breaking news from the world of ideas

by Peter Franklin
Monday, 16
September 2019

What’s wrong with the weekend news?

I probably shouldn’t start my Sunday mornings by looking at Twitter, but that’s what I did yesterday. It’s how I saw the news that drone strikes had taken down a massive chunk (half, according to some reports) of Saudi oil production.

Not everything that gets tweeted and retweeted on Twitter is necessarily to be believed, so I went to the BBC news website – and sure enough the story was there. However, the top story was the defection of an ex-Tory MP to the Liberal Democrats.

It was the same thing throughout the day on all the BBC broadcast reports that I saw and heard: the Lib Dems given more prominence than an event of possible world-historical significance. ...  Continue reading

by Freddie Sayers
Monday, 16
September 2019

Watch: the lone Lib Dem speaking out against revoking Article 50

Niall Hodson is a Lib Dem councillor from Sunderland – which voted 61-39 in favour of Brexit in 2016 – and he took to the stage at the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth to argue *against* the adoption of the new Lib Dem policy of revoking Article 50 and cancelling Brexit without a referendum. The policy was overwhelmingly supported and he won’t make the mainstream news reports - but it's a powerful warning which he delivered with good humour. He even got some applause at the end. Here are his key arguments: ... Continue reading
by Mary Harrington
Saturday, 14
September 2019

Weekend Long Read: Camera Above The Classroom

“The smiling face you see on a monkey in a circus is not a smile of joy, it’s a grimace of fear,” one user wrote, “Can you manage to focus in class when you know there’s someone standing behind the classroom? Let alone knowing there’s a camera.”

This week’s long read pick is Camera Above The Classroom, a sobering piece from The Disconnect in which Yujie Xue (薛钰) explores the experimental deployment of facial recognition and AI in Chinese schools.

So-called “intelligent education” tools are currently being trialled across a number of schools. Billed as a way for classrooms to notice and care for more than the outliers at the top and bottom end of the achievement range, the platforms have been popular with parents and school administrators but considerably less so with students.  ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Friday, 13
September 2019

Calm down, ‘deepfake’ news is not here yet

It’s easy to sensationalise the threat of “deepfake” images. The fear is that computer-generated audio and video will soon be so convincing and so ubiquitous that the distinction between online truth and fiction will collapse altogether.

Thank goodness, then, for a cool-headed new report from the Centre for Data Ethics and Information(CDEI). While taking the issue seriously, the authors inject a note of, um, reality:

Deepfakes are likely to become more sophisticated over time. For now, however, high quality content remains difficult to create, requiring specialist skills and professional software that is not yet widely available. We are yet to see a convincing deepfake of a politician that could distort public discourse.
- CDEI Snapshot Paper

Of course, the technology is moving forward. We may be OK at the moment, but in ten years’ time will the news be overwhelmed with fake photographs and footage? Should we be legislating now to outlaw the impending flood of bogus pixels? ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Friday, 13
September 2019

Alan Johnson on the dark side of ‘community’

Those who have listened to my Confessions will know that I have a problem with the idea of liberalism. To me, it has long been associated with individualism, with the prioritisation of the solitary self and individual rights, over and against the community.

I see family and community as the most successful support structures that history has ever known – especially for the most vulnerable. Detaching the individual from his or her place within a stable community renders them vulnerable to powerful economic forces, forces that identify the primary function of an individual’s life in terms of their economic significance and usefulness. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 13
September 2019

In defence of virtue signalling

This week, the Archbishop of Canterbury visited the site of the Amritsar massacre in India and prostrated himself on the ground in a gesture of public repentance. He said he wanted to acknowledge “the sins of my British colonial history”.

Perhaps predictably, the reaction has been mixed. Critiques include people asking why he didn’t address various other current atrocities and injustices in contemporary India alongside accusations of “virtue signalling”.

Colonial history is complex and contested, and the religio-politics of contemporary India perhaps even more so, but the immediate kickback was wearyingly familiar. Doing good is difficult. Doing it in public even more so, but some roles, not least national church leaders, require at least the attempt. ...  Continue reading

by Ed West
Thursday, 12
September 2019

Four referendums that were never honoured

I have no idea whether Brexit will happen in the end. I still suspect so, but if the people’s will is not carried out, it wouldn’t be the first time.

While on holiday in Malta last year, I read in passing a reference to a referendum the country held in 1956 to become a fully integrated member of the United Kingdom. That would mean three Maltese MPs sitting in the Westminster Parliament. Presumably, I thought, they voted against such an insulting and bizarre idea and chose to be a free and sovereign state. Actually, it was quite the opposite: 77% of Maltese people voted to join the UK, although there was a boycott by some sections of the population. ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 12
September 2019

‘Left-behind’ communities are closer than you think

A new way of measuring “left behind” communities has come up with some intriguing results. Research featured in The Economist by the same people who compile the official Index of Multiple Deprivation for the Government suggests ranking communities by positive things they are missing – like libraries and bus services – instead of by negative factors like crime. In doing so you end up identifying different problem areas:

“…Local Trust, a charity, asked OCSI to devise a community-needs index with a narrower focus. Whereas the multiple-deprivation index largely assesses the presence of negative factors like crime and unemployment, the new index highlights the absence of positives, such as civic amenities and transport links.”
- The Economist

A combination of the two indices was used to identify the most “left-behind” communities in Britain. Some of these were in “post-industrial parts of the country or unloved seaside towns”, but others were much closer to the action: “housing estates on the fringes of prosperous cities and large towns”. They concluded: ...  Continue reading