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.

Image result for the information revolution

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.

Image result for the information revolution

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?

 

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.

 

Dien Bien Phu–A Battle That Changed the World


May 8, 2018

Analysis

Dien Bien Phu–A Battle That Changed the World

 by Mike Minehan

http://www.ideaschannel.com/index.php/analysis/2798-a-battle-that-changed-the-world

Image result for Ho Chi Minh.

In the rest of the world, May 7 may have passed as just another day. But in Vietnam, May 7 is the anniversary of a great victory. This is the victory of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, when in 1954, the French garrison surrendered to the Vietminh, a communist-led nationalist movement headed by a former London pastry cook, Ho Chi Minh.

The book, Battles That Changed History (Regfan, Geoffrey, 2002, Carlton Books) includes the Battle of Dien Bien Phu because this was the battle that ended French colonial rule in Indo China, leading to a resurgent North Vietnam that eventually prevailed against the might of the world’s greatest fighting machine, the US military.

Image result for Battle of Dien Bien Phu

The USA stil likes to believe that its retreat from Vietnam was not a military defeat, and that it retreated its forces from Indo China only as the result of domestic pressure from home. But as anyone trying to escape from Saigon in 1975 as the North Vietnamese approached the outskirts of the city will testify, this retreat was a rout that not only led to the victory of the North Vietnamese, but also changed the face of South East Asia and led to far reaching changes in how war is waged and how information about war is managed.

The Vietminh general who led the communist forces at Dien Bien Phu, General Vo Nguyen Giap, was a former history teacher with a law degree. He was motivated at least in part by the death of his wife, who had died in a French prison. Giap was a self-taught soldier who learned the art of war first by fighting against the Japanese occupation of Vietnam and later, by reading Mao Zedong’s writings on guerrilla warfare.

Image result for general vo nguyen giap

 

 

Giap was helped by the arrogance of the French. The French rationale was to create an outpost that would act as a lure to entice the Vietminh into an open battle, where French artillery and tanks would annihilate the communists. Navarre believed erroneously that poorly trained and badly supplied Vietminh forces would not be a match for 13,000 professional French soldiers and the air power supporting them.

Image result for general vo nguyen giap

But because the choice of the site had been based on out-of-date French maps, the terrain ended up favoring the Vietminh instead of the French.

In preparations for the battle, Giap managed to not only outnumber the French, he outgunned them by having heavy artillery manhandled up mountains and into commanding positions dug into the surrounding heights.

The Giap supply line consisted of thousands of peasants who used Peugeot bicycles purchased from prewar French shops. Each bicycle could carry up to 500 pounds of supplies and equipment.

Eventually, the French were completely surrounded and could only be supplied by air – that is, when the monsoon weather permitted. Also, the surrounding jungle and the soft ground rendered the tanks useless and they were sometimes abandoned in the mud.

The French artillery commander, Charles Pirot, had boasted that the Vietminh artillery would be destroyed by his own after they had fired only three rounds. Navarre also believed that most of the Vietminh’s artillery rounds were defective and would fail to explode. But the Vietminh had been supplied by China, and these new artillery rounds not only exploded, but devastated the French positions.

The battle itself was a bloodbath that ended with the Vietminh finally using tunnels and tranches to breach the defenses. The artillery commander Piroth killed himself by pulling the pin on a hand grenade in his quarters. Finally, the French were forced to surrender.

The following video was produced by Russia:

Of the 10,863 prisoners taken, including Vietnamese fighting for the French, only 3,290 were officially repatriated four months later.

 

According to the book Jump Up, Victorious Insurgencies: Four Rebellions that Shaped Our World (Jones, Anthony James, 2010. University Press of Kentucky), France’s defeat in Indo China seriously damaged its prestige elsewhere in its colonial empire, as well as with its NATO allies, most importantly, the United States.

Within the remaining French empire, the French defeat in Indo China served to accelerate independence movements in other colonies, notably the North African territories which had been a recruiting ground for many of the troops who fought at Dien Bien Phu (Ibid.)

Dien Bien Phu was also a springboard for a resurgent South East Asia, and the 7th May 1954 victory ended the misconception that the military might of the west was unassailable.

The lessons from Dien Bien Phu are studied today in military  academies around the world.

Self Determination– The Who, Where, and When of Secession


October 5, 2017

Self Determination–The Who, Where, and When of Secession

Joseph S. Nye

by Joseph S. Nye@ http://www.project-syndicate.org

National self-determination, the principle that US President Woodrow Wilson put on the international agenda in 1918, is generally defined as the right of a people to form its own state. The independence referendums in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia are the latest examples showing why that principle is so often difficult to apply.

CAMBRIDGE – Kurds in northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence for the country’s Kurdistan Region. With some 30 million Kurds divided among four states (Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran), nationalists argue that they deserve the world’s recognition. In Spain, some 7.5 million Catalans have raised the same question.

Does it matter that polls show Catalans, unlike Kurds, to be closely divided on the issue? Does it matter that the states bordering Iraqi Kurdistan might use force to resist secession?

National self-determination, the principle that US President Woodrow Wilson put on the international agenda in 1918, is generally defined as the right of a people to form its own state. But who is the “self” that makes this determination?

Consider Somalia, whose people, unlike those of most other newly independent African states, had roughly the same linguistic and ethnic background. Neighboring Kenya was formed by colonial rule from dozens of peoples or tribes. Somalia claimed that the self-determination principle should allow Somalis in northeastern Kenya and southern Ethiopia to secede. Kenya and Ethiopia refused, resulting in a number of regional wars over the Somali national question.

The ironic sequel was that Somalia itself later fragmented in a civil war among its clans and warlord leaders. Today, its northern region, Somaliland, exists as a de facto independent state, though it lacks international recognition or United Nations membership.

Voting does not always solve problems of self-determination. First, there is the question of where one votes. In Ireland, for example, Catholics objected for many years that if a vote were held within the political area of Northern Ireland, the two-thirds Protestant majority would rule. Protestants replied that if a vote were held within the geographical area of the entire island, the Catholic majority would rule. Eventually, after decades of strife, outside mediation helped bring peace to Northern Ireland.

There is also the question of when one votes? In the 1960s, the Somalis wanted to vote immediately; Kenya wanted to wait 40 or 50 years while it reshaped tribal allegiances and forged a Kenyan identity.

Image result for CataloniaCatalonia–For Independence for Spain

Another problem is how one weighs the interests of those left behind. Does secession harm them, by taking resources away or causing other disruption? Iraqi Kurdistan holds significant oil reserves, and Catalonia is estimated to account for a fifth of Spain’s GDP. Spain’s government argues that the upcoming independence vote in Catalonia is illegal under the Spanish constitution.

History is not encouraging. After the Habsburg Empire was dismantled in 1918, the Sudetenland was incorporated into Czechoslovakia, even though most people there spoke German. After the agreement reached in Munich with Adolf Hitler in 1938, the Sudeten Germans seceded from Czechoslovakia and joined Germany. But the loss of the mountainous frontier where they lived was a terrible setback for Czech defenses. Was it right to allow self-determination for the Sudeten Germans, even if it meant stripping Czechoslovakia (which Germany dismembered six months later) of its military defenses?

To take another African example, when the people of eastern Nigeria decided to secede and form the state of Biafra in the 1960s, other Nigerians resisted, in part because Biafra included most of Nigeria’s oil. They argued that the oil belonged to all the people of Nigeria, not just the eastern area.

After the Cold War ended, self-determination became an acute issue in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In the Caucasus, Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, Abkhazians, and Chechens all demanded states of their own.

In Yugoslavia, Slovenes, Serbs, and Croats managed to carve out independent republics, but the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina were less successful, and were subjected to a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” by both Croatian and Serb forces.

In 1995, a NATO peacekeeping force was sent to the troubled area, but when NATO intervened militarily in Kosovo in 1999, Russia backed Serbia’s objections to secession, and Kosovo has still not been admitted to the UN. In turn, Russia invoked self-determination to support Abkhazia’s secession from Georgia in 2008, and its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Self-determination turns out to be an ambiguous moral principle. Wilson thought it would bring stability to Central Europe; instead, Hitler used the principle to undermine the region’s fragile new states in the 1930s.

The lesson remains valid today. Given that less than 10% of the world’s states are homogeneous, treating self-determination as a primary rather than secondary moral principle could have disastrous consequences in many parts of the world. Indeed, hostile ethnic groups are often mixed like a marble cake, rather than neatly separable like a layer cake. That makes partition difficult, as India discovered in 1947. Perhaps that is why only a few new states have been admitted to the UN in this century. After it seceded from Sudan, ethnic turmoil inside South Sudan continued, practically unabated.

The best hope for the future is to ask what is being determined as well as who determines it. In cases where groups cohabit a state uneasily, it may be possible to allow a degree of autonomy in the determination of internal affairs. Countries like Switzerland or Belgium provide considerable cultural, economic, and political autonomy to their constitutive groups.

Where autonomy is not enough, it may be possible to arrange an amicable divorce, as when Czechoslovakia peacefully divided into two sovereign countries. But absolute demands for self-determination are more likely to become a source of violence, which is why they must be handled extremely carefully. Before invoking self-determination as a moral principle, one must heed the diplomatic version of the Hippocratic Oath: Primum non nocere (first, do no harm).