THE HINDU EDITORIAL : APRIL 10, 2018
THE HINDU EDITORIAL : APRIL 10, 2018
Questions beyond Facebook
“By entering these premises you are agreeing to be photographed and video recorded,” read a signboard at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington DC that several thousand crossed this weekend to view the annual USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo. Hardly anyone noticed that, pretty much the way we all signed up for our Facebook accounts. In slices of the future that were on showcase inside were micro-sensors on the body that would capture health parameters around the clock, nano robots that could swim through the bloodstream and talk with robotic doctors, and airport cameras which could scan passengers to see if they were carrying some diseases into the country. “You will be called the Mars generation,” a NASA scientist told excited children, and horrified parents, at one of the presentations. Facebook, if it continues to rely only on people’s proactive exhibitionism for its data and business, might face the fate of floppy disks, as these children grow up.
What the age of acceleration has done to its defining icon, the 33-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, and one of the richest persons on the planet, is a stark illustration of its cruelty. Mr. Zuckerberg will be appearing before two U.S. Congressional committees this week as an accused struggling to defend his actions and honour, a far cry from being the liberal hero that he was around this time last year. Then he, and other leaders of the tech industry in Seattle and Silicon Valley, had taken public positions against President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies.
The specific details of Facebook’s arrangement with Cambridge Analytica, the British political consulting firm that mined data from the social media platform for the Trump presidential campaign for 2016, revolves around the breach of the terms of usage between the two. The fundamental principle that Facebook can and will share data is not under any serious examination at the moment. Most business models of the emergent, technology-driven future are based on the presumed ability to harvest, analyse and sell data. American lawmakers will come up with some sharp indictment of Mr. Zuckerberg, but there is limited reflection on the structural changes in the country’s economic and political system.
According to futurist Raymond Kurzweil, what is unprecedented about the current advancement of technology is the pace at which it is enhancing human capabilities. A rocket enhances our ability to travel, more than the plane, which was more than the car, which was more than walking. Similarly, our ability to see, think, respond, talk… From that perspective, Facebook is an enhanced town square, or our village chai shop where people declared their political and social preferences and prejudices quite openly. Those utterances have never been private, but Facebook has allowed individuals to expand their reach beyond all geographical limitations. Politicians, who responded to tea shop rants and town square graffiti, began to respond to social media chatter using the same medium. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, all used this.
At various points romanticists dreamed that such openness of people’s views would not only help the rise of the first African American president but also spread democracy in West Asia and break up Chinese communism in a global digital insurgency. Facebook, far from being the cocoon of privacy, was designed to be the ultimate town square for the democrats, and a paradise for the exhibitionist.
Many data harvesters
A combination of computing power and the widespread availability of data takes this extension of human activities to a level of efficiency humanly impossible. We can ask 10 friends and find out what is the best Chinese restaurant nearby, but Grubhub has it ready on phone. It can predict what you might want to order next; Uber could alert you a day before a travel date that you might want a ride to the airport; Airbnb reminds you to book a place to stay once you have booked a ticket. When you buy a painkiller, sellers of other painkillers would send you advertisements comparing theirs with what you bought. If you buy honey from Costco, Twitter tells you about the benefits of going organic with honey.
Nobody can beat Amazon in the game, because that is really where you put your money. Amazon, Google, Microsoft and numerous other companies hold data that Facebook cannot even dream of. Most of the things that Facebook knows about us are information that we have proactively shared; but the overall ecosystem of targeted advertisements online follows the digital trail that we leave behind every moment, most of it unwittingly but a large part of it unavoidably. For instance, as long as you are carrying a mobile phone, your location is not private.
This efficiency can be deeply unsettling for the life that we are used to. In 2012, an American teenager began receiving coupons for baby products from the supermarket Target. The outraged father of the teenager rushed to the local Target outlet, where the manager apologised to him. But as it turned out, the data analytics of Target that mapped the sale of 25 products to assign a pregnancy score to individual customers knew better than the father. The girl was pregnant and the Target algorithm guessed it right. In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari argues that voting in elections is something that algorithms will do more efficiently than humans. Humans are easily swayed by campaign jingles, slogans and emotions in the last moment, but a software that tracks our emotions, interests and preferences over a longer period of time could take a more rational decision on who to vote.
Public vs private
While private companies are interested in gathering data for optimised marketing and product strategies, the state is interested in collecting data from citizens directly and by claiming control over data collected by private entities. The state has primarily two purposes, of planning and security. From traffic management to disease control, and urban planning to population management, aggregated private data could be of immense value in public planning. In a widely reported case from 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) invoked an 18th century law to force Apple to break the encryption in a phone used by a shooter. Apple refused. The judicial dispute ended with the FBI withdrawing its demand after it broke into the phone with the help of a third party, but the underlying question remains unresolved. James Comey, former director of the FBI, had repeatedly called for resetting the privacy-security balance, which he believed is tilted too far in favour of privacy.
Issues involved in managing metadata are a subset of the issues created by the underlying technological disruption, but the debates often custom target our outrage at the company or the CEO in the dock at the particular moment. Examining the structural transformation of capitalism, which essentially is its unprecedented acceleration aided by technology, and its impact on democracy, would be more meaningful.
The Nepal reset: on India-Nepal ties
Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s visit to India signals an important recalibration of bilateral ties. While the focus of the official pronouncements has been on connectivity, it is the perceptible absence of tensions in public interactions and official meetings, including with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that gives hope that the rupture in ties over India’s reservations about Nepal’s new constitution is being repaired. The visit follows a great deal of preparation by both Delhi and Kathmandu. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made an unusual departure from protocol to visit Mr. Oli in Kathmandu and congratulate him for his election win even before he had been sworn in. It was a significant shift from 2015-17, when the five-month-long blockade of truck trade at the Nepal-India border and Nepal’s ties with China placed a severe strain on the relationship. For his part, Mr. Oli put aside the anti-India rhetoric of his election campaign, and came to India on his first post-election visit abroad seeking ‘friendship first, and friendship second and third’. Bilateral meetings at Hyderabad House were devoid of any sermonising and defensive postures, steering clear of contentious issues on the constitution and China; Mr. Modi promised support on development projects that meet “Nepal’s priorities”.
The reset is long overdue, and should be accompanied by a transformation in the tenor of the relationship. Kathmandu has been too susceptible to conspiracy theories about Indian meddling, while New Delhi and its diplomats in the Nepal embassy have sometimes lent credence to the theories by adopting a patronising attitude. A first step to the reset would be the completion of the ongoing process of updating the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Nepal would acknowledge that its citizens have benefited from the ease of employment and residence in India that the treaty provides. But India must recognise that as in all other developing economies, Nepal’s aspirational young population is also looking beyond the open Indian border for opportunities, and Mr. Oli’s desire to turn his “land-locked” country into a “land-linked” country with a merchant navy must be considered positively. From here on it will be the deliverables, such as road and railway links, power projects and post-earthquake reconstruction commitments, that will determine the success of the partnership, not just the announcement of new initiatives. India has residual concerns over enhancing the constitution’s provisions for Nepal’s plains-based Madhesi population, but these should be taken up discreetly and diplomatically. Recovery in the relationship is still fragile, and any grandstanding must be avoided.
Meaning: A house or building, together with its land and outbuildings, occupied by a business or considered in an official context.
Example: “The company has moved to new premises”
Meaning: A board displaying the name or logo of a business or product.
Example: “A shop with its name painted on a signboard over the door”
Meaning: Depend on with full trust or confidence.
Example: “I know I can rely on your discretion”
Meaning: (Of a person or action) creating or controlling a situation rather than just responding to it after it has happened.
Example: “Employers must take a proactive approach to equal pay”
Meaning: Severe or bare in appearance or outline.
Example: “The ridge formed a stark silhouette against the sky”
|Synonyms:||Well focused, Crisp|
Meaning: Cruel behaviour or attitudes.
Example: “He has treated her with extreme cruelty”
Meaning: An act of breaking or failing to observe a law, agreement, or code of conduct.
Example: “A breach of confidence”
Meaning: In the process of coming into being or becoming prominent.
Example: “The emergent democracies of eastern Europe”
Meaning: A formal charge or accusation of a serious crime.
Example: “An indictment for conspiracy”
Meaning: A spoken word, statement, or vocal sound.
Example: “He whispered, as if to lend his utterances an added confidentiality”
Meaning: Speak or shout at length in an angry, impassioned way.
Example: “She was still ranting on about the unfairness of it all”
|Synonyms:||Sound off, Spout|
Meaning: Writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.
Example: “The station was covered in graffiti”
Meaning: An active revolt or uprising.
Example: “Rebels are waging an armed insurgency to topple the monarchy”
Meaning: To protect someone or something from pain or an unpleasant situation.
Example: As a student you are cocooned against/from the real world.
Meaning: An ideal or idyllic place or state.
Example: “The surrounding countryside is a walker’s paradise”
Meaning: Airbnb is an online community marketplace that connects people looking to rent their homes with people who are looking for accommodations.
Meaning: Without being aware; unintentionally.
Example: “Many users unwittingly expose their personal details to strangers online”
Meaning: Arouse fierce anger, shock, or indignation in (someone).
Example: “The public were outraged at the brutality involved”
Meaning: Control or influence (a person or course of action).
Example: “He’s easily swayed by other people”
Meaning: A short slogan, verse, or tune designed to be easily remembered, especially as used in advertising.
Example: “He makes up advertising jingles”
Meaning: Cite or appeal to (someone or something) as an authority for an action or in support of an argument.
Example: “The antiquated defence of insanity is rarely invoked in England”
|Synonyms:||Cite, Refer to|
Meaning: To change the way you do or think about something.
Example: “You need to recalibrate your expectations”
Meaning: (Especially of a slight movement or change of state) able to be seen or noticed.
Example: “A perceptible decline in public confidence”
Meaning: Breach or disturb (a harmonious feeling or situation).
Example: “Once trust and confidence has been ruptured it can be difficult to regain”
Meaning: Make a solemn statement or promise undertaking to do something or affirming that something is the case.
Example: “Maria made me swear I would never tell anyone”
Meaning: Seal off (a place) to prevent goods or people from entering or leaving.
Example: “The authorities blockaded roads in and out of the capital”
|Synonyms:||Barricade, Close up|
Meaning: Make an unusually great effort.
Example: “His voice was so quiet that I had to strain to hear it”
|Synonyms:||Struggle, Labour, Toil|
Meaning: The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.
Example: “He is using a common figure of rhetoric, hyperbole”
Meaning: Entirely lacking or free from.
Example: “Lisa kept her voice devoid of emotion”
Meaning: Deliver an opinionated and dogmatic talk to someone.
Example: “They confidently sermonize on the fixed nature of identity”
Meaning: Guide the movement or course of.
Example: “He had steered her to a chair”
Meaning: Causing or likely to cause an argument; controversial.
Example: “A contentious issue”
Meaning: Not having arrived, happened, or been done by the expected time.
Example: “The rent was nearly three months overdue”
Meaning: A secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.
Example: “A conspiracy to destroy the government”
Meaning: Interfere in something that is not one’s concern.
Example: “I don’t want him meddling in our affairs”
Meaning: The official residence or offices of an ambassador.
Example: “The Chilean embassy in Moscow”
Meaning: Belief in or acceptance of something as true.
Example: “Psychoanalysis finds little credence among laymen”
Meaning: Treat with an apparent kindness which betrays a feeling of superiority.
Example: “‘She’s a good-hearted girl,’ he said in a patronizing voice”
|Synonyms:||Put down, Humiliate|
Meaning: In a careful and prudent manner, especially in order to keep something confidential or to avoid embarrassment.
Example: “He discreetly inquired whether the position was still available”
Meaning: Seek to attract applause or favourable attention from spectators or the media.
Example: “They accused him of political grandstanding
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