Stephen Rainey’s Posts

Ambient Intelligence

Written by Stephen Rainey

An excitingly futuristic world of seamless interaction with computers! A cybernetic environment that delivers what I want, when I want it! Or: A world of built on vampiric databases, fed on myopic accounts of movements and preferences, loosely related to persons. Each is a possibility given ubiquitous ambient intelligence. Continue reading

It’s Only a Game

Written by Stephen Rainey

Footballers are increasingly prominent in speaking against social and political ills. They can draw attention to serious issues, given their public profile. If more of us followed their example, beyond supporting their causes, we could make a world less accommodating for moral complacency.

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This Machine Kills Viruses

Written by Stephen Rainey

If we had a machine that could eradicate coronavirus at the press of a button, there would likely be a queue to do the honours. Rather than having such a device, we have a science-policy interface, and a general context of democratic legitimacy. This isn’t a push-button, but a complex of socio-political liberties and privations. We can’t push the button, but we can learn how to use the technology we do have – by collectively following policies like staying inside, wearing masks outside, and keeping distance from others.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic a novel form of this scientific research, technological application, and influence or control of nature (including humans) is emerging. In this case, the application is public policy, as based on multitudes of scientific advice. That over which control is sought is twofold: the virus, and people. Control of the virus is not really possible without some control over the people. Likewise, control of the people becomes harder where the virus is not controlled. Public trust in tough policies wanes if there is no end in sight, or no clear rationale in place. Continue reading

Legacies

By Stephen Rainey

Joe Biden won the recent US election. As yet, the normal concession speech from the losing candidate has not been forthcoming. Donald Trump’s actions since losing the presidency have been, well, Trumpian, prompting Biden to label them an ‘embarrassment.’ He also suggested that The Donald was endangering his legacy in not reacting more gracefully. But what use is talk of ‘legacy’? What matters most about it?

It would be easy to ‘Goldwater’ Trump, that is, diagnose some mental incapacity from afar. One could suggest he was ill-equipped to absorb his defeat. He has behaved in ways that could be seen as pathological. Maybe, we might continue, he really doesn’t believe this is the end. If that were the case, there would be no need to consider legacy. It would also be easy to have suspected that, far from sticking around, 45 would flounce out of the White House, his pride wounded. Legacy wouldn’t matter in that case, because the electorate, the people, would have shown themselves to be unworthy, having voted the wrong way. Sad. Continue reading

Climate Ought to Change Politics

Written by Stephen Rainey

In the midst of global climate change set to devastate entire ways of life, and ultimately on track to render the biosphere uninhabitable for all but the most adaptable organisms, it seems timely to question how political legitimacy relates to matters of scientific fact. While it seems mostly desirable that groups of people ought to be self-determining in terms of how they get along with the business of living, there appears to be a limit wherein this principle renders mutual self-determination among groups impossible.

Self-determination among different groups in some sense generates contradictory demands. Especially where limited resources are a factor, not everyone can successfully pursue their own ends, which generates tensions between groups. Among the limits that prompt such mutually challenging ways of life are the kinds of facts discovered in scientific research. We know from trends observable by climate scientists that patterns of living currently enjoyed by many are unsustainable and are causing damage to the possibility of continued living on Earth. Yet this is known in a rather strange way. Continue reading

Pub Bores and Politics

Written by Stephen Rainey

Pub bet: I bet you can’t button your coat up. You smell a rat, but go along with it, fastening you coat to see what’s up. I claim a victorious pint of plum porter because you close your coat starting with the top button and moving down. You didn’t button your coat up but down.

A pub bet works, to the extent that it does, by subverting a conventional meaning of some phrase or word. We know buttoning up has nothing to do with direction, but there is a direction word in the phrasal verb. Cheeky subversion leads to endless mirth. 

There’s clearly no ethical problem in the minor subversion and misleading that characterises a pub bet. For bigger, or for real bets, we’d be concerned if subversion like this went on. The genie that granted wishes on a tight, close, literal meaning of words used, rather than on the basis of what the wisher probably wanted, would be a scary being. 

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Lies

Written by Stephen Rainey.

 

I’ve been thinking, lately, about lying. Not doing it, just puzzling over what it means.

We all know lying can be morally wrong. But sometimes it can also be a kindness, when the truth might serve no good. Within the constraints of a job, lying might be a professional obligation, morals aside. So I was thinking about the word, ‘lying’, and how maybe it labels a variety of acts that may have different moral implications.

There are some clear-cut cases of wrong that we can spot easily. If we saw a bully shoving someone around, we’d know straight away that was bad. Physically intervening on another person for sadistic kicks, and without their cooperation, is plainly egregious. But the inclusion of sadism and cooperation in the description points to other dimensions of physical intervention that aren’t clearly so bad.

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Making Ourselves Better

Written by Stephen Rainey

Human beings are sometimes seen as uniquely capable of enacting life plans and controlling our environment. Take technology, for instance; with it we make the world around us yield to our desires in various ways. Communication technologies, and global transport, for example, have the effect of practically shrinking a vast world, making hitherto impossible coordination possible among a global population. This contributes to a view of human-as-maker, or ‘homo faber‘. But taking such a view can risk minimising human interests that ought not to be ignored.

Homo faber is a future-oriented, adaptable, rational animal, whose efforts are aligned with her interests when she creates technology that enables a stable counteraction of natural circumstance. Whereas animals are typically seen to have well adapted responses to their environment, honed through generations of adaptation, human beings appear to have instead a general and adaptable skill that can emancipate them from material, external circumstances. We are bad at running away from danger, for instance, but good at building barriers to obviate the need to run. The protections this general, adaptable skill offer are inherently future-facing: humans seem to seek not to react to, but to control the environment.

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