Search the KHIT Blog

Sunday, September 18, 2016

On "Digital Obesity"

First, the annual Health 2.0 Conference draws nigh. I will be there loaded for bear this year. The central topic of this post, below, is of particular relevance.

Next, I was reading this interesting book ("neurophilosophy?" Lordy),

when this one jumped to the head of the line. (Compelling -- finished it in short order; back to "Touching a Nerve" shortly):

Yet another in my lengthy and growing list of reading and reviewing these "futurist" writers, apropos of Health IT writ large.

This one really rocks. (Interestingly, I cited an earlier Gerd Leonhard book some ten years ago back during my days hustling my friends' band in Las Vegas. See here as well. Probably a lot of "link rot" on that latter one by now. I've not checked.)

While there are a breadth of timely and important issues set forth in Gerd's book worthy of citation and discussion here, let's start with "digital obesity."

Chapter 7
Digital Obesity: Our Latest Pandemic 

As we wallow and pig out on a glut of news, updates, and algorithmically engineered information that may be anything but, we entertain ourselves in a burgeoning tech-bubble of questionable entertainment. Obesity is a global issue, and, according to McKinsey, it’s costing an estimated US $ 450 billion per year in the US alone, both in terms of healthcare costs and lost productivity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated in 2015 that more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and an estimated 35.7% are obese.

I believe we are reaching a similar or bigger challenge as we gorge on technology and bring on digital obesity.

I define digital obesity as a mental and technological condition in which data, information, media, and general digital connectedness are being accumulated to such an extent that they are certain to have a negative effect on health, well-being, happiness, and life in general.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, and despite those shocking health factoids, there is still little support globally for stricter regulation of the food industry to curb the use of addiction-building chemical additives, or to stop marketing campaigns that promote overconsumption. In America’s never-ending war on drugs, harmful foodstuffs and sugars are never so much as hinted at. Just as organic foods now seem to be largely the preserve of the well-off and wealthy, so too can we expect anonymity and privacy to become expensive luxuries— out of reach for most citizens.

Consumers are buying gadgets and apps that will supposedly help them reduce food consumption and increase fitness, such as the Fitbit, Jawbone, Loseit, and now Hapifork— which alerts you by trembling if you eat too fast— very useful indeed. It appears the idea is to buy (download) and consume yet another product or service that will miraculously, and without much effort, fix the original problem of overconsumption. 

Cravability means prosperity

The obvious bottom line is that the more people eat, the better it is for those who produce and sell our food— for example, growers, food processors, grocery stores, supermarkets, fast-food joints, restaurants, bars, and hotels. In addition, we may be shocked to find that, every year, every consumer in developed countries unwittingly ingests an estimated 150 pounds of additives— mostly sugar, yeast, and antioxidants, as well as truly nasty stuff such as MSG. These substances are the lubricants of overconsumption. Not only do they make food prettier and more durable, they also make it taste better— as debatable as that is. Thus consumers are strung along by cleverly engineering a “need-for-more” so that it becomes very hard to find the exit from that kingdom of endless, happy consumption.

If this sounds like Facebook or your smartphone, you are getting my drift. The food industry actually calls this cravability or crave-ability. In the world of technology, marketers call it magic, stickiness, indispensability, or more benignly, user engagement.

Craving and addiction— tech’s business model

Generating this kind of craving, or fueling our digital addictions in such a seemingly benign way, is clearly a powerful business model. It is easy to apply the cravability concept to the leading social-local-mobile (SoLoMo) super-nodes such as Google and Facebook, or to platforms such as WhatsApp. Many of us literally crave connectivity as we conduct our daily lives, and when we disconnect we feel incomplete.

Yet somehow, I wonder if it really could be in the interest of big Internet firms that a large number of their users end up with digital obesity issues? Is that really in the best interests of the predominantly US-owned technology and Internet giants? At the same time, we should not underestimate the strong temptation to make consumers dependent on these marvelous digital foods— to addict us to that serotonin-producing tsunami of likes, comments, and friend updates...

Leonhard, Gerd (2016-09-08). Technology vs. Humanity: The coming clash between man and machine (FutureScapes) (Kindle Locations 1767-1802). Fast Future Publishing. Kindle Edition.
'eh? Is "digital obesity" a real thing -- i.e., "clinically"? Or is this just a clicky-sticky metaphor?

Stay tuned. Keep checking back. Just getting started. A lot to discuss, including "Digital Ethics."
Chapter 10: Digital Ethics – In this chapter, I argue that, as technology permeates every aspect of human life and activity, digital ethics will evolve into a burning, un-ignorable issue for every individual and organization. At present we do not even have a common global language to discuss the issue, let alone agreement on accepted rights and responsibilities. Environmental sustainability is often brushed aside by the developing economies as a first world problem and is always sidetracked during economic recessions. In contrast, digital ethics will force its way to a permanent position at the front and center of our political and economic lives. It’s time to have the ethical conversation about digital technology— a potentially greater threat to continued human flourishing than nuclear proliferation. [ibid, Locations 109-114]
Recall our recent look at "ethics" in the case of Hurricane Katrina.

Again, much to discuss here going forward.


Day five. My Jaco remains lost. I'm starting to fear I will never see him again. A continuing kick to the gut. Difficult to get motivated to do anything this weekend.

Monday update: Some prior KHIT posts of relevance to Gerd Leonhard's book;
to cite just a few that jump right back up. Also, most recently, In the wake of Labor Day, thinking about jobs, education, healthcare, and tech.


In the simplest categorical tabulation, "ethics" (arriving at the "should/should not") comes in three flavors: [1] Consequentialism (utilitarianism), [2] "Deontology" ("duty theory"), and [3] "Virtue Ethics." The latter comes fraught with a bit of question-begging circularity to many. to wit,
Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximize well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as “Do unto others as you would be done by” and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent. [Stanford Encyclodedia of Philosophy]
Aristotle waxed eloquent on the subject of "virtue." One becomes "virtuous" via habituation -- by consistently performing "virtuous acts." Noble enough, in the unremarkable cases, where knowing a priori what counts as virtuous is an easy call. The petitio principii problem is a potential liability here ("begging the question"). "Charitable," "benelovent?" I'm down with those moral principles. I can readily think of others, though, who are not. A big part of the core purpose of moral deliberation is the rational determination of what counts as "virtuous." The "appeal to tradition" (which accounts for the bulk of "social/moral norms") does not summarily equate to "evidence" in support of an argument.

While a lot of ethics debates dwell (interminably?) on abstract (or the difficult, sometimes far-fetched "use case" scenario) "thought experiments" in pursuit of ostensibly rational moral guidance, as we've encountered in the 2005 post-Katrina "Playing God?" dustup at NOLA's Memorial Hospital, applied normative ethics in the bio-clinical space frequently require time-pressured dispositive decisions and action in exigent circumstances, lest people be injured or die.

What of Gerd's "Digital Ethics?"
Chapter 10 
Digital Ethics 

Technology has no ethics— but humanity depends on them. Let’s do some exponential math. If we continue on the current path, in just eight to 12 years— depending on when we start counting— overall technological progress is going to leap from today’s pivot point of four to 128. At the same time, the scope of our ethics will continue to limp along on a linear, step-wise, and human scale of improvement, from four to five or six if we’re lucky; it will improve just a little bit as we adapt to a new framework. 

Even if Moore’s Law may eventually cease to apply as far as microchips are concerned, many of the fields of technology, from communications bandwidth to artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning, are still likely to grow at least exponentially and with combinatorial effects— the changes reinforcing one another.

Zoom forward another ten years, and we may indeed end up 95% automated, hyperconnected, virtualized, uber-efficient, and much less human than we could ever imagine today. A society that sleepwalks down the exponential growth-path of the Megashifts (see chapter 3), a society that does not pause to consider the consequences for human values, beliefs, and ethics, a society that is steered by technologists, venture capitalists, stock markets, and the military, is likely to enter a true machine age. 

So what are ethics? Going beyond the simple answer, how one should live, the Greek word ethos means custom and habit. Today, we often use ethics as a synonym or as shorthand for morals, values, assumptions, purposes, and beliefs. The primary concern of ethics is to question whether something is right or not in a given circumstance. What feels right to you is governed by your ethics, and in many cases it’s hard to explain why something does not feel right. That is clearly one of the challenges of agreeing on even the most basic ethical rules for the exponential age we are about to enter... [Leonhard, op cit, Kindle Locations 2318-2333]
Leonhard gives much deliberation to the speculative relative merits of technological "precaution" vs "proaction." He goes on to call for establishment of a "GDEC."
Creating a Global Digital Ethics Council: How would we define ethics that are fit for the exponential age?
I would like to address two main concerns: Firstly, to try and define what a globally agreeable set of ethics could be for an exponentially Digital Age; and secondly, to try and define what we would need to do to ensure that human well-being and ethical concerns actually remain on top of the agenda globally, and are not taken over by machine thinking. We need to define a set of bottom-line digital ethics— ethics that are fit for the Digital Age: open enough not to put the brakes on progress or hamper innovation, yet strong enough to protect our humanness. A compass, not a map, towards a future that will see increasingly powerful technologies first empower, then augment and then increasingly threaten humanity. 

To this end, I propose that we create a Global Digital Ethics Council (GDEC) tasked with defining what the ground rules and most basic and universal values of such a dramatically different, fully digitized society should be... [ibid, Kindle Locations 2401-2409]
Very intriguing stuff, all of it. Gerd clearly comes down on the "humanist" side of things
 If we don’t want to become technology ourselves; if we don’t want to be increasingly assimilated into the powerful vortex created by the Megashifts; if we want to remain “naturally human” in spite of the powerful lures of those magical technologies; if we want to safeguard what truly makes us happy and not just what makes us function, we must take action while we still have the wiggle room. That time is now. 

We must start asking why, followed by who, and when, not just if and how. We must ask questions about purpose, not just about profits. We must increasingly question industry leaders and especially technologists and the firms that employ them. We must compel them all to take a more holistic view, to consider the good as well as the not-so-good implications of what they are proposing. We must also ask them to acknowledge and address those unintended consequences, and to include the externalities of whatever they are creating in their business plans and revenue models. 

We must hold the creators and financiers of tomorrow— and of course ourselves, as users and consumers— responsible at every turn. We need to start denying customership to those companies that don’t care enough, and we must stop being the content for those platforms that are seeking to automate us. We must stop being silent contributors to machine thinking because everything else is less convenient. 

If we don’t want to end up with what I call the Oppenheimer Regret— named after the famous physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose inventions made the atomic bomb a reality, and who subsequently regretted his actions and their consequences— we must commit to being on “team human,” to put humanity first and above all... [ibid, Kindle Locations 2719-2731]
"We must start asking why..."

Yeah. But, at Health2con next week, I'm sure the "why" is gonna mostly have to do with money, -- frenzied VC spending and market capture opportunities.

A highly recommended read. I know that he will get pushback on the "humanism" ethos, as some equally smart futurist thinkers regard the coming "Singularity" (which Gerd discusses) that eclipses biological humans as an inevitable next step in evolution (should we continue to survive). Cultural evolution, moreso than biological evolution, is firmly in the driver's seat these days. And, "first-world culture" is all about exponentially advancing technology, much if not most of it digital.

Amazon is gumshoeing me, unsurprisingly, mining my purchase and browsing histories. Got this recommendation in my email today.

A noted Harvard professor, no less. Hmmm...

But, hold on a second. There's but one reader review, a 4-star.
...the cases in the book are entirely retrospective — there isn't any speculation about the sorts of hypotheticals that philosophical ethicists love to worry about (and which don't have to be as tedious as the infamous trolley problems). While she doesn't mention the quote I cited above, SJ does invoke the famous Rumsfeldian "folk epistemology" of "known knowns / known unknowns / unknown unknowns" when criticizing risk assessment; her excellent point is that "scientific" risk assessment is limited to known unknowns, and ignores what often is most troubling to people, the unknown unknowns. So it's ironic that her book does the same thing, or even stick to known knowns (though arguably matters dealing with values aren't really "knowns"): every problem she mentions is illustrated with a case that occurred in the past. One of the benefits of philosophical ethics, though, is that an imaginative author can often pluck problems from the realm of the unknown and bring them into the realm of the known unknown, at least. Here are some junior high school-level examples: suppose some mad genius or company really invents robot warriors, or an AI that could bring about the "singularity," surpassing human intelligence by orders of magnitude — what are the ethical choices they ought to consider? Suppose someone invents some new creature or microbe in her bathtub and thinks it would be fun to release it into the wild? How do we deal with the fact that many inventors are loners, and far from the reach of governance institutions? People are really trying to do such things, so these aren't idle questions. As SJ herself points out, experts often cop out on these questions with expressions like "But that seems unlikely for now": she notes that "silenced in this account is the what-if question" (@252). She's right, and yet I felt the book was doing something similar. Movies like Scarlett Johansson's "Her" and TV shows like "Person of Interest" actually do a better job of raising the ethical issues I was hoping to see more soberly considered here. And even some here-and-now examples, such as private drones, military drones, and driverless cars, don't get analyzed — perhaps because there hasn't yet been a lawsuit about them...
Lordy. Think I'll pass, notwithstanding the four stars net. There are only so many hours in the day, and only so many dollars in my bank account.

Maybe I'll do this one next (after I finish up with "Touching a Nerve").

From the Amazon blurb:
...Nicholas Carr cuts through Silicon Valley’s unsettlingly cheery vision of the technological future to ask a hard question: Have we been seduced by a lie? Gathering a decade’s worth of posts from his blog, Rough Type, as well as his seminal essays, Utopia Is Creepy offers an alternative history of the digital age, chronicling its roller-coaster crazes and crashes, its blind triumphs, and its unintended consequences.

Carr’s favorite targets are those zealots who believe so fervently in computers and data that they abandon common sense. Cheap digital tools do not make us all the next Fellini or Dylan. Social networks, diverting as they may be, are not vehicles for self-enlightenment. And “likes” and retweets are not going to elevate political discourse. When we expect technologies—designed for profit—to deliver a paradise of prosperity and convenience, we have forgotten ourselves. In response, Carr offers searching assessments of the future of work, the fate of reading, and the rise of artificial intelligence, challenging us to see our world anew...
 I've cited Nicholas Carr before on KHIT (scroll down), re "The Glass Cage."

More to come...

No comments:

Post a Comment