Pathfinders: Killer Apps

People in capitalism have funny notions of ethics. Take the recent US retaliatory bombing of Syrian sites following Assad’s alleged use of chemical bombs in Douma. The Syrian government has been bombing, strafing and massacring its own population for the past seven years with scarcely a raised eyebrow from Western powers. But let him once resort to an ‘illegal’ weapon of war and the civilised world goes into a moral hissy fit. In a similar vein, a group of scientists have announced they are boycotting work at a South Korean university which they say will lead to autonomous battlefield robots able to identify and kill people without any human oversight (BBC Online, 5 April). The university denies it of course, but even so there’s a strange logic to all this. Rich states already have weaponised drones that can destroy at long distance, controlled by drone ‘pilots’ operating thousands of miles from the scene and able to see just grainy lo-res satellite images of what they’re aiming at. Do they make mistakes, and blow up residential blocks inside of missile silos, or wedding parties instead of terrorist cells? Yes, of course they do. As technology has steadily increased the distance between warring sides, to the point where the no-man’s-land in between is the size of a continent, the ability of the remote operators to make the right tactical decision based on good, on-the-ground information has suffered accordingly. The logical next step is to take humans out of the equation altogether and let artificial intelligence make the decisions. After all it’s not going to make much difference to you whether you’re blown up by some red-eyed half-asleep drone operator in Nevada or by a bright shiny AI program on someone’s iPhone. Either way it’s nothing personal. If capitalism is determined to kill you, it will at least try to do it efficiently. For socialists, there are no ‘moral’ ways of killing, and to take sides in some bogus ethical debate about legitimate and illegitimate weapons is simply to collude in the social acceptance of the truly monstrous. Either you’re against all capitalist war, or you’re not. Trying to take a middle position in no-man’s-land is just artificial unintelligence.

Faceclock and the Binopticon

Recently it was reported that Chinese face-recognition AI software had successfully scanned 60,000 people at a pop concert and picked out one individual who was wanted by the authorities. Nobody was more amazed by this technological feat than the fugitive himself, who protested that ‘If I’d known, I wouldn’t have come (to the concert)!’ Chinese police are now also trialling face recog sunglasses, and the long eyeball of the law is even being used to identify jaywalkers and toilet roll thieves (Hong Kong Free Press, 19 June 2017). Ali Baba, the Asian Amazon, are heavily investing in face recog while Facebook plans to roll it out across Europe despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently being carpeted by the US Congress for selling user data. No doubt they will call it Faceclock.

We are living in an era where surveillance is more sophisticated than ever, and it is coming at us from two warring directions, from the state, and from the private sector via retail and social media. Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century imagined a kind of transparent glass prison, the Panopticon, where all inmates could be watched, without their knowing it, by just one guard. What we are dealing with now is the Binopticon, and we are increasingly pinned securely in its stereo vision without the possibility of manoeuvre or escape. Many people are not worried by this and indeed appreciate the benefits of surveillance by the state (less chance of being mugged in the street, more terrorists watched) and by retail and media (conveniently filtering out products and ideas you don’t want to see). Capitalist media pundits make hay over the ‘threat’ to democracy, but this misses a larger point. The Binopticon is presently out of focus as the two ‘lenses’ fight for data supremacy. What happens when state and private sector inevitably overcome their spat and learn to operate ‘in phase’? Then the question arises: who needs democracy at all? The whole idea of ‘government by consent’ breaks down if individual workers can be watched, tracked, brainwashed and micromanaged 24 hours a day. People tend to make the unwarranted assumption that history is progressive and that democratic forms are built into the DNA of liberal capitalism. But that could be a foolish delusion. Capitalism could function perfectly well without any democracy at all, once surveillance technology is perfected. If you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in a glass prison, better start throwing some stones while there’s still time.

Slow boats and fast bucks

The news that the global shipping industry has agreed for the first time to cut its carbon emissions will come as a surprise to anyone who didn’t realise that shipping, like aviation, has never been part of any climate agreement and thus not discussed at Kyoto, Rio or the Paris accord. Capitalism is a global profit system but when it comes to picking up the environmental tab for those profits the transnational distribution system has so far escaped responsibility, despite shipping being, in carbon footprint terms, the world’s sixth largest country (BBC Online, 13 April). Now the International Maritime Organisation has agreed to a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 relative to 2008 levels, despite opposition from the US, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. The deal may spur new marine technology, or even see a partial return to the days of sail.

Container shipping has revolutionised world markets and is responsible for 80 percent of the world’s trade by volume and 70 percent by value (2016 Safety & Shipping Review at Though worker fatalities have fallen in recent years, to around 1,000 a year, shipping remains one of the world’s most dangerous activities. Given this, you might assume that firms don’t ship goods unnecessarily, however it is a fairly common experience to buy an item online, on the assumption that it was available locally or at least nationally, only to find weeks later that it has been shipped all the way from China or Korea. Many online marketplaces don’t bother to give you this information, probably because many people would choose not to buy long-distance in this way. In socialism the aim of production and distribution would be to localise as much as possible, to reduce complexity, resource and energy costs, and of course human exposure to risk. In capitalism none of this matters next to the overriding question of what will make the most money.


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