Are we as mad as hell and are we going take this anymore?

While a UK regulator is investigating whether Facebook broke data protection laws when it conducted a psychological study on users without their consent, another more serious ethical issues resides in the behavior of the two Universities who collaborated with Facebook.
Cornell University and the University of California at San Francisco seemed to have by-passed their own ethics committees while participating in the study. Any undergraduate, Master’s or Ph.D candidate knows and understands the rigorous process undertaken to get permission to conduct research which involves human subjects and/or animals-especially in the social sciences and psychology and medicine/psychiatry disciplines.
Cornell University has a 17 page document outlining a set of ethical standards to be followed while conducting research, while The University of California at San Francisco has a human research protection program in place.
The disinhibtion effect is a lack of regard for social and ethical standards in personal behavior while online and it seems to have infected the ethical standards of the two learning institutions that collaborated with Facebook. In flaunting their own ethical guidelines while collaborating with the social media website, the universities have let down their respective student populations and may have undermined their own credibility as research based institutions. Unsurprisingly, the social media website seems to have missed the ethical issue all together by wondering what all the fuss is about given that people’s data wasn’t compromised! We all should be mad as hell!

Is Facebook Somewhere Over the Rainbow?

The illusion of anonymity which surrounds online activity and social media has been shattered in a recent US court ruling. Facebook has had to comply with a court order and hand over data to assist investigators seeking evidence in a social welfare fraud case. Hundreds of people were claiming disability pensions when in fact their face book accounts revealed that they were perfectly healthy. Fraud has been around for eons, but Facebook hasn’t. The court subpoenaed data which included private messages, pictures and personal details.
The judge defined Facebook as a ‘digital landlord’; a rather clever definition really because the company controls vast amount of personal data from over a billion users world-wide, as well as drawing income from those who use its websites and server facilities. The court defined the social media website as “as a digital landlord, a virtual custodian or storage facility for millions of tenant users and their information… the search warrants authorizes the search and seizure of digital information contained within the Facebook server.” (Miller, 2014)
While the seizure of the data will have ‘free-speech’ and privacy advocates up in arms, the fact is no-one’s personal data on Facebook, or any other social media website is completely private. Facebook trawls its own user database daily for profiteering purposes, which many users could define as the “unreasonable seizure” of their personal data, and so Facebook crying foul under the fourth amendment is somewhat hypocritical.
But, it’s the legal definition which is intriguing and perhaps will wake-up the digital vox populi to the reality of living a life in someone else’s data-base, and within the strict confinement of a digital landlord’s server. Those who choose to live their personal and social lives through any kind of digital medium have very few rights, but clearly a number of legal and ethical responsibilities along with any number of unseen, or unknown legal liabilities. It seems that 21st century living in a cloud holds anything other than a silver lining.

References
Miller, J. (2014, June 27). BBC News Technology. Retrieved June 29, 2014, from BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-28055909

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad, world!

Trans-cranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) sounds like it’s straight from the laboratories of a mad scientist-well in some respects it is. The exclusive, somewhat secretive world of psychiatry has used electricity as a form of ‘therapy’ for decades. Through applying electrical current directly to the brain Psychiatrists attempt the reconstruction of reality as experienced by their ‘patients’. The late Professor Thomas Szasz, himself a psychiatrist was a fierce opponent of such practices arguing that mental illnesses are not real diseases, except for those with quite specific physical symptoms like Alzheimers and Dementia. He claimed-rightly so I think-that there are no objective, verifiable approaches to identifying whether a mental illness is present or not. It is almost impossible to falsify the research findings of psychiatry, for the most part they become lost in a maze of data and statistical analysis with meaning hard to locate when applied to standardized views of acceptable human behavior.
Most if not all psychiatric diagnoses are based upon a perceived understanding of what is real and what is considered acceptable thinking as acted out within the realm of private, personal and social behavior in a culture or society. In his classic book on self-development and independence, ‘If You Meet the Buddha on the Road Kill Him’, Sheldon B Kopp tells the insightful, witty and perceptive story about a man dressed in a white sheet and a funny pointed hat, speaking gibberish, being arrested by the police in a US town. He is taken off to a psychiatric institution, evaluated and assessed as quite mad. The following morning a dozen or so other similarly dressed persons appear at the institution while speaking the same strange language and seeking their lost friend. The captive man was eventually released into their custody. The moral of the story, according to Kopp, is that one man exhibiting strange behavior is a lunatic while a group of them represent an acceptable, if not slightly odd, community. And this seems to be the ever present danger within 21st century humanity today.
A recent online report (Young, 2014) claims that neuroscientists are able to change the brain function of healthy people through electric shock stimulation. Furthermore, the US military are testing this on their soldiers to improve and enhance their ability to react especially under stress and when deprived of sleep (Young, 2014). Researchers into this brave new world of mind-body manipulation observe the reactions of the brain through infra-red imaging. They stimulate the motor cortex and inhibit the prefrontal cortex to manipulate human cognitive processes and the accompanying physical responses. It is claimed that the results are extraordinary and improving performance and researchers maintain the effects last long term. According to the report researchers are also investigating ultrasound and laser light to manipulate brain wave patterns. This kind of research on human subjects raises serious ethical as well as medical concerns, especially around the long term effects and whether or not as the subjects age any long term damage will emerge. And whether the very essence and nature of a human being-our consciousness-should be manipulated to the extent that our actions are predetermined and we lose our capacity to exercise our free will. Perhaps we’ll find out in a similar fashion as we did when we had humans observe those nuclear tests in the deserts of the US and Australia during the 1950s when a horror was unleashed on humanity. It really is a mad, mad, mad, mad world!

References
Young, E. (2014, June 3). BBC Future. Retrieved from BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140603-brain-zapping-the-future-of-war

Now I see through a Google Glass Darkly

Nothing is more perversely voyeuristic than the vox populi paparazzi edging their way into the scene of a crime, a horrific accident or a social event and recording it, uploading it to the web and holding out longingly for their few minutes of fame.
I recently gave a presentation at an international conference on the use of technology in education and before I began I asked that mobiles be put on silent and that there be no photographs, videoing or recording of my presentation. In return I offered a copy of the presentation and also gave out the name of the journal in which the paper was soon to be published. A gentleman raised his hand and said “why are you anti-technology?” I said I wasn’t that it was simply my right to protect my privacy, I didn’t want my talk uploaded to YouTube, nor did I want my picture taken and uploaded on the web without my permission. I asserted my right to privacy and my right to own and protect the copyright of my material. There was a round of applause, but not everyone was happy. Another person suggested I was not sharing my information freely, and that I was part of the great conspiracy to with-hold knowledge and information and make money from people; however neither remark is true. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I simply hold the view that my privacy is a value I uphold and have a right to, and that my copy-righted work is available and can be accessed and used at the appropriate time and in the appropriate place.
Where has the idea come from that it’s a free for all with modern technology when it comes to intruding on our lives? Who are the people responsible for undermining this basic principle of civility, which endorses the inalienable right to a private life? After all if it’s good enough for royal families and celebrities to lay claim to, it is good enough for the majority too.
In the 21st century Google and Facebook in particular have produced technologies that have eroded our personal and private lives. Their invasive technologies marketed as de rigueur for 21st century youth and for 21st century living are a lie. Their products are troublesome if we are to learn anything from the recent NASA scandal. But the debate and argument about privacy is an old one.
During the trial of Sir Thomas More, in 1535, Cromwell asked him if he had anything else to say in his defence; More replied “‘What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose Statesmen walk your road.” (Bolt, 1990) How true this prophecy has become.

The digital age has seduced people into disclaiming their hearts and selling out to the latest gadgetry and ignoring their rights, but embracing ‘terms and conditions’ of which they have very limited knowledge. Google’s latest techno product-Google glasses- allow its users to see through them darkly-they choose a sinister, augmented, constructed reality over what is real. In addition they are allowing companies and corporation to deny the basic dignity of an employee-treating them instead like robots. Google, along with Amazon and Facebook are among the IT corporations that regards themselves as people, and vociferously protect their privacy, yet promote the use of these invasive technologies, and in doing so prevent a global population from living lives that a full, experiential and free from surveillance.

References
Bolt, R. (1990). A Man For All Seasons. London: Vintage Books.

Those Not So Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines

On March 28th 2014 the United Nations requested that all nations using armed drones comply with and respect international law. The two countries most affected by this sinister type of weaponry, Pakistan and Yemen, in which hundreds of its citizens have been killed as innocent by-standers in the ‘global war on terror’ sponsored a resolution with the support of Switzerland, but didn’t single out the United States as the main culprit in this horrid and shameful daily ‘reality show’ played out in the covert war theaters of the post-modern world.
The Commander in Chief of the United States of America, a recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate argues that his country is committed to following domestic and international law with the greatest possible transparency, in its use of armed drones. The average person, and the international community knows that this just isn’t the case.
In a separate, but equally ‘brave new world’ development, Face book guru and profiteer Mark Zuckerberg has announced plans to connect two-thirds of the world which has no internet access using drones, satellites and lasers. His announcement follows on from Amazon’s desire to have drones flying around our heads as they deliver tens of thousands of customer deliveries on a daily basis and Google’s plan to have party balloons beaming the internet into our homes!
I wonder if it has ever occurred to Mark Zukerberg, and his confrères at Amazon and Google, that not everyone wants to be connected to the internet or have Wi-Fi access. Our day-to-day lives can and do exist outside of his sphere of influence and the ubiquitous influence of technology on our experiences of thinking and being.
Military use of armed drones to fight wars by proxy, and commercial use of drones as agents of advanced capitalism, both exploit people. In the former case they destroy lives, kill innocents and annihilate whole communities. In the latter case they are part of the wider agenda of the techno-evangelist cult to create a digital utopia in which everyone will be forced to endure the sane madness of those not so magnificent men and their flying machines!

Our Backs to the Future

In the modern corporate themed allegory ‘Who Moved my Cheese’ about adapting to a changing set of circumstances, Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw have to adapt to a sudden change in their environment when their ‘cheese’ or key resource disappears. Only one of the characters is able to adjust fully to the change or ‘disappearance of the cheese’ successfully-an interesting point to note. From this quaint fable about changing facets of life in the 20th and 21st century we are expected to come to the realisation that change is inevitable and those that do not adapt or ‘bend with the breeze’ will break or be left behind. The tale has been told often and is used as a kind of corporate mantra in the post-modern world. Yet, the type of change in the story which advocates and supporters of ‘Who Moved my Cheese’ promote isn’t like Cardinal John Henry Newman’s concept of change-that of inward spiritual growth which will lead us to become more fully aware and compassionate human beings; rather it’s based upon Frederick Taylor’s mechanistic view of the human being as outlined in his 1909 book “The Principles of Scientific Management.” This was one of the earliest studies in change management and an example of a mechanistic model of behaviourism which was used to manipulate people into becoming robot like and enabled them to be used merely as cogs in the servitude of the owners of the means of production.
And it is this model of change which futurists like Peter Diamondis promote. In a recent presentation in the city state of Dubai, Diamondis proclaimed his own doctrine of change arguing that it no longer happens every 100 years, but every year (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). He claims as his own, the somewhat paradoxical mantra that ‘change is a constant’ feature of 21st century life.
Well, yes and no. One could argue that there’s always change just as day turns into night and the seasons predictably come and go (perhaps less so these days due to climate change), and we are born, grow old and die. These kinds of ‘constants’ in change are founded upon the existential conditions in which humanity constantly strives to survive and where it appears we seem to have created such a mess of it all. We need to address with increasing urgency whether or not we want our species is to survive, and endure the kind of future predicted by Dr. Diamondis.
Among the kinds of changes he predicts are that high school students will have the ability to sequence their own DNA and that life will become more ‘like a manufacturing process” (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). I can already hear Marx and Engels chortling quite happily “we told you so”. He claims that today 100 years of age is the new 60. Well Dr. Diamondis, I’d prefer not to be alive at 100 as I’m damn sure I’m not going to feel much better than I do now at 60!
3D printing will develop to the extent we’ll be able to “print cement to build our houses and manufacturing will become “geography independent” and the mass of humanity will become ‘empowered’ (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). I’m not sure how this will work for the 99% who won’t be able to afford the printer, electricity or who may not even have a shelter in which to begin this great architectural innovation.
Artificial intelligence will gradually supersede our ability to make choices and privacy will be a “thing of the past” (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). Well, thanks to Edward Snowden, we already know this, and with Facebook buying the messaging app Whatsapp for $19bn it is all but confirmed.
In addition he predicts an even more gloomy ignominious future with more “jobs going to China to India to Robots” (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). Not sure how the 1.3 billion Chinese will respond to this, but if Tiananmen Square is any indication of ‘moving the cheese’ in that country-I wouldn’t want to be Sniff, Scurry, Hem or Haw. However, they might fare better in India where the 1.27 billion might adjust given their reluctance to break out of their rigid case system, and where any kind of cheese is a welcome relief to the abject poverty and misery of their disenfranchised population.
President Obama will not be happy at all with Dr. Diamondis health care predications for the future, in which we will be able to ‘self-diagnose our own medical conditions’ and treat ‘most illnesses at home’. (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014) After all the delays and angst over ‘Obama Care’ it now seems the President would have been better advised to consult with Dr. Diamondis. He could have avoided the Supreme Court challenge and that awful public brawl with those ungrateful Republicans.
The point is futurists have their place in the world alongside Tarot card and Palm readers, who I often consult-well; so did Nancy Reagan! As for the future my money’s on the predictions of Rick Evans (Evans, 2013) as sung by Zager & Evans in 1969. They reflect a far greater and more urgent reality: the existential condition of humanity; whereas Peter Diamondis has his head buried in the lucrative and exclusive sands of Silicon Valley:

References
Evans, R. (2013). Zager & Evans Lyrics. Retrieved from Metro Lyrics: http://www.metrolyrics.com/in-the-year-2525-lyrics-zager-and-evans.html
Masudi, F., & Nazzal, N. (2014). 2050: The Shape of Things to Come. Dubai: Gulf News.
Johnson, S., Who Moved My Cheese, Putnam Books, (USA) 1998

Backyard Brains often Lack Intelligence

Backyards conjure up lots of images of recyclable materials and storage space or nicely cultivated lawns and gardens as a place to relax and enjoy the labors of the day. On the other hand Backyard Brains creates a mixed metaphor and one needs to dig a little deeper to find out exactly what’s hidden in the backyard to see if there’s anything of real value. A bit like treasures in the attic I suppose.
With the help of the BBC News I did discover something rather unusual about a company named Backyard Brains and there commercial exploitation of digital learning, along with the imprecise and often unequivocal area of neuroscience, and children’s vulnerability and fascination with how things work, at a time when they have a penchant to be masters of their own environment while being dependent upon it.
According to the BBC News report Backyard Brains has developed a very small electronic device which is glued to the back of a cockroach and a downloadable app from a mobile phone is able to control the movement of the creature. Interestingly on the same page of this news story the BBC ran an advertisement on a program detailing the legacy of the Nazi medical experiments inclusive of a picture of Hitler- ironic or not I thought the coincidence appropriate.
The company Backyard Brains (aptly named perhaps?) argues that through allowing children to dismember other creatures, place electronic devices into them and then control their movements they are giving them a 5 year head start on those in graduate schools studying neuroscience. They further argue that they are aware of the shortcomings of the kinds of experiments their bizarre equipment enables kids to perform on other creatures, but claim that they are justified due to the inaccessibility of neuroscience in our current age.
It is by all accounts a disingenuous and dishonest argument.
I learned a lot at primary school about neuroscience without being asked to dismember another creature. I recall a wonderful teacher who would take us for walks and lets us smell the earth, flowers, sea, and explain why we had such a painful reaction to standing on a broken shell, or nail or piece of glass-it was all quite wonderful, intriguing and followed up with diagrams and drawings of humans and other creatures on how the brain and central nervous system of sentient beings worked. It instilled in me a life long love of science and a mutual respect for all living creatures-even those I didn’t like-the cockroach, spider and ants to name a few. I learned their role in the wonderful complex eco-system called life along with the importance of a human being’s necessary moral relationship with other creatures.
It is the lack of concern shown by the Backyard Brains’ company to our moral relationship with other creatures which should worry parents, educators and children alike. The thinking which underpins the concept of Backyard Brains is based upon the myopic and disdainful thinking of early Western thinkers who claimed that humans lack any kind of contractual and ethical relationship with other creatures because they are not moral agents and they lack feelings, therefore if we do not perform experiments on them we are failing science. Such ideas have been used over the centuries to push some creatures to the edge of extinction through hunting and killing for body parts. The irrational arguments of Rousseau, Robert Boyle and Voltaire on race and the natural world often led to the justification of inequality and to enslave people of differing religions, politics, beliefs, color, and women and even to justify the oppression of children. According to the philosophy which underpins the work of Backyard Brains; Rousseau’s outrageous claim that “woman is especially made for man’s delight” would be acceptable today! We have after all inherited the imperfect irrationality of Rousseau and his ilk on our relationships with other creatures.
There are much more acceptable moral and ethical ways to teach neuroscience to children than having them turn defenseless and helpless creatures into electronic toys that may be controlled by a mobile phone application. Just as causing unnecessary pain and suffering to one another is unacceptable, it is unacceptable to cause pain and suffering to other creatures.
The study of neural circuitry is important in medical science and has been studied at the appropriate age and level for many years with wonderful success. To argue that allowing children to capture dismember, insert electrodes into the head and body of another creature will ‘create the next generation of neural engineers, scientists and physicians’ is disingenuous and dishonest.
The kinds of experiments designed to harm other creatures and marketed by Backyard Brains under the guise of human scientific endeavors runs counter to the idea that we live in a very fragile world, morally, ethically, environmentally and socially. Humans and other creatures have an equal interest in maintaining an eco-system which ensures the survival of all species-other creatures matter a lot. It is this key idea which children need to understand and learn to live with more, to counter the illusions of the digital age and the dishonest marketing ploys of companies like Backyard Brains.