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Parsing the Telescreen, Slouching into the Gulag
Fred Reed

Sez I, we are barreling into a world of mixed unreality and invited surveillance, not quite noticed but at warp speed. The unreality? We can now do politicians in video software and make them convincingly say things more reprehensible then they would themselves. The surveillance creeps in like a barely noticed smell. It creeps and will creep. Consider:

Several years ago Vi and I bought a sixty-five inch LG screen that we use for watching YouTube and Netflix. It has search-by-voice. Thus by pressing a button on the remote to wake it up, we can say, “Tianjian automated Chinese seaport,” and it will find the relevant sites on the web. Of course we have no way of knowing whether it is listening the rest of the time. Since it is convenient, we are not important, and we don’t say anything criminal or probably even very interesting, we use it.

The screen also has control-by-gesture. It doesn’t work very well, and I would feel like an idiot waving my arms and gesturing at a television, so I have never learned it. However, we have no way of knowing whether and when it is watching us. Just in case, we confine human sacrifice and orgiastic sex with farm animals to the garage so, if it is watching, we will be boring.

We also have two Alexa boxes, one in the kitchen and one in my office. These are marvels. The speakers aren’t bad for the price and Alexa is good at providing on voice command any music ever written. This is very nice indeed, though I suspect that most of us are so used to such things as not to notice how nice they are. Violeta uses this greatly while cooking.

Alexa’s hearing is eerie. If Vi says, “Alexa, play Lohengrin” while  in the kitchen, often Alexa’s sister in my office will respond as well. The the kitchen and the office are in rooms separated by two plate-glass walls and a long hall with a right angle. This is astonishing acuity. Since Alexa in my office will sometimes get the music wrong, the two aren’t communicating electronically. Again, we find the convenience more appealing that the surveillance threatening. Besides, no one would bother listening to us, unless of course we were writing unflattering columns about that unevolved  truculence in the White House.

I am writing this in my-office using text-to-speech software. Everyt time Alexa hears her name, she asks what I want.

I have just read that there is a video game called Call of Duty, which apparently millions of the young use to lower their IQs and avoid doing anything useful as they struggle with each other electronically. The parent company, Activision, is now incorporating AI software that listens to the martial shouts of remote and disembodied warriors to check for inappropriate language. This of course includes anything racial, uninclusive, offensive, triggering, sexist, and so on. This is said in today’s awkward English to have as purpose the improving of the gaming experience and the protection of women, though it probably means girls.

Saith the article, one in ten of distaff gamers has been driven to “suicidal thoughts” by insults during her hours as an online Boadicea. This is interesting. In the age of the  Pride and Prejudice sort of novel, women were always fainting on any provocation and dashing for the swooning couch, and they had to carry umbrellas in sunny weather so as not to damage their delicate skins. This strikes me as fraud as in my appalling number of years on the planet I have never seen a woman faint or even look as if she were considering it. They were too busy running marathons and scuba diving and wearing bikinis at high noon, to the great betterment of mankind.

But now it seems that they will take poison if insulted by tiresome twerps while killing enemy soldiers online–instead of saying, for example, “Grow up.” It appears that we are going to have moral uplift as pretext for surveillance of conversation. This electro-linguistic mommyism can easily be extended to high school bathrooms, locker rooms, or indeed any place thought proper to be monitored for acceptable values by government, which is to anywhere at all. There is no technical reason why it can’t be extended to Alexa boxes.

We should be grateful that we don’t live in a surveillance state like China.

OK, AI and language.  Computers today can understand spoken language, or at least come close enough to be dangerous. For example, if I say to my iPhone, “Hey Siri, in Spanish how do you say “If I had more money, I would buy myself a bright red Corvette,” she gets it exactly right, subjunctive, reflexive, conditional. That’s not mechanical replacement. A lot of syntax lives in that short sentence. People with time on their hands can argue about whether machines are conscious and whether they “really understand,” but if what they do is indistinguishable from understanding, that’s close enough for jazz.

That’s not quite understanding because the translation software probably couldn’t answer the question, “What would Fred do if he had the money.{” But you can have a real conversation with Chat GPT. Which is real understanding.

If I mistake not, this means that Alexa boxes can, or shortly will be able to, monitor what people are talking about wherever it is practical to put a microphone, which is pretty much everywhere. We are now used to ubiquitous cameras. We pay no attention to them. We would–will?–quickly get used to microphones in public places, and are already comfortable with cameras and microphones in our homes (the Alexa boxes) and in our pockets, iPhones. Any device activated by voice command must be listening for that command, and thus potentially everything we say. Where, if anywhere other conversation goes is an open question..

If I may throw in a somwhat-related  thought, of course all of our credit-card transactions, bank dealings, and their times and places, and phone records, are recorded, this thought harmless because only commercial entities, not the government, have access to them. Read Ed Snowden’s book, Permanent Record. The social media know more about us than we know about ourselves. To all of which, government has access. If you believe otherwise, you should have a second lobotomy.

Onward and upward.

Fred, a keyboard mercenary with a disorganized past, has worked on staff for Army Times, The Washingtonian, Soldier of Fortune, Federal Computer Week, and The Washington Times.

He has been published in Playboy, Soldier of Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Harper’s, National Review, Signal, Air&Space, and suchlike. He has worked as a police writer, technology editor, military specialist, and authority on mercenary soldiers. He is by all accounts as looney as a tune.

He is the author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well, A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to BeCurmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung BeetleAu Phuc Dup and Nowhere to Go: The Only Really True Book About VietNam, and A Grand Adventure: Wisdom's Price-Along with Bits and Pieces about Mexico. Visit his blog.

Fred was born in 1945 in Crumpler, West Virginia, a coal camp near Bluefield. My father was a mathematician then serving in the Pacific aboard the destroyer USS Franks, which he described as a wallowing and bovine antique with absolutely no women aboard, but the best the Navy had at the time.

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