with a definition: "Sur-veil-lance Cap-i-tal-ism, n. 1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales; 2. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modifications; 3. A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecedented in human history; 4. The foundational framework of a surveillance economy; 5. As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth; 6. The origin of a new instrumentarian power that asserts dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy; 7. A movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty; 8. An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above; an overthrow of the people's sovereignty."

"Surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge. Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others' gain, not ours." (p. 11)

"Google's stores of behavioral surplus now embrace everything in the online milieu: searches, e-mails, texts, photos, songs, messages, videos, locations, communication patterns, attitudes, preferences, interests, faces, emotions, illnesses, social networks, purchases, and so on. A new continent of behavioral surplus is spun each moment from the many virtual threads of our everyday lives as they collide with Google, Facebook, and, more generally, every aspect of the internet's computer-mediated architecture. Indeed, under the direction of surveillance capitalism the global reach of computer mediation is repurposed as an extraction architecture." (p. 128-129)

"Surveillance capitalism's antidemocratic and antiegalitarian juggernaut is best described as a market-driven coup from above. It is not a coup d'etat in the classic sense but rather a coup de gens: an overthrow of the people concealed as the technological Trojan horse that is Big Other. On the strength of its annexation of human experience, this coup achieves exclusive concentrations of knowledge and power that sustain privileged influence over the division of learning in society: the privatization of the central principle of social ordering in the twenty-first century. Like the adelantados and their silent incantations of the Requirimiento, surveillance capitalism operates in the declarative form and imposes the social relations of a premodern absolutist authority. It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. In a surreal paradox, this coup is celebrated as "personalization," although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal." (p. 513) 

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I Write What I Like – Steve Biko

Similar to other giants of the struggle against apartheid, we do not have a book written by Steve Biko that pens his ideas. For Robert Sobukwe, a biography was written, while for Steve Biko, we have a collection of his writings and transcripts, first published in 1978. The book contains powerful ideas, some of which are shared below, but also contains writings that are audience- and time-specific, making it a sometimes less than relevant read. I share some of Biko's ideas:

  • "Basically the South African white community is a homogenous community. It is a community of people who sit to enjoy a privileged position that they do not deserve, are aware of this, and therefore spend their time trying to justify why they are doing so. Where differences in political opinion exist, they are in the process of trying to justify their position of privilege and their usurpation of power." (p. 19)
  • "We are concerned with that curious bunch of nonconformists who explain their participation in negative terms: that bunch of do-gooders that goes under all sorts of names – liberals, leftists etc. These are the people who argue that they are not responsible for white racism and the country's "inhumanity to the black man". These are the people who claim that they too feel the oppression just as acutely as the blacks and therefore should be jointly involved in the black man's struggle for a place under the sun… It is rather like expecting the slave to work together with the slave-master's son to remove all the conditions leading to the former's enslavement." (p. 20-21)
  • "The myth of integration as propounded under the banner of liberal ideology must be cracked and killed because it makes people believe that something is being done when in actual fact the artificial integrated circles are a soporific on the blacks and provide a vague satisfaction because it is difficult to bring people from different races together in this country, therefore achievement of this is in itself a step forward towards the total liberation of the blacks. Nothing could be more irrelevant and therefore misleading. Those who believe in it are living in a fool's paradise." (p. 22)
  • "We must learn to accept that no group, however benevolent, can ever hand over power to the vanquished on a plate. We must accept that the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. As long as we go to Whitey begging cap in hand for emancipation, we are giving him further sanction to continue with his racist and oppressive system. We must realise that our situation is not a mistake on the part of whites but a deliberate act, and that no amount of moral lecturing will persuade the white man to "correct" the situation." (p. 90-91)
  • "I think there is no running away from the fact that now in South Africa there is such an ill distribution of wealth that any form of political freedom which does not touch on the proper distribution of wealth will be meaningless." (p. 149)
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The Challenge of Democracy from Below

Edited volumes do not tend to have staying power as a publication – collections of essays pass like most academic articles. Rarely does an edited volume remain an essential reading for decades. "Ethiopia: The Challenge of Democracy from Below" edited by Bahru Zewde and Siegfried Pausewang (2002) is one of those books. A number of the chapters have been widely cited, and remain key sources for research. This text is also unique in that is was co-published by an Ethiopian civil society organization within Ethiopia (Forum for Social Studies)

Providing a summary of an edited volume is challenging. Rather than try to give a few points, I'll overview the structure and highlight some essential readings. The book is divided into four sections: (1) Traditional systems of governance, (2) The peasant and the management of power and resources, (3) Alternative loci of power, and (4) Alternative voices. Of these, contributions by Bahru Zewde, Oyvind Aadland, Svein Ege, Siegfried Pausewang, Dessalegn Rahmato, Mehret Ayenew and Original Wolde Giorgis are excellent. This book is well worth finding.

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