PERIPHERY!

(PHOTO PROMPT © Penny Gadd )

It wasn’t just the plant that grew in a bold and unrestricted manner. Every ceiling on desire was brought down and every shackle on ambition unshackled. Each book meriting its place on the bookshelf ceased to command a standing and was now at the apex of irrelevance.  People issuing warnings about the untrammeled profusion of Virtual Reality were relegated to the confines of peripherality as prophets of doom.

Now the machines had taken control. The word was their information highway and mankind, insignificant puppets traversing the lanes. Puppets as worthless as spiraling branches, neglected, and taken for granted.

(Word Count: 98)

This story was written as part of the FRIDAY FICTIONEERS challenge, more about which may be found HERE

For more stories based on the above prompt, click HERE 

Mr.Cat is Hieronymus Bosch

(Photo courtesy of Sue-Z)

The scene looked straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. It was definitely not the Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony. Although, how a cat could have known whether it was the Triptych or not, only the cat could tell. Since the cat did not have the habit of speaking, or even displaying the merest evidence of attempting to, no one  could tell how the cat could have known whether it was the Triptych or not.

The magnificent Blackburnian Warbler in resplendent orange had flown over striated peaks and gurgling waterfalls before landing on a desolate patch of land scattered with pebbles. The cat intently peered into the screen and without taking its eyes off the Warbler put out its tongue giving the virtual bird two long licks. In one lithe, nonchalant, unhurried and calculated motion, the cat with its paws simultaneously depressed the ‘Control’ and ‘End’ keys.

The bird flew out the laptop screen straight into the wide open mouth of the cat. There was nary a scratch or even an indentation on the Dell Latitude 5480. There was none even last night when the Cuban Hummingbird met with the same fate as the Warbler.

(Word Count: 200)

Written as part of Sunday Photo Fiction. Write a story of around 200 words based on the photo prompt given (above). Hosted by Donna McNicol . For more details visit HERE

To read more of the stories based on this week’s prompt, click HERE

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now – Jaron Lanier

Lanier

After receiving the UEFA President’s Award, former footballer from France, and Manchester United legend, Eric Cantona, delivered, what arguably has to be the most bizarre and cryptic speech ever delivered at an award’s ceremony. An existential rumination, that had at its centerpiece the notions of aging, crime and science, Cantona’s brief talk had his audience stupefied. However, Jarion Lanier might have had no trouble whatsoever in decrypting (no pun intended) the essence embedded within this curious speech. Lanier, the reclusive Karl Popper of the ’Techverse’, has been clamouring for a complete detachment by users from all forms of social media. The man surely practices what he preaches as well. He has completely severed himself from every form of social media usage and hence his renowned reclusiveness!

Now in a blistering book – which is part philosophical and part polemic – plainly titled, “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”, Mr. Lanier, holds forth in an eloquent, erudite and extraordinary manner, on an urgent need to disassociate oneself from all social media accounts. Mr. Lanier’s book resonates deeply with the profundity and power of each of the arguments which he lays down in support of his clarion call, and constitutes a timely, urgent and essential work that highlights the pernicious outcomes of a perpetual immersion in and entanglement with social media. Mr. Lanier should know, being the pioneer in the sophisticated technology of Virtual Reality, himself.

Mr. Lanier’s Bully Pulpit revolves around the acronym, BUMMER – “Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” Bummer is an insidious machinery, which, by employing a Byzantine set of algorithms and other complex Information Technology chicanery deprives users of all free will holding their thoughts, actions and deed to ransom. And atop the pile of Bummer companies stands the duo that is Facebook and Google. Mr. Lanier educates us on the six components that constitute the integral part of the Bummer machine by employing an ingenious mnemonic:

  • A: Attention Acquisition leading to Asshole supremacy;
  • B: Butting into everyone’s lives;
  • C: Cramming content down people’s throats;
  • D: Directing people’s behaviours in the sneakiest way possible;
  • E: Earning money from letting the worst assholes secretly screw with everyone else; and
  • F: for Fake mobs and Faker society.

Alluding to the takedowns of Facebook, courtesy Sean Parker, the first President of Facebook, and Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-President of user growth at Facebook, Mr. Lanier brings to our attention the manipulative tactics of the Bummer companies. Giving the user a little “dopamine hit” every once in a while, unknown and unseen actors create a social-validation feedback loop into which the gullible user is unwittingly sucked – in perpetuity. Mr. Lanier also elaborates on a hypothesis framed by him about the existence of a switch deep in every human personality that can be set in one of two modes. Using the analogy of wolves, Mr. Lanier espouses that this switch can be set to either the Solitary/Pack mode. “When we are solitary wolves, we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also capable of more joy. We think for ourselves, improvise, create. We scavenge, hunt, hide. We howl once in a while out of pure exuberance.”  However, as Mr. Lanier cautions us the Bummer machine does not want us to set our switches to the Solitary Mode. It is in the machine’s vested interest to ensure that our switches are always tuned to the Pack Mode. “When the Solitary/Pack switch is set to Pack, we become obsessed with and controlled by a pecking order. We pounce on those below us, lest we be demoted, and we do our best to flatter and snipe at those above us at the same time. Our peers flicker between “ally” and “enemy” so quickly that we cease to perceive them as individuals…The only constant basis of friendship is shared antagonism toward other packs.”

A case in point being the exertion of a mob rule in the domain of theoretical physics as highlighted by the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. Mr. Lanier argues that we are blissfully unaware of the dangerous fact that we are trapped in a vast echo chamber that constantly keeps getting smaller and smaller, just like the deadly trash compactor of the Death Star. This echo chamber also leads to the inculcation of a malignant addiction. “The algorithm is trying to capture the perfect parameters for manipulating a brain, while the brain, in order to seek out deeper meaning, is changing in response to the algorithm’s experiments … Because the stimuli from the algorithm doesn’t mean anything, because they genuinely are random, the brain isn’t responding to anything real, but to a fiction. That process – of becoming hooked on an elusive mirage – is addiction.”

Certain sections of Lanier’s book make for form heavy and tedious reading. Metaphysical and philosophical connotations challenge the very limits of the reader’s intellect. In his tenth and final argument, titled, “Social Media Hates Your Soul”, Mr. Lanier attempts to enlighten us on what he terms, “The Principles of Bummer Spirituality.” Lamenting the fact that a ritual engagement with Bummer initially appears to be a funeral for free will, Mr. Lanier states, “So BUMMER intrinsically enacts a structural, rather than an ontological, change in the nature of free will. It will continue to exist, if under a barrage of insults. The important change is that now, you have less free will, and a few people whom you don’t know have more of it. Some of your free will has been transferred to them. Free will has become like money in a gilded age.”

Mr. Lanier, however does not exhort us to abhor all our social media accounts in perpetuity at the drop of a hat. He urges us to engage in an exercise, wherein we can fix a social media detachment period of six months. At the end of this moratorium, we can either return to social media or ditch it forever. As Mr. Lanier had reiterated the same principle in a piece written in The New York Post on 23 June, 2018, “After an exercise in giving up — try six months — you may decide to return to social media. Only you can know what’s best for you. But what you should do — must do — is be extra careful next time an election comes around or you’re about to make a purchase or agree to something. Is the more cranky, paranoid part of you what’s driving you? If so, please, for God’s sake, take a few more days off social media before you make your decision.”

“Ten Arguments.” may be regarded as a dystopian narrative that seeks to demonstrate how unhinged we have become as a society with our obsession towards social media. This obsession has become as preternatural as the smartphone has become a natural and limbic extension of us. Another way to look at this marvelous work is from a perspective of the Big Tech behemoths such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. There exists a golden opportunity for these capitalists to make the digital world a much better, safer and harmonious place to be in and interact. Such a change however can only be brought about if a mirror was to be placed against the conscience of these companies. This, is exactly what Mr. Lanier does, and resoundingly so!

An Algorithmic Existence

(Image Credit: Crispina Kemp)

It was a beaten down path. Beaten down by the excoriating heat of the sun; by squalls of driving rain that brought along with them howling gale force winds; and most of all by indifferent treads of tyres and innumerable pairs of studs and spikes that had become poor, yet affluent synonyms for exercise and health.

But of late the road which was creaking and groaning under the weight of activity had peculiarly been beaten down by stillness and quiet. People had stopped walking, and running. Unblinkingly staring into luminous screens, homo-sapiens were laughing, fighting, venting, jeering and deliberating with unseen chat bots, hidden algorithms and obscure manipulators.

Nature was being sacrificed at the altar of cutting edge finagling. Man was ensnared in the cozy assumption of freedom when freedom was all but obfuscated. Only the twigs that lay scattered on the beaten down path seemed unshackled and unbound.

(Word Count: 149)

Written as part of the Crimson’s Creative Challenge #42 More details regarding this challenge may be found HERE.

 

 

Give People Money – Annie Lowrey

Image result for give people money + review

According to Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, global inequality, has attained damaging and dangerous proportions. In a fascinating piece titled, “How Bad is Global Inequality, Really?” and published on his website, Mr. Hickel observes that, “the poorest 60% – the ones depicted as the “winners” in the elephant graph – continue to live under the poverty line of $7.40 per day (2011 Purchasing Power Parity).” The elephant graph here refers to a famous and popular graph, originally developed by Branko Milanovic and Christoph Lakner using World Bank data.  This graph charts the change in income that the world’s population have experienced over time, from the very poorest to the richest 1%. Mr. Hickel’s findings paint an extremely somber picture. In his own words, “…the top incomes… well, they have grown by what can only be described as an obscene amount, with millionaires doubling or tripling their annual incomes, gaining some 14,000 times more than the average person in the poorest 60% of the world’s population”.

Whilst umpteen number of measures, ranging from the well intentioned to the ill-conceived have been promulgated over the years to extricate humanity from the pernicious swamp of poverty, there seems to be no ameliorating improvements in so far as outcomes are concerned. While a teeming mass of humanity have been released from the clutches of impecuniosity, the progress has, unfortunately been restricted to a few geographies in general, and the emerging economies, in particular.

A tool for alleviating penury and leveling income inequality, that has recently shot into prominence, is the Universal Basic Income (“UBI”). Annie Lowrey, a journalist covering politics and economic policy for The Atlantic Magazine, in her extremely readable book, “Give People Money”, infuses a new and refreshing breath of life into the concept of UBI. Taking an unbiased, impartial and critical stance, Ms. Lowrey evaluates the merits of UBI as an implementable policy mechanism and concludes that this measure ought to be introduced to supplement – if not supplant – the various means tested benefits that exist by the dozen today. Although a book primarily focused on and having at its core, the American context and economy, “Give People Money” also takes its author to the scorched earth of Kenya and the rural hinterlands of India, as she explores the success and failures of various pre-existing Government sponsored schemes direct benefit transfers.

In Kenya, Ms. Lowrey meets with various beneficiaries and recipients of a UBI experiment instituted by the US non-profit organization, Give Directly. Set up by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates, Give Directly remits substantial, and unconditional payments via mobile phones to impoverished villagers hitherto surviving – or gallantly attempting to – on a pittance of 60 cents a day.

She visits rural India, getting herself acquainted with complex poverty eradication schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Schemes (“MNREGA”), rations of reduced price staples such as rice, wheat, salt, sugar etc. distributed via the ubiquitous Public Distribution System (“PDS”) and above all, the sophisticated cloud-backed biometric ID system called Aadhaar, employing which States have started to link their anti-poverty Programme to the system. Piloted and pioneered by Nandan Nilekanan an Indian entrepreneur, bureaucrat, politician and also the co-founder of Infosys, an Information technology behemoth, the Aadhaar system, in the words of the former Chief Economist at the World Bank, Paul Romer, “is the most sophisticated that I’ve seen”. The basic purpose underlying Ms. Lowrey’s travels is to ascertain whether UBI passes muster vis-à-vis the mixed results of government subsistence programmes.

From Maine, Ms. Lowrey brings to us the harrowing story of Ms. Sandy Bishop. A disabled woman, Ms. Bishop narrates in a heart wrenching manner how she keeps losing food stamps, courtesy the maze of paperwork involved. The banal and absurd degree of bureaucracy permeating systems makes it next to impossible for the neediest and desperate to access assistance even when such help is at hand.

In an age where minimum wages ironically mean just that – minimum – Ms. Lowrey demonstrates a strong bargaining power which could be ushered in courtesy, UBI. This is highlighted with a powerful example of how a family ought not to be going about its lives. The Ortizes, in downtown Houston, hustle and bustle their way through a staggering eight jobs at once! The children are not spared even – forced to sacrifice at the altar of a low paying fast food job, the precious benefits of procuring an education. UBI for this family would be an indispensable boon.

As Ms. Lowrey informs us in dangerous detail, the need for a UBI may soon attain an attribute of inevitability than remaining at the periphery as a viable option. With untrammeled progress and frightening advances being made in the complex fields of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Deep Learning, the world is in for a massive job substitution where robots will take over both blue collared as well as white collared jobs. Ms. Lowrey forecasts that self-driving vehicles alone could wipe out between 2.2 to 3.1 million jobs in the US. Hence the prevalent redistribution policies employed by the state would not attain either the requisite level of traction or the desired length of sustainability to pose a formidable defense to this looming threat of structural unemployment.

The proponents of and for UBI are slowly, but steadily making their arguments known and felt in all the relevant places such as Corporate Boardrooms, Parliaments and the portals of renowned and progressive think-tanks. The Economic Security Project, a new UBI think-tank, deliberates thus: “In a time of immense wealth, no one should live in poverty, nor should the middle class be consigned to a future of permanent stagnation or anxiety.” Michael Faye, the co-founder of the intrepid GiveDirectly that is piloting its UBI in Kenya, tells Mr. Lowrey, “We could end extreme poverty right now, if we wanted to.” Philippe Van Parjis and Yannick Vanderborght make an arresting case for the implementation of UBI in their best-seller, “Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy” Adding to an already burgeoning number are stellar thinkers such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, the authors of “Inventing the Future”, Rutger Bregman, and Guy Standing, a long standing member of BIEN, the Basic Income Earth Network, a primary body advocating for UBI.

While there is an unhesitating recognition of an urgent imperative to make lives better and obliterate avoidable tragedies, we still seem to be entrenched in the dogma of means testing schemes and benefits thereby shying away from instituting complementary or even competing schemes such as the UBI. An as Ms. Lowrey brilliantly emphasizes, the sooner we change this mind set, the better it will be for humanity.

Sabal Palmetto & Ronnie’s Trawler

(Photo courtesy of Artur Malishkevych )

“Look there goes Ronnie’s trawler”, Ben exclaimed, his voice ringing with enthusiasm. Using her elbow to nudge him sharply, Ruth corrected her husband, “Ronnie has a central console boat. This is Wendell’s tried and trusted houseboat.”  Ben could never get either the type of the boat or its owner right. Downright surprising considering the fact that Ben was a veritable water body. Exploring the deep and doing his bit for the preservation of the marine ecosystem was the cornerstone of Ben’s professional life.

Thus chastised, Ben pulled down his hat to protect himself from the rays of a blazing sun and remained silent. The ocean was a brilliant and transparent turquoise. A group of snorkeling enthusiasts squealed with delight at spotting schools of Grass Carp and Peruvian Anchoveta.

However, neither the group merrily treading water nor the tourists peering out the leisurely sailing boat could spot Ruth and Ben. All they could see were a couple of Sabal palmetto trees with scraggy branches. For exactly fifteen years to the day, Ben and Ruth had drowned in a tragic accident when Wendell’s houseboat in which they were sailing, rammed against a giant cruise ship, before capsizing and killing everyone on board.

(Word Count: 200)

Written as part of Sunday Photo Fiction. Write a story of around 200 words based on the photo prompt given (above). Hosted by Donna McNicol . For more details visit HERE

To read more of the stories based on this week’s prompt, click HERE