- Humans have always needed energy. For much of modern history, our needs were modest, and our means of extraction primitive. Recently, we started burning fossil fuels. These released heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Because of this, worldwide temperatures steadily rose. This was known as global warming.
- Global warming lead to the melting of ice in the Arctic, which is leading to rising sea levels. It also threatens to cause the extinction of endangered species, and increase the likelihood of extreme weather events.
- There are three parts to solving this problem:
- Reducing emissions – The best way to ensure that this takes place is to 1) tax fossil fuels, and 2) subsidize renewable sources of energy. This is an ideal solution, since it targets the disease rather than the symptom. When oil companies extract fossil fuel from the earth and sell it, they do not pay for the damage done to the environment. The carbon tax ensures this happens. On the other hand, when renewable energy companies build solar panels, or when people buy electric cars, no-one pays them back for the good they do to the environment. The subsidy ensures this happens.
- Preparing ourselves- This means if a natural disaster happens tomorrow because of climate change, we should be prepared. This can be done through as reducing the population density around coastal areas, and improving the infrastructure of our cities.
- Modifying our environment artificially (geo-engineering)– This is the worst-case apocalypse scenario which involves either reducing the sunlight hitting the earth (thereby making it less warm), or reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere (thereby making it less warm again)
- Finally, society has spent enough time debating the validity and severity of climate change. It is time the scientific and political discourse changes to solutions to tackle this global problem.
The first AI problem, the effects of which can be felt today is the disruption of jobs due to automation. The automation penetration levels are only slated to rise, and thus jobs in every field, and of every skill level shall be impacted adversely. The two main methods to tackle this problem include a) an automation tax, which calculates the automation level of each company, and accordingly taxes them, thus incentivizing the hiring of human workers, and b) the establishment of a universal basic income, whereby free money is distributed to everyone, with no strings attached.
The second AI problem, deals with who controls AI. It is pretty obvious that evil AI mustn’t fall into evil hands. This leads to the pressing need of an all-encompassing AI charter- forbidding companies and government agencies from not sharing substantial progress in AI technology, and forbidding countries from using such AI for military purposes, ushering in the demilitarization and democratization of AI.
The third problem is the one with the greatest consequences- the actions of a superintelligent robot. Given how difficult it is to program an end goal into a computer, the difficulty is only amplified when you realize this must occur within a moral, and legal framework. You, then have the additional task of validating those defined end goals using those moral and legal frameworks to prevent any evil use. If you were an AI researcher with such technology at your hands, it would be much more tempting to simply unleash it into the world. To tackle this problem, the scale of ongoing AI safety research must be greatly amplified, and expeditious solutions found.
But why should I care? So long as Google Assistant can provide me with better answers, and Facebook can help me find long-lost friends, how does it make any matter? Advertising, after all, is an important part of their business model. Without advertising these services would not be free. Would you want to live in a world like that?
If you are like me, your life revolves around the Internet. Everyday, we are bombarded with hilarious memes, disheartening news, and trashy pop songs as we traverse through the Interwebs. Yet, as we navigate through our digital journey, we leave digital breadcrumbs along our path. With every website we visit, YouTube rabbit hole we fall down, meme we upvote, and comment we make, we drop behind one more crumb.
And there are multi-billion dollar corporations that work meticulously just to pick these crumbs up.
But why would anybody care about my crumbs?
Storytime it is.
Starting January 11, 2012, Facebook ran an experiment on its users. About 700,000 users, chosen randomly, had their News Feed tweaked with. Some of them were shown posts that were judged by an algorithm as being “happier” than average, while others were shown posts judged as being “sadder” than average. This human lab-rat experiment continued for a week. At the end of their data collection, they analysed over 3 million posts, containing some 122 million words. And what did they find?
“The results show emotional contagion. As Fig. 1 illustrates, for people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people’s status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results suggest that the emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks and providing support for previously contested claims that emotions spread via contagion through a network.”
When this story became available to the public, it sparked a fiery debate about its ethicality. Researchers from Facebook, Cornell, and a researcher from Princeton involved at different stages of publishing the research paper, have all made their respective statements. (click here)
But it didn’t end there. The internet tore into Facebook with questions. Why was an independent ethics committee consulted only way after the experiment was already underway? How did an experiment like this ever pass the Facebook’s so-called “internal review process”? Because, that was not the only thing they set out to prove.
We also observed a withdrawal effect: People who were exposed to fewer emotional posts (of either valence) in their News Feed were less expressive overall on the following days, addressing the question about how emotional expression affects social engagement online.
In simple words, posts that were not emotionally charged lowered engagement on Facebook’s website- meaning Facebook has an incentive to display more emotional posts, even if it comes at the cost of the cold hard truth.
All of this raises one big dilemma – what if, all of us are, right now, a part of such an experiment, with Facebook playing with our emotions? This research paper was published first on June 2, 2014, two whole years after the experiment’s completion. Would we even know? Are we really comfortable putting 2.4 billion human beings at the risk of emotional manipulation by a soulless technology empire?
Since then, the methods in the study have been questioned. The Atlantic reports that according to John Grohol, “the study’s methods are hampered by the misuse of tools: Software better matched to analyze novels and essays, he says, is being applied toward the much shorter texts on social networks.”
Facebook executives did not apologize for the incident.
Most of all, it is important to understand that the only way to prevent such initiatives from getting more invasive is by safeguarding our privacy. In 2014, they might have been judging your emotion based on your status updates. Who knows what they’re tracking now? Your likes? Shares? Comments? Your friend circle? Whatever it may be, one thing is clear: the answer does not lie in surrendering more and more personal data to a big company.
The Big Five
The Big Five of the Internet: Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, and Google – function essentially as the gatekeepers of the tech world. A common dare floated around in internet communities is a challenge to spend an entire day on the Internet without the Big Five. Most people fail this challenge. It seems entirely impossible.
A crucial idea to keep in mind is that in the current design, companies don’t take actions based of their conscience. Most companies are profit-making machines and exist solely to serve the interests of their shareholders. Therefore, trusting a company is a mistake unless their business interests align with yours.
Therefore, as important as worrying about the concentration of power in the hands of these “self-anointed gatekeepers of the Internet” is, it is critical to not forget the incentives that drive this behavior: the misalignment of consumer and business interests.
It is no surprise, then that each one of them has a long history of violating digital privacy rights. It is also no surprise, that each one of them has their own bizarre justifications for doing what they do. But you don’t have to trust me. Just look at how their business interests operate and how that has informed their decisions in the past.
To understand just how much power Google possesses, simply consider all the data they have on you.
Google knows every single place you’ve visited, mail you’ve sent, video you’ve watched, every agenda item on your calendar, every search you’ve performed, picture you’ve shot, phone you’ve had, and app you’ve installed. If you use Google Drive to backup youre data, they have your files, if you use Google News, they know the issues you care about, and finally if you use an Android phone, they also know when and which apps you opened, and approximately how much time you spent on each.
And that’s just all the data they say they have. With the omnipresent nature of Google Ad’s services, Chrome’s tracking of browser history, and YouTube’s takeover of video on the Internet, it is not even a stretch of the imagination to say they know every single place you have ever been on the Internet.
And don’t presume that Google is some high-minded virtuous entity. Just like any other company, they value corporate profits over anything else.
Google has proven this time and time again. It remained complicit with the Chinese governments requests for censorship into all searches, therefore standing quietly by and minting money while they watched the privacy and security of millions erode. They helped the government actively block search terms related to peace and human rights-proving that they cared more about their own profit.
Google continues to aggressively establish its monopoly over the tech world, and for many people (in combination with Facebook) is essentially their entire Internet experience. Google today controls about 75% of the smartphone OS market with Android, 62% of the browser market with Chrome, and an astonishing 92% of the search market with Google Search.
And Google’s violations only make sense given their business model. Google makes a vast majority of all their revenue from advertising. Targeted advertising depends on the collection of data from millions of unsuspecting users, who will trade the illusion of convenience for privacy. This core business model divorces Google from the notion of respecting digital privacy, and forces them to agressively expand their market even if it means monopolistic practises and ignorance of digital rights.
To visualize what Facebook know about your psyche, simply consider all the data they have on you.
If you, like 2.32 billion fellow earthlings, have a Facebook profile, I am sorry to break it to you-but just like Google, Facebook too has been quietly feasting their eyes on you.
Facebook knows every post you’ve liked, every comment you’ve made, friend you’ve added, the contents and metadata of every status update you uploaded, or even personal chat message you sent. It also knows your political values, alumni associations, and all the other personal information you might have added to your profile – your place of work, place of birth and college. And no, it doesn’t stop there. Facebook also owns WhatsApp, which gives it access to every single contact you have on your phone (with your prior permission) – and possibly the metadata of your conversations (only the actual conversations are encrypted), and your status updates.
And that’s just the information you provide Facebook, and they say they have. Which is why, you shouldn’t for a second imagine that you are off the hook if you’ve never used Facebook. Chances are that one of you many friends unwittingly gave away your real name, your e-mail address and your phone number when they connected their contacts to their Facebook profile. Chances also are that you unwittingly allow Facebook trackers and cookies follow you across the Internet as they scrape off an intimate understanding of your personality. This data often belongs to those who have never consented to any Facebook privacy agreement in their life, and is stored in what are popularly known as “shadow profiles”. What’s particularly sinister about these is just how opaque they are – we can neither see what’s in them, and nor does Facebook give us the option of deleting them.
And do I even need to provide any more evidence?
Unless you live under a rock, you would have seen Facebook in the news a lot this year – and for all the wrong reasons. From fake news, hate speech, allegations of aiding election manipulation, and the #DeleteFacebook campaign, the public perception of Facebook is at an all-time low.
Facebook never started off with honorable aspirations – but now their monopolistic desires seem to have come to the forefront. Out of the top 6 social media platforms ranked by monthly users, 4 are owned by Facebook (Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram), the largest of which has 2.32 billion active monthly users as of April 2019.
What this means is that Facebook, with a business model based almost solely on advertising faces no responsibility for moderating their actions while trying to enrich their products. And this setup breeds a ripe environment for the erosion of digital right-something that Facebook has shown impunity while violating.
And these were just two examples- Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft also remained much reviled names in digital rights circles – and for good reason. Apple uses privacy as a marketing stunt, while continuing to double-deal consumers behind their backs. Windows 10 has been sending data to Microsoft for ages at this point. Finally, Amazon has had to deal with scathing privacy concerns over Alexa and Ring. Furthemore, all of these but Amazon were involved in the NSA’s PRISM program.
The bigger picture here is this: these companies have bloated to gargantuan sizes. They also no longer have business models that align with the public interest.
This is the issue. An issue only amplified by their sheer impact on the digital world.
Data is a curious thing. It is nothing short of a seemingly random series of ones and zeros imprinted in our hard drives. Yet, each passing day, we entrust more and more to data. Bank transactions. Health records. Birth and death certificates. Because, as it turns out, these crumbs speak a lot more about ourselves then we can hope to imagine.
Data is also fickle. It bares no loyalty or origin. It slithers between servers. Your computer. Your ISP. Ad services. Social media networks. Third-party apps. These make just a minute fraction of servers containing data that can be linked directly back to you.
And increasingly, data is powerful. Everyone says information is the new currency. If so, the internet is at the forefront of distributing this currency. Emotion manipulation. Facial detection. Election tinkering. Combine the brute force of large data-sets and adroitness of algorithms to sift through and learn from them, and it’s might can be astonishing.
Checks and balances form the basis of democracy. No one individual or corporation must be allowed to reign supreme, without some system to regulate their power. The erosion of digital privacy has, allowed corporations and governments to create such a system which betrays these very ideals.
In the words of whistleblower Edward Snowden, this data is in the hands of a system whose “reach is unlimited but safeguards are not”. And that is a civil rights issue.
The wild monstrosity you feast your eyes on right now, costs thousands of dollars to build. That’s right. For the cost of this computer you could buy a mid-range car, invest in a year’s education, or even buy 10 premium iPhones. So what, you may inquire, is so special about this computer? Why would anyone in their right minds spend their time and money building their own computer, when they could simply buy that old Dell machine from the local electronics store? And how could it even possibly be better than the latest shiny steel MacBook Pro that Apple just announced?
It costs less
PC building is not a game for the rich- in fact, if you are on a budget, building your own PC might be your best bet. As a rule of thumb, building your own PC is almost always cheaper than buying a comparable laptop or pre-made desktop.
For example, here is the 15″ MacBook Pro, coming in at a staggering $2400 dollars. And here are it’s specs.
CPU: 2.6GHz 6-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz, with 12MB shared L3 cache
Memory: 16GB of 2400MHz DDR4 onboard memory
Storage: 256GB SSD
Graphics: Radeon Pro 55X with 4GB of GDDR5 memory and automatic graphics switching
Display: 15.4 inch LED IPS, 2880*1800 @220ppi
And here’s a custom PC, with comparable or better specs. Tallying the individual costs of parts lands us just shy of half the price of the MacBook Pro.
|CPU||AMD Ryzen 5 2600 3.4 GHz 6-Core Processor||$127.09 @ Amazon|
|Motherboard||*ASRock B450M PRO4 Micro ATX AM4 Motherboard||$75.58 @ Newegg|
|Memory||*ADATA XPG Z1 16 GB (2 x 8 GB) DDR4-3000 Memory||$64.78 @ Amazon|
|Storage||*Crucial BX500 240 GB 2.5″ Solid State Drive||$34.54 @ Adorama|
|Storage||*Western Digital RE 2 TB 3.5″ 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive||$50.62 @ Amazon|
|Video Card||*XFX Radeon RX 580 8 GB GTS XXX ED Video Card||$179.99 @ Best Buy|
|Power Supply||*Corsair CXM (2015) 450 W 80+ Bronze Certified Semi-modular ATX Power Supply||$63.22 @ Amazon|
|Monitor||LG 27UD58-B 27.0″ 3840×2160 60 Hz Monitor||$301.32 @ Amazon|
|Keyboard||Tecware Phantom RGB Wired Gaming Keyboard||$49.66 @ Amazon|
|Mouse||*Logitech M330 SILENT PLUS Wireless Optical Mouse||$20.00 @ Amazon|
|Speakers||*Cyber Acoustics CA3001WB 14 W 2.1 Channel Speakers||$21.57 @ Amazon|
|Custom||A good case||$50.00|
|Prices include shipping, taxes, rebates, and discounts|
|*Lowest price parts chosen from parametric criteria|
|Generated by PCPartPicker 2019-10-29 14:35 EDT-0400|
It’s upgradable and repairable
Device-makers are incentivized to keep consumers on a constant upgrade schedule. It is because of this that we live in a world of planned obsolesence. Every manufacturer implements their own tactics and methods – but the end goal is the same: to enforce an artificial life span on your products, making them obsolete after this stipulated time.
Fewer and fewer companies each day give you a) spare first-party replacement parts, or b) easy accessibility to the internals of your own devices. This means each day it is harder to repair or upgrade your own devices. Increasingly, companies are actively attempting through anti-consumer measures to limit the enforcement of the Right to Repair.
With a PC, the keys to the kingdom are in your hand. Broken case fan? No problem, just order a new one for 15 bucks off of Amazon. Experiencing power supply isssues? Just switch your PSU, or get an Uninterruptible Power Supply. The troubleshooting opportunities are endless- and they will save you a buck.
The possibilities extend beyond just repairing. Since every part is under your control, you can just simply upgrade selective parts of your system as and when you require. Whether it be enabling greater multitasking by downloading more RAM, or enabling yourself to play the latest game by upgrading your GPU- nothing is impossible.
It’s customizable- functionally and aesthetically
Say you are a professional photo editor but you’re on a budget. You can probably skimp on a high-end GPU, but you really want a multi-threated CPU. You need super-fast storage only for the projects you are working on, which are generally never larger than 30GB in size, and for the rest of your workload, you don’t mind slow sequential storage, so long as you can store everything. Oh, and your monitor must have decent color accuracy, you’d like a mechanical keyboard, and you need an ergonomic mouse for those long hours. You are a heavy multi-tasker…
Try fitting those demands into your regular 13” laptop. Or even a pre-built desktop computer. Chances are, you’d never find something just perfect for your needs, and you’d end up way over your budget. But with a PC, you select the components, and you allocate the budgets, so you can make the exact set of trade-offs that you want.
The same goes for aesthetics. Most laptops are now sleek black boxes, with little to no variation between them. The same can be for pre-built desktops, except that those somehow look even worse. But with a PC, you can choose everything, from the way the case looks, to how it all lights up, down to the color of each individual part. And that’s not even delving into the crazy crazy world of case mods and spray painting and whatever it is these creative nerds do with their computers.
It’s a hobby and a community
The custom PC building community has grown by leaps and bounds in both quantity and quality since it’s nascent days. It now encompasses YouTube channels that are small businesses themselves, tech journalism websites, PC part selection websites, and of course the multiple vast online forums and subreddits. And although gaming communities are reviled for their famed toxicity- these forums are full of knowledgable and helpful individuals – ready to answer your questions along the way.
The PC gamers even have a name for the community: the PC Master Race.
Knowing how a computer works in the 21st century is somewhat of a life skill – like being able to repair your car or radio once was. Building your own PC means that you will have a) a more structured academic understanding of the various parts of any computer system, and more importantly, b) an organic understanding of how it all works together to influence your overall computing experience.
The best thing about this is that these skills will last you through your life- whether it be buying a mobile phone, tablet or laptop, enabling you to make informed decisions about all future electronics purchases.
It’s not that hard
As much as we like potraying ourselves as the shady underground geek indie grassroots DIY hacker ethos community, PC building isn’t even that hard anymore. A popular joke within the community is that PC building is basically “lego for adults”.
With a single 15 minute tutorial, anyone can build their own computer in minutes. And that’s not to mention that countless trouble-shooting guides and community forums on the Internet to help you deal with every possible mistake you could make along the way.
Finally, building a PC offers you two major freedoms, which I passionately believe are fundamental to one’s digital existence : a) freedom to control over your hardware, and b) the freedom to control over your software. Let me explain these in detail:
a) Control over hardware
As Edward Snowden writes in Permanent Record, we now live in a technological tyranny of ignorance:
“Ours was now a country in which the cost of replacing a broken machine with a newer model was typically lower than the cost of having it fixed by an expert, which itself was typically lower than the cost of sourcing the parts and figuring out how to fix it yourself. This fact alone virtually guaranteed technological tyranny, which was perpetuated not by the technology itself but by the ignorance of everyone who used it daily and yet failed to understand it. To refuse to inform yourself about the basic operation and maintenance of the equipment you depended on was to passively accept that tyranny and agree to its terms: when your equipment works, you’ll work, but when your equipment breaks down you’ll break down, too. Your possessions would possess you.”
No longer do you have to depend on large corporations to configure and repair your computer. You need nothing more than a friendly Internet user and a screwdriver – and voila, you just saved a trip to the local Genius Bar, or frustrating hours on the Dell helpline number.
No longer do you have to trust companies to install killswitches in their webcams, or not install keyloggers in their keyboards – simply unplug the webcam or change your keyboard. No longer do you have to wait around for all the companies over the world to upgrade to the GPU you need for your next project. Simply install it yourself.
Building your own computer grants you agency over your own digital life- a sort of freedom to control your own device.
b) Control over software
As covered earlier in this blog, the digital privacy of civilians is under attack from corporations and governments. Building your own computer allows you to bypass these intrusive surveillance measures that companies may or may not have installed on your computer. And before you dismiss this as paranoia, listen in to Edward Snowden again:
“I was reminded of what is perhaps the fundamental rule of technological progress: if something can be done, it probably will be done, and possibly already has been.”
Run away from locked BIOS’s and delayed security patches to glaring issues. Run away from propietary operating systems and god knows what malicious code companies implement under the hood. Run away from not being able to overclock your own processors, or changing the refresh rate of your monitor.
And enter the world of total control and customization. Modern motherboard BIOS’s allow you to change everything from your fan curve to the clock speed and multiplier of your CPU. Boot into as many operating systems as you want, and install security patches as and when they arrive exactly when you want to- not hidden somewhere deep underneath some intrusive OS update.
Footnote: None of this is to say that there aren’t greedy corporations wanting to suck your soul in this space either. Anyone who’s followed the tech industry for a while knows the kind of shady shit companies like Nvidia and Intel and AMD pull all the time. But the fundamental difference is this: these companies control only a single, limited aspect of your digital existence: one component of your device. Furthermore, in this market where specs are everything, margins are low and customers are highly educated, companies are forced to listen to customer demands and respond to journalistic pressure.
There are many glowing examples in just the recent years of companies shutting down predatory schemes and offering better prices, simply because a few major YouTubers got behind the cause. Such examples include the closure of the Nvidia GeForce Partner program, the backlash Verge Media faced after publishing inaccurate and potentially dangerous PC building instructions causing them to pull down the video, and finally widespread criticism of the Intel-Principled Technologies whitepaper controversy.
Finally, journalism in this industry is top-class. Almost all major figures are passionate and knowledgable about technology, and extremely transparent in the running of their business. Many go as far as to disclose their sources of income, criticize even their sponsors for their misdeeds, and publicly denounce unethical practices like “paid reviews”