breaking news from the world of ideas

by Mary Harrington
Tuesday, 26
January 2021
Reaction
07:00

Digital ghosts: the eerie next step in your customised world

Imagine your wife died suddenly, and you struggled to cope with the loss. Well, soon you’ll be able to converse with her synthetic ghost, via a chatbot! Microsoft has filed a patent to access “social data” such as images, social media posts, written letters and so on “to create or modify a special index in the theme of the specific person’s personality”. This could then be used “to train a chat bot to converse in the personality of the specific person”, while “a 2D or 3D model of a specific person may be generated” to go with it.

I volunteered for some years at a bereavement counselling service. The people who presented for help with bereavement weren’t those who were sad when loved ones died. Every normal human being grieves. The individuals who needed help were those who’d become stuck along the path to accepting loss, usually because the relationship with the lost loved one was complicated. ...  Continue reading

by Mary Harrington
Monday, 18
January 2021
Spotted
11:49

Why Viktor Orban chooses China over the EU

Empires, it seems, are like buses: nothing for ages then two come along at once. Spare a thought for Hungary, caught by the vagaries of geography between would-be imperiums of East and West. Having shaken off the yoke of the Soviet Union in 1989, Hungary is now triangulating between two rival sources of soft power: the EU and China. And contra (increasingly battered-looking these days) Western progressive teleology, it’s by no means a foregone conclusion which side will prevail.

Hungary’s status as a key EU weak spot for Chinese geopolitical manoeuvring was underlined this week with news that Hungary has grown tired of the lumbering EU coronavirus vaccine approval and procurement process, and has announced plans to fast-track approval for a Chinese vaccine instead. ...  Continue reading

by Mary Harrington
Tuesday, 12
January 2021
Idea
08:00

Do similar gender roles always constitute “progress”?

The pandemic has been unrelentingly tough on working women. In the US, women accounted for all the 140,000 US job losses in December, and 2.1 million American women have dropped out of the workforce altogether since February because squaring the circle of homeschooling and caring for kids at home while continuing to work was simply unfeasible.

It’s part of received popular opinion that societal changes such as the entry of women into the workforce constitute ‘progress’ in an absolute sense: that is, the fact that more women are in paid employment than 100 years ago is in and of itself evidence of things getting better. But what if this ‘progress’ is in fact just an effect of social and economic conditions? A new paper, which studies the correlation between historic farming practices in different geographies worldwide and attitudes to women working outside the home or earning property, suggests that there’s nothing absolute about societal trajectories toward sex equality at all. ...  Continue reading

by Mary Harrington
Monday, 4
January 2021
Spotted
11:38

Why did the Chinese Communist Party turn on Jack Ma?

Jack Ma, flamboyant Chinese billionaire co-founder of ecommerce colossus Alibaba.com and of fintech group Ant Holdings, appears to have gone missing after criticising China’s financial regulations.

Ma has not appeared in public since a controversial speech given at the Bund Finance Summit in Shanghai in October last year, in which he criticised China’s banking regulations. Ma made the speech on 24 October, the day after Ant Group’s IPO listing was priced, and on 3 November, Ant Group’s record-breaking $37bn IPO was suspended. Then on Christmas Eve the Chinese government announced an antitrust probe into Alibaba, citing concerns over ‘monopolistic practices’. Ma has not been seen since. ...  Continue reading

by Mary Harrington
Friday, 1
January 2021
Debate
07:00

Don’t pity the pornographers

Won’t someone think of the pornographers? Salon.com is lamenting thousands of tragic job losses in the porn industry as a consequence of Pornhub’s recent cleanup. Who, sighs progressive pro-porn sociologist Angela Jones, “is speaking for the hundreds of thousands of pornographers whose economic livelihoods have been served upon an altar for penance?”

Jones decries the ‘anti-porn lobby’ as a front organisation for the religious right, but in truth it spans left and right, comprising feminists, sex industry survivors and ordinary men and women as well as people of faith. All these groups view self-expression as one value to balance against numerous other moral harms inflicted by the proliferation and normalisation of porn. ...  Continue reading

by Mary Harrington
Wednesday, 16
December 2020
Response
07:00

The trouble with the ‘intellectual porn star’

It’s commonplace nowadays to observe that globalisation produces winners and losers and that this drives populist politics. Watching Freddie Sayers’ Lockdown TV interview with OnlyFans superstar Aella, it struck me that this individual — a rationalist, self-described ‘moral nihilist’ and happy porn star — is one of the winners in modernity’s moral liquefaction, in much the same way as a hedge fund manager is in the economic sort.

Aella makes repeated references to how her brain is ‘different’ from ordinary brains. She doesn’t elaborate much on this, but uses the phrase ‘high decoupling’, unpacked in these pages by Tom Chivers, which means roughly ‘capable of considering ideas without becoming emotionally overwhelmed by their implications’. “The person I am who has sex on a personal level is different to the person I am who produces sex on a business level”, she explains. ...  Continue reading

by Mary Harrington
Monday, 7
December 2020
Spotted
15:09

Deck the halls! Ironic hipster Christianity may save us all

Today, what you buy is who you are. For those who’ve travelled so far beyond God that Advent is just drinking and tinsel, there’s no shortage of faith-free seasonal tat to splurge on in December. But for design-conscious types with a vestigial relationship to Christianity — a kind of religious coccyx, if you like — how to shop the ironically pre-post-Christian vibe presents more of a challenge.

Industrial designer Sebastian Bergne has one solution: expensive Christian minimalism. His online shop charges £200 for a set of eight rectangles of painted beech in an untreated wooden box, with each block representing one of the figures in the Nativity. (The 2020 edition is now sold out, though you can pre-order for next year). The idea, presumably, is that we’re so familiar with the elements of a traditional Nativity scene, whether on Christmas cards or in innumerable other representations, that these rectangular placeholders are instantly recognisable simply by their colour. Emilie Voirin’s even more brutally abstract Nativity takes this a step further again, rejecting even the colour-coding in favour of plain wooden blocks with text printed on them. ...  Continue reading

by Mary Harrington
Monday, 30
November 2020
Idea
15:07

Academics face a moral dilemma

How much do academics care about what’s true, as opposed to what’s morally orthodox? This has become a much-debated question in recent years as the ‘campus wars’ have grown more heated.

To date there has been plenty of opinion on the subject, but little in the way of data. But in 2016, Glenn Geher, a professor of psychology, used an outbreak of ‘campus wars’ at his own university to conduct a study on the association between political outlook and academic values.

He interviewed 117 academics across the US about their sex, political affiliations, personalities, academic subject, and also the relative importance they ascribed to five values: academic freedom, academic rigour, the advancement of knowledge, student emotional wellbeing, and social justice. ...  Continue reading

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