A Few Random Thoughts on the Politics of the Logic Functions

Burç Kostem pointed me me to this wonderful piece by Matteo Pasquinelli on the history of neural networks. In the middle, there’s a small historical detail that I never quite grasped before:

In 1969 Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert’s book, titled Perceptrons, attacked Rosenblatt’s neural network model by wrongly claiming that a Perceptron (although a simple single-layer one) could not learn the XOR function and solve classifications in higher dimensions. This recalcitrant book had a devastating impact, also because of Rosenblatt’s premature death in 1971, and blocked funds to neural network research for decades. What is termed as the first ‘winter of Artificial Intelligence’ would be better described as the ‘winter of neural networks,’ which lasted until 1986 when the two volumes Parallel Distributed Processing clarified that (multilayer) Perceptrons can actually learn complex logic functions.

In terms of the emerging historiography of machine learning, this is a place where the whig historians (aka, internalist histories by computer scientists) and the critical historians seem to agree.

But XOR as a test of neural networks, or intelligence, is a very interesting reduction of pattern recognition to a binary option. It is basically a binary calculation that compares two inputs. It answers “yes” if the two inputs are the different, and “no” if the two inputs are the same. Here’s a picture from Wikipedia to illustrate:

XOR Truth Table from Wikipedia

The whole political argument around pattern recognition in AI is basically reducible to what counts as a 1 and what counts as a 0 in that B column: this is why Google had to block its image recognition algorithms from identifying gorillas. Solving for XOR (are they different) or XAND (are they the same?) is never quite enough in real cultural contexts.

Here’s why. Let’s consider this against a famous statement of morphological resemblance from the history of social thought:

Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?

(Michel Foucault, Disipline and Punish)

This is an argument about general morphology. It is not that prisons and schools are exactly the same but that they share some meaningful aspects. Can an AI be trained to understand whether or not a given social arrangement fits a “panoptic diagram”? Only if you can parameterize every element of the description of a social milieu.

So we now have a media environment where neural nets can and do solve for binary logic functions all the time. The question is what trips that switch from 0 to 1 in either column. It is, in other words, built around a politics of classification.

For all the talk about process fairness and ethics in AI, we know from the history, anthropology, and STS study of classification that classifications are always tied to power.

Dynamic range compression isn’t “the problem” with music

Writers like Milner and a music business that still focuses on Top 40 charts are.

In a recent New York Times piece, Greg Milner argues that the “loudness wars” and “listener fatigue” are the reasons that music isn’t as good as it used to be. Here are some reasons why he’s wrong:

  1. Milner’s greatest offence is devaluating the work of thousands or hundreds of thousands of musicians making incredible new music, with less financial support and backing than ever. We are living through a “golden age” in more genres than I can possibly name or count. Go out and find the good music. There is nothing stopping you.
  2. Any analysis of any cultural phenomenon that explains it with a single causal factor is always wrong.
  3. If you were to actually look at the pop music charts from any of the years of the golden oldie hits references by Milner, you would find most of the music didn’t have the staying power or meaning he ascribes to the songs he uses as reference points.
  4. Any study of popular music today that uses top 40 charts and ignores the vast swaths of creativity one can find elsewhere–bandcamp, soundcloud, YouTube–has no right to say anything about the state or quality of music.
  5. An analogous argument about harmonic distortion and excessive studio production could have been made by fans of 1940s big band music, Mambo or Sinatra decrying the rock and pop that Milner celebrates.
  6. “I don’t understand hip hop” is not a convincing argument. Neither is “get off my lawn.”
  7. The listener fatigue argument is pseudo-scientific at best. Commercial success does not mean aesthetic merit; there are exactly zero reproducible psychology studies that connect musical pleasure in all people with specific sonic effects. Musical sound is only meaningful in context. The perceptual situation of someone listening on earbuds on the train is wholly different from that of someone paying attention in their living room with better speakers or headphones. That today’s most capitalized recommendation engines–Spotify, Google, etc–mostly rely on factors other than musical sound for their recommendations should tell you that little inherent meaning can be gleaned from tone or timbre alone.
  8. “There are millions of people in the basements, waiting to blow your mind.” — Vernon Reid.

Rupert Cox

Another new feature. When I meet cool or interesting people, or hear a talk that I find particularly engaging in one way or another, I will make mention of them here with a link to their work. I may or may not be loquacious.

So, first up is Rupert Cox, social anthropologist, who’s been doing interesting work on listening, sound, aircraft and the memory of war in Japan. He’s working on a book for Bloomsbury, but in the meantime, here’s a link to a short snippet of his work (you will need university library access for this one, sorry).

One of the things we talked about was the experience of sound outside the sound sounding in a physical way — remembered or imagined sounds, for instance. This seems especially important in writing about war and trauma, but has also become increasingly important for other areas: not only does this point come up a couple times in Remapping Sound Studies, but it’s important for thinking about sound, impairment and disability, as in Mack Hagood’s discussion of tinnitus.

…and we’re back…

So that whole social media “platform” this was an interesting ride, wasn’t it? Turns out, nothing is ever free, the new captains of industry are as selfish and narrow minded as the old ones, and we are just the product. Oh wait, we knew that already:

I submit that the materialist answer to the question — What is the commodity form of mass-produced, advertiser-supported communications under monopoly capitalism? — is audiences and readerships (hereafter referred to for simplicity as audiences). The material reality under monopoly capitalism is that all non-sleeping time of most of the population is work time.

Sure, it’s more complicated than what Dallas Smythe laid out in 1977, but is it also still as he laid it out in 1977. The irony is the social media companies, and media industries in general as more cynical about “content”–code for everything that fills up media, from the most meaningful personal thoughts and experiences, to text generated to draw in searches for medical information–than any Marxist professor ever could be.

There’s value in controlling the rights to one’s own writing–and more importantly, one’s own thoughts–and putting it out there on a website that doesn’t control who sees it and who doesn’t. For now I’m still on the big 3 social media companies, but I’m sick of writing thoughtful stuff and it disappearing on Facebook (“read more” is designed so you don’t), and I’m sick of trying to be clever on Twitter. Yay long form.

I missed blogs and blogging, so I am doing something about it.

Probably this will be more or less the same random collection of musings as before, except I’ll talk more about music and music tech because, why not? Also I’m in two bands and Carrie plays drums now. And I owe the world a NAMM 2019 report. Don’t know what NAMM is? All the better.

I still have cancer (coming up on 10 years), my voice still ebbs and flows, and I still love cats.

Other changes: I’ve moved from a shitty for-profit hosting company (ipowerweb, oh how I hated them) to an awesome local not-for-profit company. With their help, the back catalog is cleaned up*, so you can read about Pierre the Nationalist Dishwasher Salesman (and my very early days of learning about Quebec politics) without weird diacritical marks everywhere.

The words “I must respond to” have been banned from my thinking about my public writing. The internet is so full of that. If I want to talk about wave shapers or crip science while the world races to melt the polar ice caps, kill off legions of species, and flood coastal cities; while political leaders say and do awful things; and celebrities (regular and academic) continue to die and/or do stupid shit, I will do just that. Life is short. This is just writing.

*This blog is so old that WordPress changed the character set they use for their database. Also, I started on B2, because I didn’t know about WordPress.

PS–on academia.edu: I told you so. Academics should use websites they control themselves, or use their universities’ repositories. But more on that another time.

An Open Letter in Support of Divest McGill

As I’ve mentioned before, McGill students have been organizing a campaign to get McGill to divest from fossil fuels.  This seems eminently sensible to me. This past week, the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility released a report to the Board of Governors recommending AGAINST divestment because (among other things) oil companies have not cause “grave social harm” through fossil fuel extraction. The claim is outrageous.  And the “experts” they consulted are anonymous.  Which means nobody is willing to sign their name to this ridiculous position. While I would accept disagreements about strategy for fighting climate change, the report is based on some very suspicious ideas about causes.

In response to the CAMSR and the Board of Governors, Divest McGill has organized a series of actions on campus, and they’ve set up a website where you can get caught up on what’s happening and why it matters:http://divestmcgill.com/ .

I just sent the following letter to Principal Suzanne Fortier (suzanne.fortier@mcgill.ca), Chairman Kip Cobbett (stuart.cobbett@mail.mcgill.ca), and Secretary-General Stephen Strople (stephen.strople@mcgill.ca), copied to mfl4divestment@gmail.com.

I urge you to join me in writing in support of Our Future, Our Choice.

Dear Colleagues,

I was very disappointed to read Principal Fortier’s letter to the McGill community regarding the decision not to support Divest McGill’s proposals regarding McGill’s investments.  While I am pleased to see both a respectful tone toward student activists (lacking in the Principal’s communications regarding the BDS movement) and an acknowledgement of the consensus among climate scientists, the conclusions of the CAMSR’s report utterly bizarre from a social theoretical point of view.

I will return to those in a moment, but I am equally concerned that the CAMSR and McGill administration consulted “experts” anonymously.  If they are claiming their consultants are experts, should we not be able to evaluate their expertise?  Are there experts on climate science at McGill who would sign their name to the CAMSR’s claim that

Climate change is an injurious impact primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels by end-users rather than activities of fossil fuel companies.

In general, if the CAMSR consulted experts on either climate change or the social impact of business practices, don’t we deserve to know who is willing to stand behind claims like this? If no McGill faculty members are willing to stand behind these kinds of claims, do they deserve to be in the CAMSR’s report?

Here’s where the social theory comes in.  Fossil fuel consumption does not simply exist because of consumer demand or research into possible uses of petroleum.  It also is a function of active work on the behalf of oil companies to limit research into and diffusion of alternative technologies: this is well documented in histories of public transit and electric cars.  It is also a policy matter, since oil companies (and other companies whose work depends on destroying the environment) routinely lobby governments against policies like Extended Product Responsibility, which would turn the environmental impact of disposing non-recyclable consumer goods, like mobile phones, from an externality into an economic factor in the manufacture, sale, and consumption of those goods.In my research on computer disposal, I found that companies intentionally designed disposal of environmentally hazardous materials into their business models. Of course, they don’t think in those terms.  They think in terms of product life-cycles and planned obsolescence, aka “upgrading.”  The environment is very much a part of modern business strategy, even when it isn’t spoken about in those terms.

Let us compare this to other areas of policy regarding things generally regarded to cause “grave social injury”: we know that smoking is bad for people, but the governments of Canada and the US (and other countries) have found that the companies were also responsible for the social injuries caused by smoking. We know that nuclear power is potentially quite dangerous, and in the case of nuclear accidents, it is the companies that are responsible, not just the end users of nuclear power. We know that trans fats are bad for us, which is why they must be labelled in processed foods sold to consumers, and why companies can’t claim foods high in “trans fat” are good for you.

My colleague Derek Nystrom, in his remarks to the Board of Governors, compared climate change to a ticking time bomb under the table.  It has not yet caused “grave” harm to millions of people by some definitions of “grave” — but it is highly likely to do so by any reasonable definition of the term.  In my letter from last October, I quoted anthropologist Stefan Helmreich’s claim that “the problem of the the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the water line.”

The just-reported climate predictions regarding the Antarctic Ice Shelf are a good example.  http://www.http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/31/science/global-warming-antarctica-ice-sheet-sea-level-rise.html . Whether or not this particular climate model will turn out to be correct is not the issue. The issue is that if it is correct, the damage it predicts cannot be undone.  Even as the Times engages in a little fantasy work to “save” New York City, the impact on the oceans worldwide would displace millions of people at best, and at worse, have a much higher human cost.  It is not something that could be undone, but it is something we could help prevent by committing to alternative energies.

Yes, the CAMSR is right that many petroleum-based consumer products have brought about social good.  But in almost every case today, petroleum could be replaced. In fact, if we look at the diffusion of petroleum-based consumer products over the course of the last 100 years, we see that in many cases petroleum replaced other, less environmentally-damaging materials. Consider one example — the shift from shellac to vinyl records (as documented in Jacob Smith’s new book Eco-Sonic Media).  Vinyl was cheaper and more efficient, but it wouldn’t have been considered to be so if its environmental cost had been included in that calculation. Shellac’s virtues aside, researchers (and artists) all over the world have experimented with making records out of other materials, and many could work.

For these reasons, and many others, I echo Divest McGill’s three demands:

  • That the University hold public hearings on the discredited report of the Committee to Advise on Matter of Social Responsibility (CAMSR).
  • That CAMSR publicly discloses all expert testimony gathered in the course of its consideration of the petition.
  • That Principal Fortier makes a statement acknowledging what the CAMSR Report did not: the activities of fossil fuel corporations cause grave social harm, through the exacerbation of climate change and the devastating impacts on frontline communities.

In short, they are asking for informed public discussion (of the sort that should have preceded the Board’s decision), they are asking for transparency, and they are asking for reason.


–Jonathan Sterne