The midterm elections and the American political crisis

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30 September 2014

Early voting began last Thursday in Iowa, and mail-in voting has begun in several states for the US general election set for November 4. The contests on the ballot include a third of the US Senate, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and the governorships of 36 out of 50 states, as well as thousands of seats in state legislatures.

Yet from the standpoint of everyday life in America, one would hardly know an election was taking place. There is little discussion of electoral politics in factories, offices and other workplaces, and little interest in the candidates of either of the two corporate-controlled parties.

The elections are taking place in the aftermath of the decision by the Obama administration, with the bipartisan backing of congressional Republicans and Democrats, to plunge into a new imperialist war in the Middle East, with the bombing of Syria and the dispatch of thousands of American troops to Iraq. Yet there is not a way for the working class to make its opinion heard on this or any significant element of policy.

On the specific question of the bombing of Iraq and Syria, Congress adjourned without attempting to vote on the Obama administration’s new war, while approving, with large bipartisan majorities in both House and Senate, the financing of “moderate” rebels seeking to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Voter turnout in the primaries in which the Democrats and Republicans chose their candidates fell to record lows this year. In many cases, fewer than five percent of eligible voters went to the polls. All indications are that voter turnout in the November 4 balloting will be even lower than the dismal 37 percent recorded in the last non-presidential election in 2010.

The indifference to the electoral process and its outcome testifies to the deepening alienation of the population from both the political system and the corporate-dominated socioeconomic order that the two parties defend. Tens of millions of working people see the Democrats and Republicans as providing government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich, and they are not wrong.

According to a CBS-New York Times poll conducted September 12-15, only five percent of voters thought their own congressional representative deserved reelection, while 87 percent favored replacing the incumbent with someone new. Poll after poll shows majority opposition to both the Democrats and Republicans. But despite these sentiments, the two-party political monopoly ensures that the election to be held in five weeks will change nothing.

Projections and forecasts by campaign consultants and election analysts agree that the Republicans will retain their majority in the House of Representatives, gaining or losing at most a handful of seats; the Republicans will add at least three seats in the US Senate to their present total of 45, and may well achieve the 51-vote majority that would give them control of the upper house. The Democrats are expected to take back some of the state governorships that Republicans won in their 2010 electoral sweep.

The likelihood of Republican gains, despite the deep unpopularity of both the Republican Party and its ultra-right policies, is an indictment of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party, which represent merely another brand of right-wing, pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist policies.

Obama’s approval rating has plunged, not merely in the states won by Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, but in so-called “blue states” like New York, where the most recent Marist poll found only 39 percent approval in a state where Obama captured 63.3 percent of the vote two years ago.

A Pew poll over the summer found that the revelations of massive NSA surveillance of Americans, as well as the threat of greater US involvement in Mideast wars, have alienated millions, particularly young people, who had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Add to that the constant provocation of the president proclaiming the “success” of his economic policies, which have boosted the stock market and the wealth of the super-rich to record levels, while unemployment remains high and real wages decline.

Whatever the outcome of elections in the United States, the political apparatus as a whole moves steadily to the right. Since coming to power nearly six years ago, Obama has embraced and extended the major policies of the Bush administration, particularly in the area of foreign policy and attacks on democratic rights. The doctrines of the Bush administration to justify torture have been resurrected under Obama to argue for presidential power to carry out the assassination of US citizens without any due process.

In domestic social policy as well, Obama carried forward the most important initiatives of his predecessor, above all the bailout of the big banks and financial institutions in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street crash. Obama intensified the attacks on public education, reached several deals with congressional Republicans for austerity measures to cut public spending on other social programs, launched an assault on health care programs under the guise of reform, and arrested and deported more immigrants in six years than Bush did in eight years.

Money predominates over the entire process. In campaign fundraising for 2014, for example, the Democrats have actually raked in more money in large donations from the super-rich than the Republicans, with the 15 top Democrat-aligned political action committees outraising the 15 top Republican PACs by $453 million to $289 million. In key Senate races like North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska, endangered Democratic incumbents have raised far more and spent far more than their Republican challengers.

All of this is a measure of the crisis of bourgeois rule in the United States. The state is run by a combination of a corporate and financial aristocracy and a military-intelligence apparatus that makes all decisions behind closed doors. Policy is marketed to the public on the basis of lies and propaganda parroted by the mass media.

The institutions of the ruling class, among which one must include the trade unions and the network of organizations around the Democratic Party, seek desperately to prop up a hollowed out apparatus in which democratic forms are an increasingly threadbare cover for the dictatorship of the banks. This is the political form that corresponds to the extraordinary level of social inequality that is the dominant feature of American life and has soared to new records in the six years since the 2008 financial collapse.

American working people should draw the necessary political conclusions. To carry forward a struggle against war and militarism, and to defend jobs, living standards, social conditions and democratic rights, the working class must break with the two parties of big business and build an independent political movement.

Patrick Martin

John Holloway: cracking capitalism vs. the state option

by Amador Fernández-Savater on September 29, 2014

Post image for John Holloway: cracking capitalism vs. the state optionWith left parties on the rise in Spain and Greece, John Holloway reflects on his influential 2002 thesis: can we change the world without taking power?

Interview by Amador Fernández-Savater. Translated by Richard Mac Duinnsleibhe and edited by Arianne Sved of Guerrilla Translation.

In 2002, John Holloway published a landmark book: Change the World without Taking Power. Inspired by the ‘¡Ya basta!’ of the Zapatistas, by the movement that emerged in Argentina in 2001/’02, and by the anti-globalization movement, Holloway sets out a hypothesis: it is not the idea of revolution or transformation of the world that has been refuted as a result of the disaster of authoritarian communism, but rather the idea of revolution as the taking of power, and of the party as the political tool par excellence.

Holloway discerns another concept of social change at work in these movements, and generally in every practice—however visible or invisible it may be—where a logic different from that of profit is followed: the logic of cracking capitalism. That is, to create, within the very society that is being rejected, spaces, moments, or areas of activity in which a different world is prefigured. Rebellions in motion. From this perspective, the idea of organization is no longer equivalent to that of the party, but rather entails the question of how the different cracks that unravel the fabric of capitalism can recognize each other and connect.

But after Argentina’s “que se vayan todos” came the Kirchner government, and after Spain’s “no nos representan” appeared Podemos. We met with John Holloway in the city of Puebla, Mexico, to ask him if, after everything that has happened in the past decade, from the progressive governments of Latin America to Podemos and Syriza in Europe, along with the problems for self-organized practices to exist and multiply, he still thinks that it is possible to “change the world without taking power.”

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Firstly, John, we would like to ask you where the hegemonic idea of revolution in the 20th century comes from, what it is based on. That is, the idea of social change through the taking of power.

I think the central element is labor, understood as wage labor. In other words, alienated or abstract labor. Wage labor has been, and still is, the bedrock of the trade union movement, of the social democratic parties that were its political wing, and also of the communist movements. This concept defined the revolutionary theory of the labor movement: the struggle of wage labor against capital. But its struggle was limited because wage labor is the complement of capital, not its negation.

I don’t understand the relation between this idea of labor and that of revolution through the taking of state power.

One way of understanding the connection would be as follows: if you start off from the definition of labor as wage or alienated labor, you start off from the idea of the workers as victims and objects of the system of domination. And a movement that struggles to improve the living standards of workers (considered as victims and objects) immediately refers to the state. Why? Because the state, due to its very separation from society, is the ideal institution if one seeks to achieve benefits for people. This is the traditional thinking of the labor movement and that of the left governments that currently exist in Latin America.

But this tradition isn’t the only approach to a politics of emancipation…

Of course not. In the last twenty or thirty years we find a great many movements that claim something else: it is possible to emancipate human activity from alienated labor by opening up cracks where one is able to do things differently, to do something that seems useful, necessary, and worthwhile to us; an activity that is not subordinated to the logic of profit.

These cracks can be spatial (places where other social relations are generated), temporal (“Here, in this event, for the time that we are together, we are going to do things differently. We are going to open windows onto another world.”), or related to particular activities or resources (for example, cooperatives or activities that pursue a non-market logic with regard to water, software, education, etc.). The world, and each one of us, is full of these cracks.

The rejection of alienated and alienating labor entails, at the same time, a critique of the institutional and organizational structures, and the mindset that springs from it. This is how we can explain the rejection of trade unions, parties, and the state that we observe in so many contemporary movements, from the Zapatistas to the Greek or Spanish indignados.

But it isn’t a question of the opposition between an old and a new politics, I think. Because what we see in the movements born of the economic crisis is that those two things come to the fore at the same time: cracks such as protests in city squares, and new parties such as Syriza or Podemos.

I think it’s a reflection of the fact that our experience under capitalism is contradictory. We are victims and yet we are not. We seek to improve our living standards as workers, and also to go beyond that, to live differently. In one respect we are, in effect, people who have to sell their labor power in order to survive. But in another, each one of us has dreams, behaviors and projects that don’t fit into the capitalist definition of labor.

The difficulty, then as now, lies in envisioning the relation between those two types of movements. How can that relation avoid reproducing the old sectarianism? How can it be a fruitful relation without denying the fundamental differences between the two perspectives?

Argentina in 2001 and 2002, the indignados in Greece and Spain more recently. At a certain point, bottom-up movements stall, they enter a crisis or an impasse, or they vanish. Would you say that the politics of cracks has intrinsic limits in terms of enduring and expanding?

I wouldn’t call them limits, but rather problems. Ten years ago, when I published Change the World without Taking Power, the achievements and the power of movements from below were more apparent, whereas now we are more conscious of the problems. The movements you mention are enormously important beacons of hope, but capital continues to exist and it’s getting worse and worse; it progressively entails more misery and destruction. We cannot confine ourselves to singing the praises of movements. That’s not enough.

Could one response then be the option that focuses on the state?

It’s understandable why people want to go in that direction, very understandable. These have been years of ferocious struggles, but capital’s aggression remains unchanged. I sincerely hope that Podemos and Syriza do win the elections, because that would change the current kaleidoscope of social struggles. But I maintain all of my objections with regard to the state option.

Any government of this kind entails channeling aspirations and struggles into institutional conduits that, by necessity, force one to seek a conciliation between the anger that these movements express and the reproduction of capital. Because the existence of any government involves promoting the reproduction of capital (by attracting foreign investment, or through some other means), there is no way around it. This inevitably means taking part in the aggression that is capital. It’s what has already happened in Bolivia and Venezuela, and it will also be the problem in Greece or Spain.

Could it be a matter of complementing the movements from below with a movement oriented towards government institutions?

That’s the obvious answer that keeps coming up. But the problem with obvious answers is that they suppress contradictions. Things can’t be reconciled so easily. From above, it may be possible to improve people’s living conditions, but I don’t think one can break with capitalism and generate a different reality. And I sincerely believe that we’re in a situation where there are no long-term solutions for the whole of humanity within capitalism.

I’m not discrediting the state option because I myself don’t have an answer to offer, but I don’t think it’s the solution.

Where are you looking for the answer?

Whilst not considering parties of the left as enemies, since for me this is certainly not the case, I would say that the answer has to be thought of in terms of deepening the cracks.

If we’re not going to accept the annihilation of humanity, which, to me, seems to be on capitalism’s agenda as a real possibility, then the only alternative is to think that our movements are the birth of another world. We have to keep building cracks and finding ways of recognizing them, strengthening them, expanding them, connecting them; seeking the confluence or, preferably, the commoning of the cracks.

If we think in terms of state and elections, we are straying away from that, because Podemos or Syriza can improve things, but they cannot create another world outside the logic of capital. And that’s what this is all about, I think.

Finally, John, how do you see the relation between the two perspectives we’ve been talking about?

We need to keep a constant and respectful debate going without suppressing the differences and the contradictions. I think the basis for a dialogue could be this: no one has the solution.

For the moment, we have to recognize that we’re not strong enough to abolish capitalism. By strong, I am referring here to building ways of living that don’t depend on wage labor. To be able to say “I don’t really care whether I have a job or not, because if I don’t have one, I can dedicate my life to other things that interest me and that give me enough sustenance to live decently.” That’s not the case right now. Perhaps we have to build that before we can say “go to hell, capital.”

In that sense, let’s bear in mind that a precondition for the French Revolution was that, at a certain point, the social network of bourgeois relations no longer needed the aristocracy in order to exist. Likewise, we must work to reach a point where we can say “we don’t care if global capital isn’t investing in Spain, because we’ve built a mutual support network that’s strong enough to enable us to live with dignity.”

Right now the rage against banks is spreading throughout the world. However, I don’t think banks are the problem, but rather the existence of money as a social relation. How should we think about rage against money? I believe this necessarily entails building non-monetized, non-commodified social relations.

And there are a great many people dedicated to this effort, whether out of desire, conviction or necessity, even though they may not appear in the newspapers. They’re building other forms of community, of sociality, of thinking about technology and human capabilities in order to create a new life.

John Holloway is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico. His latest book is Crack Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2010).

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How an Apple mega-deal cost Los Angeles classrooms $1 billion

Rotten to the Core:

Bad business and worse ethics? A scandal is brewing in L.A. over a sketchy intiative to give every student an iPad

 

Rotten to the Core: How an Apple mega-deal cost Los Angeles classrooms $1 billion

Technology companies may soon be getting muddied from a long-running scandal at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second-largest system. A year after the cash-strapped district signed a $1 billion contract with Apple to purchase iPads for every student, the once-ballyhooed deal has blown up. Now the mess threatens to sully other vendors from Cambridge to Cupertino.

LAUSD superintendent John Deasy is under fire for his cozy connections to Apple. In an effort to deflect attention and perhaps to show that “everybody else is doing it,” he’s demanded the release of all correspondence between his board members and technology vendors. It promises to be some juicy reading. But at its core, the LAUSD fiasco illustrates just how much gold lies beneath even the dirtiest, most neglected public schoolyard.

As the U.S. starts implementing federal Common Core State Standards, teachers and administrators are being driven to adopt technology as never before. That has set off a scramble in Silicon Valley to grab as much of the $9 billion K-12 market as possible, and Apple, Google, Cisco and others are mud-wrestling to seize a part of it. Deasy and the LAUSD have given us ringside seats to this match, which shows just how low companies will go.

When the Apple deal was announced a year ago, it was touted as the largest ever distribution of computing devices to American students. The Los Angeles Times ran a story accompanied by a photograph of an African-American girl and her classmate, who looked absolutely giddy about their new gadgets. Readers responded to the photo’s idealistic promise — that every child in Los Angeles, no matter their race or socioeconomic background, would have access to the latest technology, and Deasy himself pledged “to provide youth in poverty with tools that heretofore only rich kids have had.” Laudable as it was, that sentiment assumed that technology would by itself save our underfunded schools and somehow balance our inequitable society.



When I heard about the deal, I felt a wave of déjà vu. I had sat in a PTA meeting at a public school listening to a similar, albeit much smaller, proposed deal.  An Apple vendor had approached administrators in a Santa Barbara County school, offering to sell us iPads. The pitch was that we could help propel our kids into the technological age so that they’d be better prepared for the world, and maybe land a nice-paying, high-tech job somewhere down the line. Clearly, a school contract would be great for Apple, giving it a captive group of impressionable 11-year-olds it could then mold into lifelong customers.

But parents had to raise a lot of money to seal this deal. “Is Apple giving us a discount?” asked a fellow PTA member. No, we were told. Apple doesn’t give discounts, not even to schools. In the end, we decided to raise funds for an athletics program and some art supplies instead.

To be fair, PTA moms and dads are no match at the bargaining table for the salespeople at major companies like Google, and Hewlett-Packard. But the LAUSD, with its $6.8 billion budget, had the brains and muscle necessary to negotiate something valuable for its 655,000 students. That was the hope, at least.

Alas, problems began to appear almost immediately. First, some clever LAUSD students hacked the iPads and deleted security filters so they could roam the Internet freely and watch YouTube videos. Then, about $2 million in iPads and other devices went “missing.” Worse was the discovery that the pricey curriculum software, developed by Pearson Education Corp., wasn’t even complete. And the board looked foolish when it had to pay even more money to buy keyboards for iPads so that students could actually type out their reports.

Then, there was the deal itself. Whereas many companies extend discounts to schools and other nonprofits, Apple usually doesn’t, said George Michaels, executive director of Instructional Development at University of California at Santa Barbara. “Whatever discounts Apple gives are pretty meager.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy has noted Apple’s stingy reputation, and CEO Tim Cook has been trying to change the corporation’s miserly ways by giving $50 million to a local hospital and $50 million to an African nonprofit.

But the more we learned about the Apple “deal,” the more the LAUSD board seemed outmaneuvered. The district had bought iPad 4s, which have since been discontinued, but Apple had locked the district into paying high prices for the old models. LAUSD had not checked with its teachers or students to see what they needed or wanted, and instead had forced its end users to make the iPads work. Apple surely knew that kids needed keypads to write reports, but sold them just part of what they needed.

Compared with similar contracts signed by other districts, Apple’s deal for Los Angeles students looked crafty, at best. Perris Union High School District in Riverside County, for example, bought Samsung Chromebooks for only $344 per student. And their laptop devices have keyboards and multiple input ports for printers and thumb drives. The smaller Township High School District 214 in Illinois bought old iPad 2s without the pre-loaded, one-size-fits-all curriculum software. Its price: $429 per student.

But LAUSD paid Apple a jaw-dropping $768 per student, and LAUSD parents were not happy. As Manel Saddique wrote on a social media site: “Btw, thanks for charging a public school district more than the regular consumer price per unit, Apple. Keep it classy…”

By spring there was so much criticism about the purchase that the Los Angeles Times filed a request under the California Public Records Act to obtain all emails and records tied to the contract. What emerged was the image of a smoky backroom deal.

Then-Deputy Superintendent Jaime Aquino had once worked at Pearson, the curriculum developer, and knew the players. It turned out that Aquino and Deasy had started talking with Apple and Pearson two years before the contract was approved, and a full year before it was put out to bid. The idea behind a public bidding process is that every vendor is supposed to have the same opportunity to win a job, depending on their products, delivery terms and price. But emails show that Deasy was intent on embracing just one type of device: Apple’s.

Aquino went so far as to appear in a promotional video for iPads months before the contracts were awarded. Dressed in a suit and tie, the school official smiled for the camera as he talked about how Apple’s product would lead to “huge leaps in what’s possible for students” and would “phenomenally . . . change the landscape of education.” If other companies thought they had a shot at nabbing the massive contract from the influential district, this video must have disabused them of that idea.

At one point, Aquino was actually coaching software devloper Pearson on what to do: “[M]ake sure that your bid is the lower one,” he wrote. Meanwhile, Deasy was emailing Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino, and effusively recounting his visit with Apple’s CEO. “I wanted to let you know I had an excellent meeting with Tim at Apple last Friday … The meeting went very well and he was fully committed to being a partner … He was very excited.”

If you step back from the smarmy exchanges, a bigger picture emerges. Yes, LAUSD is grossly mismanaged and maybe even dysfunctional. But corporations like Apple don’t look so good, either. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Hewlett Packard — the companies that are cashing in on our classroom crisis are the same ones that helped defund the infrastructure that once made public schools so good. Sheltering billions of dollars from federal taxes may be great for the top 10 percent of Americans, who own 90 percent of the stock in these corporations. But it’s a catastrophe for the teachers, schools and universities that helped develop their technology and gave the companies some of its brightest minds. In the case of LAUSD, Apple comes across as cavalier about the problem it’s helped create for low-income students, and seems more concerned with maximizing its take from the district.

But the worst thing about this scandal is what it’s done to the public trust. The funds for this billion-dollar boondoggle were taken from voter-approved school construction and modernization bonds — bonds that voters thought would be used for physical improvements. At a time when LAUSD schools, like so many across the country, are in desperate need of physical repairs, from corroded gas lines to broken play structures, the Apple deal has cast a shadow over school bonds. Read the popular “Repairs Not iPads” page on Facebook and parents’ complaints about the lack of air conditioning, librarians and even toilet paper in school bathrooms. Sadly, replacing old fixtures and cheap trailers with new plumbing and classrooms doesn’t carry the kind of cachet for ambitious school boards as does, say, buying half-a-million electronic tablets. As one mom wrote: “Deasy has done major long-term damage because not one person will ever vote for any future bond measures supporting public schools.”

Now, the Apple deal is off, although millions of dollars have already been spent. An investigation into the bidding process is underway and there are cries to place Deasy in “teacher jail,” a district policy that keeps teachers at home while they’re under investigation. And LAUSD students, who are overwhelmingly Hispanic and African-American, have once again been given the short end of the stick. They were promised the sort of “tools that heretofore only rich kids have had,” and will probably not see them for several years, if ever. The soured Apple deal just adds to the sense of injustice that many of these students already see in the grown-up world.

Deasy contends that that he did nothing wrong. In a few weeks, the public official will get his job performance review. In the meantime, he’s called for the release of all emails and documents written between board members and other Silicon Valley and corporate education vendors. The heat in downtown Los Angeles is spreading to Northern California and beyond, posing a huge political problem for not just Deasy but for Cook and other high-tech captains.

But at the bottom of this rush to place technology in every classroom is the nagging feeling that the goal in buying expensive devices is not to improve teachers’ abilities, or to lighten their load. It’s not to create more meaningful learning experiences for students or to lift them out of poverty or neglect. It’s to facilitate more test-making and profit-taking for private industry, and quick, too, before there’s nothing left.

 

The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy: Free Markets in Action

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Today, with many countries phasing out incandescent lighting in favor of more-efficient and pricier LEDs, it’s worth revisiting the history of the Phoebus cartel — not simply as a quirky anecdote from the annals of technology, but as a cautionary tale about the strange and unexpected pitfalls that can arise when a new technology vanquishes an old one. Prior to the Phoebus cartel’s formation in 1924, household light bulbs typically burned for a total of 1,500 to 2,500 hours; cartel members agreed to shorten that life span to a standard 1,000 hours.

Each factory regularly sent lightbulb samples to the cartel’s central laboratory in Switzerland for verification. If any factory submitted bulbs lasting longer or shorter than the regulated life span for its type, the factory was obliged to pay a fine. Though long gone, the Phoebus cartel still casts a shadow today because it reduced competition in the light bulb industry for almost twenty years, and has been accused of preventing technological advances that would have produced longer-lasting light bulbs. Will history repeat itself as the lighting industry is now going through its most tumultuous period of technological change since the invention of the incandescent bulb?

“Consumers are expected to pay more money for bulbs that are up to 10 times as efficient and that are touted to last a fantastically long time—up to 50,000 hours in the case of LED lights. In normal usage, these lamps will last so long that their owners will probably sell the house they’re in before having to change the bulbs,” writes Krajewski. “Whether or not these pricier bulbs will actually last that long is still an open question, and not one that the average consumer is likely to investigate.” There are already reports of CFLs and LED lamps burning out long before their rated lifetimes are reached. “Such incidents may well have resulted from nothing more sinister than careless manufacturing. But there is no denying that these far more technologically sophisticated products offer tempting opportunities for the inclusion of purposefully engineered life-shortening defects.””

~Slashdot~

Why Facebook, Google, and the NSA Want Computers That Learn Like Humans

Deep learning could transform artificial intelligence. It could also get pretty creepy.

lol cats

Illustration: Quickhoney

In June 2012, a Google supercomputer made an artificial-intelligence breakthrough: It learned that the internet loves cats. But here’s the remarkable part: It had never been told what a cat looks like. Researchers working on the Google Brain project in the company’s X lab fed 10 million random, unlabeled images from YouTube into their massive network and instructed it to recognize the basic elements of a picture and how they fit together. Left to their own devices, the Brain’s 16,000 central processing units noticed that a lot of the images shared similar characteristics that it eventually recognized as a “cat.” While the Brain’s self-taught knack for kitty spotting was nowhere as good as a human’s, it was nonetheless a major advance in the exploding field of deep learning.

The dream of a machine that can think and learn like a person has long been the holy grail of computer scientists, sci-fi fans, and futurists alike. Deep learning—algorithms inspired by the human brain and its ability to soak up massive amounts of information and make complex predictions—might be the closest thing yet. Right now, the technology is in its infancy: Much like a baby, the Google Brain taught itself how to recognize cats, but it’s got a long way to go before it can figure out that you’re sad because your tabby died. But it’s just a matter of time. Its potential to revolutionize everything from social networking to surveillance has sent tech companies and defense and intelligence agencies on a deep-learning spending spree.

What really puts deep learning on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence (AI) is that its algorithms can analyze things like human behavior and then make sophisticated predictions. What if a social-networking site could figure out what you’re wearing from your photos and then suggest a new dress? What if your insurance company could diagnose you as diabetic without consulting your doctor? What if a security camera could tell if the person next to you on the subway is carrying a bomb?

And unlike older data-crunching models, deep learning doesn’t slow down as you cram in more info. Just the opposite—it gets even smarter. “Deep learning works better and better as you feed it more data,” explains Andrew Ng, who oversaw the cat experiment as the founder of Google’s deep-learning team. (Ng has since joined the Chinese tech giant Baidu as the head of its Silicon Valley AI team.)

And so the race to build a better virtual brain is on. Microsoft plans to challenge the Google Brain with its own system called Adam. Wired reported that Apple is applying deep learning to build a “neural-net-boosted Siri.” Netflix hopes the technology will improve its movie recommendations. Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and Pinterest have snapped up deep-learning companies; Google has used the technology to read every house number in France in less than an hour. “There’s a big rush because we think there’s going to be a bit of a quantum leap,” says Yann LeCun, a deep-learning pioneer and the head of Facebook’s new AI lab.

What if your insurance company diagnosed you without consulting your doctor? What if a security camera could tell if the person next to you is carrying a bomb?

Last December, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared, bodyguards in tow, at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in Lake Tahoe, where insiders discussed how to make computers learn like humans. He has said that his company seeks to “use new approaches in AI to help make sense of all the content that people share.” Facebook researchers have used deep learning to identify individual faces from a giant database called “Labeled Faces in the Wild” with more than 97 percent accuracy. Another project, dubbed PANDA (Pose Aligned Networks for Deep Attribute Modeling), can accurately discern gender, hairstyles, clothing styles, and facial expressions from photos. LeCun says that these types of tools could improve the site’s ability to tag photos, target ads, and determine how people will react to content.

Yet considering recent news that Facebook secretly studied 700,000 users’ emotions by tweaking their feeds or that the National Security Agency harvests 55,000 facial images a day, it’s not hard to imagine how these attempts to better “know” you might veer into creepier territory.

Not surprisingly, deep learning’s potential for analyzing human faces, emotions, and behavior has attracted the attention of national-security types. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has worked with researchers at New York University on a deep-learning program that sought, according to a spokesman, “to distinguish human forms from other objects in battlefield or other military environments.”

Chris Bregler, an NYU computer science professor, is working with the Defense Department to enable surveillance cameras to detect suspicious activity from body language, gestures, and even cultural cues. (Bregler, who grew up near Heidelberg, compares it to his ability to spot German tourists in Manhattan.) His prototype can also determine whether someone is carrying a concealed weapon; in theory, it could analyze a woman’s gait to reveal she is hiding explosives by pretending to be pregnant. He’s also working on an unnamed project funded by “an intelligence agency”—he’s not permitted to say more than that.

And the NSA is sponsoring deep-learning research on language recognition at Johns Hopkins University. Asked whether the agency seeks to use deep learning to track or identify humans, spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines only says that the agency “has a broad interest in deriving knowledge from data.”

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg has said that Facebook seeks to “use new approaches in AI to help make sense of all the content that people share.” AP Photo/Ben Margot

Deep learning also has the potential to revolutionize Big Data-driven industries like banking and insurance. Graham Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, has applied deep-learning models to look beyond credit scores to determine customers’ future value to companies. He acknowledges that these types of applications could upend the way businesses treat their customers: “What if a restaurant was able to predict the amount of your bill, or the probability of you ever returning? What if that affected your wait time? I think there will be many surprises as predictive models become more pervasive.”

Privacy experts worry that deep learning could also be used in industries like banking and insurance to discriminate or effectively redline consumers for certain behaviors. Sergey Feldman, a consultant and data scientist with the brand personalization company RichRelevance, imagines a “deep-learning nightmare scenario” in which insurance companies buy your personal information from data brokers and then infer with near-total accuracy that, say, you’re an overweight smoker in the early stages of heart disease. Your monthly premium might suddenly double, and you wouldn’t know why. This would be illegal, but, Feldman says, “don’t expect Congress to protect you against all possible data invasions.”

An NSA spokeswoman only says that the agency “has a broad interest in deriving knowledge from data.”

And what if the computer is wrong? If a deep-learning program predicts that you’re a fraud risk and blacklists you, “there’s no way to contest that determination,” says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for privacy issues at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Bregler agrees that there might be privacy issues associated with deep learning, but notes that he tries to mitigate those concerns by consulting with a privacy advocate. Google has reportedly established an ethics committee to address AI issues; a spokesman says its deep-learning research is not primarily about analyzing personal or user-specific data—for now. While LeCun says that Facebook eventually could analyze users’ data to inform targeted advertising, he insists the company won’t share personally identifiable data with advertisers.

“The problem of privacy invasion through computers did not suddenly appear because of AI or deep learning. It’s been around for a long time,” LeCun says. “Deep learning doesn’t change the equation in that sense, it just makes it more immediate.” Big companies like Facebook “thrive on the trust users have in them,” so consumers shouldn’t worry about their personal data being fed into virtual brains. Yet, as he notes, “in the wrong hands, deep learning is just like any new technology.”

Deep learning, which also has been used to model everything from drug side effects to energy demand, could “make our lives much easier,” says Yoshua Bengio, head of the Machine Learning Laboratory at the University of Montreal. For now, it’s still relatively difficult for companies and governments to efficiently sift through all our emails, texts, and photos. But deep learning, he warns, “gives a lot of power to these organizations.”

DIGITAL MUSIC NEWS

CA Judge Rules SiriusXM Is Liable For

Pre-1972 Turtles Performance Fees

 

Gavel      A federal judge in Los Angeles this week agreed with 1960s band The Turtles that the recorded music industry can collect performance royalty fees for copyrighted recordings made prior to 1972. In a summary judgment ruling published Monday (Sept. 22), U.S. District Judge Philip Gutierrez ruled SiriusXM had violated California state law by performing 15 recordings of The Turtles dating from before 1972 without a license. The original lawsuit, filed by singers Flo & Eddie, argued that even though Federal copyright laws only covered recordings made after 1972, various state laws provided copyright coverage for works prior to that year.

The Los Angeles ruling thus gives the music industry and its pre-1972 legal theory a major boost. In reaching his conclusion, Judge Gutierrez examined a California law that was enacted in 1982 and meant to address pre-1972 recordings. As reported by Billboard, the statute – passed in the aftermath of U.S. Congress’s decision to expand federal copyright law – was silent on whether “exclusive ownership” of pre-1972 sound recordings carries within it the exclusive right to publicly perform the recording. As such, the judge had to determine whether California’s law was inclusive or exclusive, and the judge’s reading of the law is that other than the exception for cover songs, there’s nothing exclusive about it.

GigaOm called Monday’s ruling the worst-case outcome for SiriusXM and other digital music services because it will likely expand the scope of music on which they must pay royalties. It also could add a further layer of costs for the digital services that traditional AM/FM radio stations do not have to incur. 

SiriusXM Pre-’72 Copyright Ruling

May Mean Nothing Outside California

 

Lawsuit      U.S. Federal Court Judge Philip Gutierrez’ decision that SiriusXM violated the Turtles’ pre-1972 master copyrights is considered a big win for the music industry…but does it have any meaning beyond California, where the original lawsuit was filed? Many legal experts today are scratching their heads and wondering whether Monday’s ruling has any significant implications for other ongoing court cases that argue state laws apply even though the master recording copyright didn’t exist until 1972 in federal law. SiriusXM, Pandora, and other digital music services say they have the right to play pre-1972 recorded music without licensing or paying royalties to record labels and the artists, while labels and artists maintain these services must comply with individual state laws, where they exist.

The Copyright Royalty Board originally said federal law exempts SiriusXM from making such copyright payments, but the CRB’s ruling doesn’t extend to state statutes. This led to the Turtles’ Flo & Eddie to claim copyright protection under California law; subsequent lawsuits also were filed in Florida and New York. Additionally, SoundExchange filed a claim against SiriusXM in federal court in the District of Columbia, while the three major labels filed a lawsuit on the same issue against the satcaster in California state court and against Pandora in New York state court.

Interestingly, last month a different judge ruled the wording in California state law on master recordings is ambiguous and may protect against unlicensed duplication and distribution. “Plaintiffs [the major labels] have not cited any authority for the proposition that the state law rights in pre-1972 sound recordings included rights in public performances of the sound recordings,” Judge Mary Strobel wrote.

“The Flo & Eddie judge [Gutierrez] surely read the interim ruling and said ‘balderdash,'” one senior label executive told Billboard

Apple Denies Rumors Of Beats Closure

 

     In what may have been a major Mark Twain moment, the reports earlier this week that Beats Music was dead may have been greatly exaggerated. While the social media blogosphere was buzzing that Apple Inc. had decided to shutter the service it acquired only four months ago for $3 billion, Hollywood Reporter says Apple claims the story simply is not true. In fact, Apple has been typically silent about how it plans to integrate Beats into its current iTunes offerings, and the service was largely ignored when executives took the stage at a special media event less than two weeks ago to reveal the new iPhone 6.

Still, HR says Apple’s Eddy Cue gave a wink to Beats during his presentation on Apple Pay, and CEO Tim Cook gave the streaming service a shout-out when announcing the launch of the new U2 album. That said, the Beats app, which allows people to access curated streaming music playlists, is noticeably absent from the new iPhones.

So what gives? Actually a source with “knowledge of the situation” says that Apple “is fully committed to offering a subscription service, though changes to any existing products are always a possibility.” Closing Beats Music would leave co-founders Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre available to focus on other initiatives for the tech firm, and would support reports that surfaced at the time of the acquisition that Apple paid a premium to sign the music moguls to long-term development deals.

Editor’s note: It’s been clear from the start that Apple has big plans for certain elements of the Beats technology and the team that brought it to fruition. CEO Tim Cook and the innovators in Cupertino obviously have a vision for the Beats technology that far exceeds simply plugging it into its existing iTunes Radio system. Keep in mind that, for every Apple product that has ever shipped in a box, there has been a team of minds that first thought outside that box. 

U2 And Apple Reportedly Are Developing

New Digital Music “Audiovisual” Format

 

     Expanding on the rumor that Apple Inc. has closed Beats Music, Time magazine this week reported the company actually is working with U2 to develop a new digital music format that “will prove so irresistibly exciting to music fans that it will tempt them again into buying music – whole albums as well as individual tracks.” Fresh off the surprise release (and subsequent partial recall) of U2’s new “Songs of Innocence” album, the band’s legendary frontman Bono told Time that the new music format is designed to be something that “can’t be pirated” and that could limit both illegal downloading and legal streaming, activities Rolling Stone says “have chipped away the music industry from a sales perspective.”

“It’s going to get very exciting for the music business,” Bono said, adding that the format will be “an audiovisual interactive format for music that can’t be pirated and will bring back album artwork in the most powerful way. You can play with the lyrics and get behind the songs when you’re sitting on the subway with your iPad or on these big flat screens. You can see photography like you’ve never seen it before.”

Bono said the new format is about 18 months away, which could potentially align it with U2’s planned “Innocence” follow-up “Songs of Experience.” While U2 is championing this new format, the files are more likely to help younger, lesser-known artists than global superstar acts, as the format gives listeners incentive to actually buy music. “Songwriters aren’t touring people,” Bono said. “Cole Porter wouldn’t have sold T-shirts. Cole Porter wasn’t coming to a stadium near you.” 

Japan’s Love Affair With CDs Boosts

Global Sales, But Could Slam Record Biz

 

     Japan is considered be one of the world’s perennial early adopters of new technologies, but its continuing attachment to the CD puts it sharply at odds with the rest of the global music industry. That’s the word from The New York Times, which reports that, while CD sales are falling worldwide, they still account for about 85% of sales in that country, compared with as little as 20% in some countries. By contrast, digital sales are quickly eroding in Japan, going from almost $1 billion in 2009 to just $400 million last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan. Meanwhile, such streaming music services as Spotify and Rdio, widely seen as the industry’s best new hope for new revenue, have stalled in their efforts to enter Japan, where homegrown pop idols by far outsell Western acts.

Analysts contend peculiarities of Japan’s business climate have shaped its attachment to the CD, but cultural factors may also be at play. For instance, Japanese consumers have a love affair with collectible goods, which means that “Greatest Hits” albums do particularly well in Japan, perhaps because of the elaborate, artist-focused packaging. Cross-promotional activities also abound; for example, the hugely popular girl group AKB48 pioneered the sale of CDs containing tickets that can be redeemed for access to live events. This strategy is credited with propping up CD sales, because it can lead the biggest fans to buy multiple copies of an album.

Digital sales in the U.S. have surpassed physical sales a few years ago, but CDs still account for 41% of the $15 billion recorded music market worldwide. Much of this lingering sales strength comes from Japan (as well as Germany), an attachment that worries analysts who contend that if those countries do not embrace online music, an inevitable decline in CD sales will further damage the industry. “If Japan sneezes and Germany catches a cold, that’s it – we’re done,” Alice Enders, a media analyst with Enders Analysis, told the Times

Music Industry Could Learn A Thing

Or Two From Digital Marketing 101

 

     As the digital music industry becomes increasingly competitive (and, perceptually at least, disjointed), record labels wrestle with a disruped digital ecosystem made up of many seemingly disconnected parts. As a result, consumers have the potential to get lost in the mix, leaving many to wander aimlessly through a morass of traditional, digital, and social media in their quest to discover new music and even listen to what they already know. As Mashable noted earlier this week, music is a breed of its own, where cookie-like tracking tools simply don’t exist yet and artists don’t know their true reach and can’t discover comprehensive insights into their listeners.

To that end, the website offers several modern marketing concepts to see how they apply – or don’t – to the ever-changing music business:

  • Marketing technology. Deeper insight into user behavior is crucial for an industry that bears the brunt of every new disruptive technology.
  • Real-time reporting. Radio is a music research black hole. Activity on Pandora comprises a huge and growing percentage of listening in the United States, the world’s biggest music market. However, like offline radio, there’s no real-time or detailed tracking of  music consumption.
  • Building relationships on social. Marketing’s key theme also applies to the music industry: success is all about having a relationship with the consumer (in this case, the listener). As Taylor Swift pointed out in her recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, artists are starting to get record deals because they have fans, not the other way around.

As Mashable says, “The missing links that’ll ultimately power the business of the music industry will fall into place with innovation. Every individual stars in their own movie complete with the soundtrack to their life. By leveraging the innovation seen in digital marketing, artists can understand in which scenes their music is featured.”

 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2014

Are Apple and Google Really on Your Side Against the NSA?

  Civil Liberties  

http://www.techautos.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/AppleGoogleS.jpg

The tech giants’ tacit message: Open your wallet for the latest gadget and you’ll be safe from Big Brother.
 In the past couple of days both Google[i] and Apple[ii] have announced that they’re enabling default encryption on their mobile devices so that only the user possessing a device’s password can access its local files. The public relations team at Apple makes the following claim:

“Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data… So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8″

The marketing drones at Google issued a similar talking point:

“For over three years Android has offered encryption, and keys are not stored off of the device, so they cannot be shared with law enforcement… As part of our next Android release, encryption will be enabled by default out of the box, so you won’t even have to think about turning it on.”

Quite a sales pitch? Cleverly disguised as a news report no less. Though it’s not stated outright the tacit message is: open your wallet for the latest gadget and you’ll be safe from Big Brother. Sadly, to a large degree this perception of warrant protection is the product of Security Theater aimed at rubes and shareholders. The anti-surveillance narrative being dispensed neglects the myriad of ways in which such device-level encryption can be overcome. A list of such techniques has been enumerated by John Young, the architect who maintains the Cryptomeleak site[iii]. Young asks readers why he should trust hi-tech’s sales pitch and subsequently presents a series of barbed responses. For example:

Because they can’t covertly send your device updated software [malware] that would change all these promises, for a targeted individual, or on a mass basis?

Because this first release of their encryption software has no security bugs, so you will never need to upgrade it to retain your privacy?

Because the US export control bureaucracy would never try tostop Apple from selling secure mass market proprietary encryption products across the border?

Because the countries that wouldn’t let Blackberry sell phonesthat communicate securely with your own corporate servers, will of course let Apple sell whatever high security non-tappable devices it wants to?

Because they want to help the terrorists win?

Because it’s always better to wiretap people after you convince them that they are perfectly secure, so they’ll spill all their best secrets?

Another thing to keep in mind is that local device encryption is just that. Local. As Bruce Schneier points out this tactic does little to protect user data that’s stored in the cloud[iv]. When push comes to shove executives will still be able to hand over anything that resides on corporate servers.

Marketing spokesmen are eager to create the impression that companies are siding with users in the struggle against mass surveillance (never mind the prolific corporate data mining[v]). Especially after business leaders denied participating in the NSA’s PRISM program. Yet the appearance of standing up to government surveillance is often a clever ploy to sell you stuff, a branding mechanism. It’s important to recognize that Internet companies, especially billion dollar hi-tech multinationals like Yahoo[vi] and Cisco[vii], exist to generate revenue and have clearly demonstrated the tendency to choose profits over human rights when it’s expedient.

End Note

[i] Craig Timberg, “Newest Androids will join iPhones in offering default encryption, blocking police,” Washington Post, September 18, 2014.

[ii] Craig Timberg, “Apple will no longer unlock most iPhones, iPads for police, even with search warrants,” Washington Post, September 18, 2014.

[iii] John Young, “Apple Wiretap Disbelief,” Cryptome, September 19, 2014.

[iv] Bruce Schneier, “iOS 8 Security,” Schneier on Security, September 19, 2014.

[v] Bill Blunden, “The NSA’s Corporate Collaborators,” Counterpunch, May 9-11, 2014.

[vi] Bill Blunden, “Corporate Executives Couldn’t Care Less About Civil Liberties,” Counterpunch, September 15, 2014.

[vii] Cindy Cohn and Rainey Reitman, “Court Lets Cisco Systems Off the Hook for Helping China Detain, Torture Religious Minorities,”Electronic Frontier Foundation, September 19, 2014.

Bill Blunden is an independent investigator whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis.

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