Home > Uncategorized > The Absurd Moral Authority of Futurism

The Absurd Moral Authority of Futurism

August 5, 2016

Yesterday one of my long-standing fears was confirmed: futurists are considered moral authorities.

The Intercept published an article entitled Microsoft Pitches Technology That Can Read Facial Expressions at Political Ralliesand written by Alex Emmons, which described a new Microsoft product that is meant to be used at large events like the Superbowl, or a Trump rally, to discern “anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, neutral, sadness or surprise” in the crowd.

Spokesperson Kathryn Stack, when asked whether the tool could be used to identify dissidents or protesters, responded as follows:

“I think that would be a question for a futurist, not a technologist.”

Can we parse that a bit?

First and foremost, it is meant to convey that the technologists themselves are not responsible for the use of their technologies, even if they’ve intentionally designed it for sale to political campaigns.

So yeah, I created this efficient plug-and-play tool of social control, but that doesn’t mean I expect people to use it!

Second, beyond the deflecting of responsibility, the goal of that answer is to point to the person who really is in charge, which is for some reason “a futurist.” What?

Now, my experience with futurists is rather limited – although last year I declared myself to be one – but even so, I’d like to point out that futurism is male dominated, almost entirely white, and almost entirely consists of Silicon Valley nerds. They spend their time arguing about the exact timing and nature of the singularity, whether we’ll live forever in bliss or we’ll live forever under the control of rampant and hostile AI.

In particular, there’s no reason to imagine that they are well-versed in the history or in the rights of protesters or of political struggle.

In Star Wars terms, the futurists are the Empire, and Black Lives Matter are the scrappy Rebel Alliance. It’s pretty clear, to me at least, that we wouldn’t go to Emperor Palpatine for advice on ethics.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Matt
    August 5, 2016 at 11:04 am

    Cathy is it possible you are overreacting to that one comment? When do we take Microsoft spokespeople as authorities on anything.

    I always assume that anyone advertising themselves as a futurist is a scammer. Labeling themselves futurist is a way to be able to make predictions that cannot be verified.


    • Trevor H
      August 5, 2016 at 11:35 am

      Matt – that was my first reaction also. But the fact that Microsoft had such a terrible answer, probably given off-the-cuff, is itself revealing. The lack of a good, prepared answer, even if it were fluffy doublespeak, implies they didn’t expect such a question. That it never occurred to them to consider the potential abuses of the tool they made.


      • Matt
        August 5, 2016 at 7:41 pm

        Yeah, I think you are right. I assume Microsoft was consumed with getting it to work and then selling it, they did not stop to consider the ethical issues or how to explain them.

        I expect the engineers and builders are frequently surprised by the use (and misuse) their products put to.


        • August 6, 2016 at 6:26 pm

          I’m not sure *what else* the product could possibly be used or intended for?


        • Matt
          August 6, 2016 at 6:39 pm

          It is not surprising that you or I have not thought of other uses for the product. I think that is typical. However once a lot of people have access to the product or tool they will come up with creative uses for it. That happens all the time.

          Perhaps that means the engineers and builders are absolved from responsibility since eventual use it unpredictable. I think it means that the engineers and designers have greater responsibility the more powerful the product they are making is.


  2. anon
    August 5, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Unrelated to this post, but I thought you might like this article addressing some of the biases that can occur in machine learning algorithms etc: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602025/how-vector-space-mathematics-reveals-the-hidden-sexism-in-language/?utm_campaign=add_this&utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=post


  3. JV
    August 5, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Scary observation Cathy. I’m glad you’re there to point it out.
    I spent my evening last night setting up my mom”said new windows 10 computer. The blatant control features THAT CANNOT BE WORKED AROUND imake me hate MS even more…


  4. aesundstrom
    August 5, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    I was with you right up to the last paragraph. In my mind, even to be logically consistent within your own argumentative reasoning, to demonstrate all futurists “are the Empire” (i.e., are evil), you’d have to first demonstrate: (1) all futurists are not “well-versed in the history or in the rights of protesters or of political struggle”; and simultaneously (2) all futurists seek to become a moral authority. In the absence of supportive evidence, this is plainly false, so the last paragraph stretches my credulity to the breaking point.


    • aesundstrom
      August 5, 2016 at 12:16 pm

      Further, it’s unclear to me how widespread Spokesperson Kathryn Stack’s deferential behavior is.


    • August 5, 2016 at 1:09 pm

      The tagline for Singularity University’s “Global Summit” is “The Best Way To Predict The Future Is To Create It Yourself”:


      • August 5, 2016 at 1:10 pm

        Maybe they should hire a spokesperson who has actually considered the ethical issues.


        • aesundstrom
          August 5, 2016 at 1:23 pm

          Sure, but then this is just one example, hardly a trend.


        • August 5, 2016 at 1:29 pm

          I don’t think it was a random comment. I think it exposes a trend: we technologists don’t have to worry about this, we’re exporting that responsibility to an self-selected group of people who claim to think about this kind of thing.


        • Matt
          August 5, 2016 at 7:38 pm

          I am pretty sure that is not the role of the spokesperson. They are just their to spin, make excuses and shill.

          The ethical and moral issues should be considered before the spokespeople get involved. Too late otherwise.


      • aesundstrom
        August 5, 2016 at 1:18 pm

        I don’t see how that addresses my point. Incidentally, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” is attributed to Abraham Lincoln.


  5. August 5, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    Reblogged this on Matthews' Blog.


  6. Richard King
    August 5, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    Anybody who actually took the trouble to read the offending article would realize that the spokesperson was ‘a managing director with the public affairs firm Burson-Marsteller’, not a Microsoft spokesperson. Whether she was acting in an official capacity for Microsoft is not clear from the article.

    In any case it was probably just an off-the-cuff remark that was never intended to be serious. Deflecting responsibility? I don’t see that. Perhaps lorry manufacturers should be willing to accept responsibility when someone drives one along a beach and kills dozens of innocent people?

    I see the anti-Microsoft brigade are strong around here…


    • August 5, 2016 at 3:04 pm

      You’re being misleading. The full text is:

      I asked to speak with a spokesperson and was introduced to Kathryn Stack, a managing director with the public affairs firm Burson-Marsteller.


      • Richard King
        August 6, 2016 at 5:45 pm

        Ok, fair point, though I didn’t think I was being misleading. I said it wasn’t clear whether she was acting in an official capacity for Microsoft. You evidently think she was.

        If I were the journalist who asked the question and received such an inane response, I would at least have asked for some clarification.

        I certainly can’t see how you can claim that this single weird remark exposes a trend for technologists disclaiming responsibility for their products.

        It’s not clear to me that there is any technology that bad people can’t use to do bad things. Or maybe you think that this is obviously a technology that can only be used for nefarious purposes? I disagree.


  7. Guest2
    August 5, 2016 at 7:52 pm

    Sociologists have been waiting a long time for technology that would “measure” emotions.

    Until now, micro-facial expressions are “read” or interpreted by sociologists, law enforcement interrogators, and even anxious parents. In fact, it goes on all the time, everyday, when we are in a face-to-face conversation. If you are very good at this, you have high emotional intelligence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microexpression

    Well, now computer software is involved as well. All it does is measure the rising of eyebrows, the set of the mouth, how wide-open the eyes are, etc. None of this is new to our species. None of this is really interesting — except maybe to advertising executives, and salesmen/women.

    We know that individual emotion is collectively produced, and without this context, the origins of that emotion are obscured. That’s why crowds have been the focus of attention for sociologists studying the dynamics of emotion production, and may be especially relevant for law enforcement trying to gauge their own emotions; but we’d need to integrate breathing, depth of respiration, perspiration, heart rate, etc., in order to achieve a comprehensive picture of emotional state.

    That’s what makes me wonder at the naivete of asking if this “tool could be used to identify dissidents or protesters.” The technology is blind and unable to distinguish the palace guard from protesters when it conducts emotional analysis. Victims will show fear, weakness and anxiety, dominants will show anger and emotional confidence. But the objective determination of what category a victim or a dominant belongs in, that rests with whomever is interpreting the conflict/interaction. That is a judgment made quite separately from the emotions being observed. Let’s not confuse apples with oranges.

    Yes, there is the morality of those using the tool. Social control, used by authorities, goes far beyond judging micro-expressions, into the very core of institution building and legitimacy. And it belongs to a very different level of analysis and reflection — as explained by the spokesperson.

    At what point does the software tell the user more than they would intuit on their own? At what point does the hype fade, and the price-tag and lack of operational usability consign it to the rubbish heap of failed inventions? Only the future will tell us.


    • August 6, 2016 at 6:29 pm

      *rolls eyes*


      • Guest2
        August 8, 2016 at 10:07 pm

        Probably registered a 0.875 on the “rolls eyes” parameter. But what about all the other parameters — i.e., proxies for — emotion?


  8. Nick
    August 6, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    I agree with your concern, but I would agree more, if you would not mix it with sexism, racism and nerd-shaming: “I’d like to point out that futurism is male dominated, almost entirely white, and almost entirely consists of Silicon Valley nerds.”
    While those statements are probably accurate, it is not their demographic that should make you sceptical of futurism. Why not focus your criticism on their one-sided views and overblown confidence?


    • August 7, 2016 at 9:52 am

      There’s a relationship. Monoculture breeds arrogance.


      • Guest2
        August 8, 2016 at 10:09 pm

        Yes — of course “Monoculture breeds arrogance.” I wonder, why does this happen? And what math theory addresses this problem?


  9. August 15, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Cathy–one of these days when I get to buy you a drink in person remind me to tell you about the library world and “futurists”. (Don’t suppose you’re going to do a book tour / signing this fall are you? )


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