Our Infant Information Revolution


June 15, 2018

Our Infant Information Revolution

 

In the middle of the twentieth century, people feared that advances in computers and communications would lead to the type of centralized control depicted in George Orwell’s 1984. Today, billions of people have eagerly put Big Brother in their pockets.

Toddler concentrated with a tablet

 

CAMBRIDGE – It is frequently said that we are experiencing an information revolution. But what does that mean, and where is the revolution taking us?

Information revolutions are not new. In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press launched the era of mass communication. Our current revolution, which began in Silicon Valley in the 1960s, is bound up with Moore’s Law: the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every couple of years.

Information provides power, and more people have access to more information than ever before, for good and for ill. That power can be used not only by governments, but also by non-state actors ranging from large corporations and non-profit organizations to criminals, terrorists, and informal ad hoc groups.–Joseph S. Nye

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, computing power cost one-thousandth of what it did in the early 1970s. Now the Internet connects almost everything. In mid-1993, there were about 130 websites in the world; by 2000, that number had surpassed 15 million. Today, more than 3.5 billion people are online; experts project that, by 2020, the “Internet of Things” will connect 20 billion devices. Our information revolution is still in its infancy.

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The key characteristic of the current revolution is not the speed of communications; instantaneous communication by telegraph dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. The crucial change is the enormous reduction in the cost of transmitting and storing information. If the price of an automobile had declined as rapidly as the price of computing power, one could buy a car today for the same price as a cheap lunch. When a technology’s price declines so rapidly, it becomes widely accessible, and barriers to entry fall. For all practical purposes, the amount of information that can be transmitted worldwide is virtually infinite.

The cost of information storage has also declined dramatically, enabling our current era of big data. Information that once would fill a warehouse now fits in your shirt pocket.

In the middle of the twentieth century, people feared that the computers and communications of the current information revolution would lead to the type of centralized control depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Big Brother would monitor us from a central computer, making individual autonomy meaningless.

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Instead, as the cost of computing power has decreased and computers have shrunk to the size of smart phones, watches, and other portable devices, their decentralizing effects have complemented their centralizing effects, enabling peer-to-peer communication and mobilization of new groups. Yet, ironically, this technological trend has also decentralized surveillance: billions of people nowadays voluntarily carry a tracking device that continually violates their privacy as it searches for cell towers. We have put Big Brother in our pockets.

Likewise, ubiquitous social media generate new transnational groups, but also create opportunities for manipulation by governments and others. Facebook connects more than two billion people, and, as Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election showed, these connections and groups can be exploited for political ends. Europe has tried to establish rules for privacy protection with its new General Data Protection Regulation, but its success is still uncertain. In the meantime, China is combining surveillance with the development of social credit rankings that will restrict personal freedoms such as travel.

Information provides power, and more people have access to more information than ever before, for good and for ill. That power can be used not only by governments, but also by non-state actors ranging from large corporations and non-profit organizations to criminals, terrorists, and informal ad hoc groups.

This does not mean the end of the nation-state. Governments remain the most powerful actors on the global stage; but the stage has become more crowded, and many of the new players can compete effectively in the realm of soft power. A powerful navy is important in controlling sea-lanes; but it does not provide much help on the Internet. In nineteenth-century Europe, the mark of a great power was its ability to prevail in war, but, as the American analyst John Arquilla has pointed out, in today’s global information age, victory often depends not on whose army wins, but on whose story wins.

Public diplomacy and the power to attract and persuade become increasingly important, but public diplomacy is changing. Long gone are the days when foreign service officers carted film projectors to the hinterlands to show movies to isolated audiences, or people behind the Iron Curtain huddled over short-wave radios to listen to the BBC. Technological advances have led to an explosion of information, and that has produced a “paradox of plenty”: an abundance of information leads to scarcity of attention.

When people are overwhelmed by the volume of information confronting them, it is hard to know what to focus on. Attention, not information, becomes the scarce resource. The soft power of attraction becomes an even more vital power resource than in the past, but so does the hard, sharp power of information warfare. And as reputation becomes more vital, political struggles over the creation and destruction of credibility multiply. Information that appears to be propaganda may not only be scorned, but may also prove counterproductive if it undermines a country’s reputation for credibility.

During the Iraq War, for example, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay in a manner inconsistent with America’s declared values led to perceptions of hypocrisy that could not be reversed by broadcasting images of Muslims living well in America. Similarly, President Donald Trump’s tweets that prove to be demonstrably false undercut American credibility and reduce its soft power.

Public diplomacy and the power to attract and persuade become increasingly important, but public diplomacy is changing. Long gone are the days when foreign service officers carted film projectors to the hinterlands to show movies to isolated audiences, or people behind the Iron Curtain huddled over short-wave radios to listen to the BBC. Technological advances have led to an explosion of information, and that has produced a “paradox of plenty”: an abundance of information leads to scarcity of attention.–Joseph S. Nye

The effectiveness of public diplomacy is judged by the number of minds changed (as measured by interviews or polls), not dollars spent. It is interesting to note that polls and the Portland index of the Soft Power 30 show a decline in American soft power since the beginning of the Trump administration. Tweets can help to set the global agenda, but they do not produce soft power if they are not credible.

Now the rapidly advancing technology of artificial intelligence or machine learning is accelerating all of these processes. Robotic messages are often difficult to detect. But it remains to be seen whether credibility and a compelling narrative can be fully automated.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University. He is the author of Is the American Century Over?

 

The Closing of the Cultural Mind?


June 11, 2018

Factfulness : The Miracle of Human Progress


May 30, 2018

BOOK REVIEW

Factfulness : The Miracle of Human Progress: Hans Rosling’s Legacy

 by  Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta
http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/factfulness-review-the-miracle-of-human-progress/article23783050.ece

 

Is a tendency towards negativity, fear and blame preventing us from seeing all the good in the world?

Factfulness review: The miracle of human progress

As district medical officer in Mozambique, Hans Rosling discovered a previously unknown paralytic disease. Later, he became a professor of international health, co-founded Médecins Sans Frontières in Sweden, and a renowned public educator. His TED talks have been viewed over 35 million times.

Rosling was also a sword swallower, having learned the skill from a patient. Often, he would do a small show at the end of a lecture: “to demonstrate in a practical way that the seemingly impossible is possible,” he notes in his book Factfulness.

It’s human tendency to be bored with stories of everyday incremental progress, and to focus on the negative — for which the state of the world in the 21st century provides much material. So much is in fact terrible and heartbreaking: the refugee crisis, melting glaciers, plastic in the ocean. From pandemic breakout to climate change, there are real dangers to be concerned about.

Why the bleak view?

But so much more seems to be wrong, and not getting better. This has made cynics of most of us. In Factfulness, Rosling suggests 10 instincts that prevent us from seeing real progress in the world. These include the tendency to negativity, fear, and blame. He also describes the ‘straight line’ instinct, by which he means the tendency to view trends as unchanging. But as he shows, not all changes in the world happen in this way.

The most dramatic chart in the book shows the average number of babies per woman from 1800 to today. It is not a straight line: more like a slide in a playground. Over the last 50 years this number has dropped from five children per woman to below 2.5. As child mortality reduced, as families came out of extreme poverty, as women and men got more years of education, as access to contraception increased, people were able to feed their children better and send them to school — and thus had fewer children.

When things get better, Rosling notes, such as the decrease in child mortality across the world, it is not just because of heroic individuals, but systems. Lots of people working together at the frontlines in a sustained way, every day, over the long term, to bring the incremental changes that, together, constitute progress.

The India connection

Rosling’s life has a special India connection: he studied public health at St. John’s Medical College, Bengaluru, and qualified as a doctor in 1976. He describes his first lesson there as a fourth-year medical student: “How could they know much more than me? Over the next few days I learned that they had a textbook three times as thick as mine, and they had read it three times as many times. I suddenly had to change my worldview: my assumption that I was superior because of where I came from, the idea that the West was the best and the rest would never catch up.”

Family stories are also a part of the book, contributing to its personal tone. As a child, he remembers his father taking him every Saturday, by bicycle, to hospital to visit his mother who had tuberculosis. “Daddy would explain that if we went in we could get sick too. I would wave to her and she would wave back…”

But the story didn’t end sadly. “A treatment against tuberculosis was invented and my mother got well. She read books to me that she borrowed from the public library. For free. I became the first in my family to get more than six years of education, and I went to university for free. I got a doctor’s degree, for free. Of course nothing is free: the taxpayers paid.”

Life-changing tales

Another story describes how a washing machine changed their lives. “My parents had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine. Grandma, who had been invited to the inauguration ceremony, was even more excited. She had been heating water with firewood and hand-washing laundry her whole life.”

Family, education, advances in health care, tax-funded social security, labour-saving devices, functioning democracies: these are all things to be grateful for. And a way of showing appreciation would be to read the data, because otherwise we would be missing the entire picture.

The book is the product of enormous research, but the tone is light rather than ponderous. It makes a complicated world appear simple, without foolish optimism, stereotypes or cliché.

Factfulness is densely illustrated with charts and pictures, including the inside covers, but at the heart of the book is Rosling’s ability to listen, discuss and learn from other people everywhere.

Published after Rosling’s death, the book was written while he was under palliative care for pancreatic cancer. It is a book about his life and ideas, but it is also about how to pay attention to the world.

 

Sleepwalking? What is progress supposed to look like?


May 23, 2018

On Turning 79–A Time for Personal Stock Taking 

COMMENT: I chose Firoz’s article to remind Malaysians of  Generation X and Y of what they failed to do in the last decade when they allowed Najib Razak and UMNO kleptocrats to govern our country carte blanche. We have been sleepwalking. Now look what Najib had done and imagine what more  he could have done if he were re-elected on May 9, 2018.

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Thanks to the present generation of voters, Najib is out of action; he is now being asked to account for the scandals he left behind including a trillion ringgit in national debt for the Mahathir 2.0 government to deal with. It takes my generation of 1950s, men like Tun Daim, Tan Sri Robert Kuok, former Attorney- General Abu Talib and others to come back to sort out the mess.

For me, money is not everything. It is important to have money. How much is enough? It is never enough. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said there’s enough for everyone’s  needs, but never enough for someone’s greed. Najib Razak and Rosmah Mansor succumbed to greed and now they must bear the consequences of their avarice.

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That is why I seek to lead a simple life and as I reach 80 in a matter of 365 days from today, I choose to lead a life of an academic, a life of learning and devoted service to my students at The University of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. These students challenge me everyday to give my best.

It was the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew who urged us to lead a purposeful life. Greek Philosopher and teacher of Plato, Socrates said an unexamined life is not worth living. Descartes pronounced “I think , therefore I am” (Cogito Ergo Sum). Finally, I am just beginning to realize what they mean. It is a lonely life of deep contemplation. It does not make one popular; in fact, it may ruin relationships, but I will give it my best shot. And if I fail, it will not be for the lack of effort.

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Mr. Lee Kuan Yew led a life of public service

Today I turn 79. I choose to celebrate this day by posting Firoz’s article and to remind myself that I must continue to speak the truth to power. I will, therefore, hold our new government accountable for their policies and actions. I will remain critical. While I congratulate Pakatan Harapan on their electoral success, I will speak up when  our leaders in the  Mahathir 2.0 administration fail to honour their pledge to serve Malaysians.–Din Merican

Sleepwalking? What is progress supposed to look like?

by Firoz Abdul Hamid

http://investvine.com/highlights/tech-and-education/

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Robert Frost, a well known American poet wrote a poem on the 1919 inflation which reads:

The pain of seeing ten cents turned to five,

We clutch with both hands fiercely at the part,

We think we feel it in – the head, the heart,

Is someone cutting us in two alive?

Is someone cutting us in half?

These words cannot ring truer in a landscape where we are seemingly sleepwalking into losing homes and our life savings. A world where you could walk into work and be greeted by your pink slip, when only yesterday you were probably told you were a star in the galaxies of the workplace. The world of capitalism markets has created more people on Prozac (or similar tranquilisers) in search of their own personal worth and purpose. Even dogs are said to be on Prozac now – a testament of how we treat animals today

Is this what progress is suppose to look like? Does progress leave one billion people in hunger whilst another billion overindulging on food? How can the 21st century tolerate illness due to hunger and poverty and that due to overeating of “super scale” sized food at the same time and on the same planet? Why are people overeating anyway in the first place? Is the food produced for the “life on the rat race” lacking in nutrition that we have to keep eating? Even the basics like milk are no longer pure. We get pasteurised, skimmed, 1 per cent, 99 per cent with many other combinations. Coffee used to just be yes, coffee. Today we have all sizes and designs – it has become an industry unto itself to wake the stressed life we have all subscribed to.

And then we see the springing of organic food for the enlightened. But shouldn’t all food be organic in the first place. How did our food become unhealthy and inorganic that we need to search for health in food?

How did we get here as a civilisation?

When we have movements like the 1 per cent versus the 99 per cent on wealth, countries like the USA which makes just under 6 per cent of the world’s population is said to be one of the world’s largest consumers of global resources. Yet under these same skies we have the poorest of the poorest who are probably living on dhal (lentil) and bread, living a more prosperous life than those with multi-gated security having their three course meals, all cooked and served (flown to wherever they are for some).

Robert Frank wrote a book titled “Richistan” in 2007. In a commentary article on the book he wrote, “The wealthy weren’t just getting wealthier — they were forming their own virtual country. They were wealthier than most nations, with the top 1 per cent controlling $17 trillion in wealth” He further adds, “The real story behind all this wealth, however, isn’t in the numbers. It’s in the people, and how they’re changing the culture and character of wealth in America. Richistan is largely about a country in flux — one in which Old Money is being shoved aside by self-made entrepreneurs, philanthropy is changing from passive check-writing to ‘high-engagement philanthropy,’ and the progressive new rich are changing the politics of wealth. Most of all, Richistan is about the entertaining way that today’s rich are making, spending, donating and living with their wealth. (Like the guy in my book who has a house staff of 105 people.)

It is reported that since Frank wrote the book, some of the people in the book have faced repossession, but that isn’t the question at hand here. The argument really is about what is just, what is equitable, what is equity and what is mercy? What is humanity? What indeed is our purpose on and for this earth?

This is not a debate on class warfare. It is not about being against the rich and opting for the less privileged. It is about our motives and what should be the essence of our humanity and our civilisation. Yes, these are probably questions we are asked and taught in Sunday schools, in our Islamic classes, and other similar religious settings both in our schools and homes. Yet we tend to cast it aside when we reach a certain age in our adult life. We get so hamstrung into the hamster cycle of competition and the “dog eat dog” world that we forget the simple basics of doing unto others as you like it done unto yourself.

There is little to dispute about the state of our planet today, never mind our economies and markets globally. One thing that doesn’t require a debate – we are in trouble!

The models of yesterday haven’t worked – we only need to reflect on the staggering changes in our weather cycles from East to West and the breakdown of our economies and communities. Whether we are religious in our inclinations or otherwise, we have a moral purpose and responsibility for our time on this planet; if for nothing else for the people who will stay behind to pick up the pieces after we are long gone. Do we let them pick up pieces of destruction – or savour the pieces of our achievements and success? You know we are in trouble when you don’t know for sure what is in the food packs that you are buying (this relates to the recent horse meat saga in the UK). We are in trouble when the food that is served in Muslim schools is not what it seems (a recent incident in the UK).

Progress cannot possibly bring such episodes. Progress cannot justify loss of dignity for so many in an instance and from a decision made by a reckless someone in one part of the world. Progress cannot consent dire hunger and obesity sharing the same space in time. This surely cannot be progress. Are we sleepwalking into progressive destruction?

Even in fields like medicine, how far must you and can you go to seek cure for an illness? Where do the remits and limits of conscience and ethics stand when seeking solution – is it or must it be at all cost?

Across industries and sectors, there is a real crises of conscience on what we must do differently. Abdal Hakim Murad, the Dean of Islamic School at Cambridge, wrote in a 2009 article in The Guardian, “Ours is an age that has made idols of the great banks and finance houses, driven to frenzy by competition amongst billionaires who are kept awake at night by the thought that a rival might make a business deal more quickly than them. A banker who can asset strip companies and throw its employees out onto the street is someone who is in the grip of an obsession that has thrown him beyond of the normal frontiers of humanity.”

The purpose of this column is to scour industry and sector leaders on what the role of ethics in business should entail and how it can be implemented. Does it hold a place in markets, economies and businesses? What works and what should be done? Through interviews, this column will seek to understand their views on ethics in their areas of business.

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Aristotle spoke of justice in societies and equitable spreading of wealth. Imam Ghazali, one of the most leading scholars in the Islamic tradition, wrote books on trade justice. Today we have such organisations like Fairtrade International accrediting companies to safeguard injustices and abuse against farmers so that these farmers can have a more dignified life than if they were to sell their products in the traditional conveyor process of the capital markets. In return, consumers are probably getting a better deal. Whether you are inclined towards an organic or halal industry type setting or the mass market setting, the essence of humanity needs to get back into how we transact with our fellow human beings in business. The Orwellian world view can only truly destroy our souls and of what may be left of the future of this planet.

I hope you will enjoy these interviews – there are some real great people in store at http://www.investvine.com

Editorial note: This article is the prelude to a series of interviews on ethics in business with high-ranking executives globally.

 

 

 

Fellow Malaysians–Lead a Life of Integrity


May 20, 2018

Fellow Malaysians–Lead a Life of Integrity

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I admire Rex Tillerson not because he was Secretary of State in the Trump Administration. He was never given the chance by the insecure and ego-centric  Donald Trump to prove his worth as America’s top diplomat. I believe, he could have done a great job in that role, given his education and experience in the private sector.

I respect him as Chairman, Exxon-Mobil, a Fortune 500 corporation, and for being a corporate executive with integrity. In his Commencement Address to his Alma Mater’s Class of 2018, he urges graduates of VMI to lead life of integrity (both personal and professional). The  Truth shall make us free, he said.

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Listen to Rex Tillerson so that we too shall be free. Let us make ourselves Malaysians with high standards of ethical leadership, and  build our country into great nation which is admired and respected by our neighbours in ASEAN and the world.  Yes, we can.–Din Merican

 

As UMNO-Baru says, ‘Depa Aku Pantang'(DAP) dan Kami Takut Diri Sendiri


April 21, 2018

As UMNO-Baru says, ‘Depa Aku Pantang'(DAP) dan Kami Takut Diri Sendiri

by Mariam Mokhtar @www.malaysiakini.com

COMMENT | Do you fear flying? You shouldn’t. You have a greater chance of being flattened by a lori balak (timber lorry), or be run over by a bus Some people claim that the most dangerous part of flying is the journey to the airport; negotiating bumpy roads and dicey corners. Others claim that one should not fear flying, but crashing.

On some airlines, some people are afraid of sitting beside a passenger who removes his clothes to watch porn. Or be comforted inappropriately, by a steward. Or having to eat a miserable looking nasi lemak, with limp cucumber garnish.

These are rational fears, aren’t they? Do you recall when you were a child and your mother tried to get you back inside the house, at senja (dusk), to have dinner, a wash and then, to bed. Remember her clarion call? “Cepat masuk, takut hantu datang” (quickly come inside, before the ghosts appear).

These fears worked. Now, some of you also use the same ruse to make your children come into the house at dusk, because the trick is effective.

My relatives in the kampung, who lived in houses on stilts, used to have big earthenware urns filled with water, at the bottom of the stairs. Anyone who returned home late at night, used a cebok (water scoop) to wash one’s feet. Children who refused to follow orders were told that it was necessary, so that the hantu would not follow them into the house.

Naturally, parents used to say this so that children would not bring muddy feet into the house, but the “takut hantu” ploy worked. Human primitive instincts prevail, and for the past 61 years the same tactic has been used in politics.

Tried and tested methods are used

The bogeyman is not the unseen hantu but the very active and visible Democratic Action Party (DAP). UMNO-Baru strategists are not very creative. They use tried and tested methods, like the “Takut hantu” trick to scare Malay voters into thinking that the DAP will annihilate the Malay race and destroy Islam.

UMNO-Baru leaders use the tactics used by the best cults. They have an authoritarian leader who demands absolute commitment from his followers. They go through many rituals, just like religious worshippers. They don’t call it brainwashing. It is called party policies (dasar parti).

Cult followers are isolated from mainstream society. This tactic is also used by UMNO-Baru and PAS leaders. Malays are, in reality, isolated from other communities through religious indoctrination and education. Even our schools practise segregation. Malay students attend agama classes, but non-Malays have moral civic classes. The cult of UMNO-Baru does not want integration.

The Malay child’s indoctrination is reinforced at home and in society by JAKIM (Islamic Development Department Malaysia) and the various state religious authorities. The behaviour and dress of Malays girls are strictly controlled. Yoga or dancing the poca-poca are prohibited. Enlightening books are banned. Muftis will issue fatwas to mop up Malays who refuse to toe the line.

Then they wonder why many Malays, especially the women, find new-found mental, vocal and physical liberation when they go overseas to study. Perhaps, not in the Middle East, but certainly in the West.

The UMNO-Baru leaders, who claim that DAP is the enemy, are indirectly saying that they, and UMNO-Baru, have failed. After 61 years, UMNO-Baru’s language is still couched in talks of tribalism and tribal politics, despite Malaysians having moved beyond this.

Malays hold key positions in government, the GLCs and also very senior positions in educational establishments, the Armed Forces, the Police and diplomatic missions. Most scholarship holders are Malays. What has the Malay to be scared of? Maybe, their own shadows.

The population is composed of 69 percent Malays/bumiputeras, and 23 percent Chinese. The DAP and the Christians constitute only a small percentage of the populace.

One makcik from Kelantan said, “The conservative Malay states have serious problems with their youth who indulge in drugs, middle aged men who are involved in incestuous relationships or marry young brides, and then leave many single mothers with their children in the lurch.

“The East Coast states have the largest number of viewers of online pornography. More married middle-aged women are infected with HIV-AIDS, not because they are promiscuous, but because they have unprotected sex with their husbands, who are infected.”

The leaders who have abused the rakyat’s trust, and stolen taxpayer’s money, are Malay: The National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) scandal. The Arab prince’s RM2.6 billion “donation”. The Mindef (Ministry of Defence) land allegation. The sale of Felda land. The Mara scandal. The Felda, KWSP, KWAP, Petronas, Proton, MAS and Tabung Haji fund scandals.

Using the DAP to scare the Malays is a “takut hantu” tactic. The real ‘hantu‘ can be found among the Malay leadership.


MARIAM MOKHTAR is a defender of the truth, the admiral-general of the Green Bean Army and president of the Perak Liberation Organisation (PLO). Blog, Twitter.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.