December 21, 2016
Why do people like what they like? It is one of the oldest questions of philosophy and aesthetics. Ancient thinkers inclined to mysticism proposed that a “golden ratio”—about 1.62 to 1, as in, for instance, the dimensions of a rectangle—could explain the visual perfection of objects like sunflowers and Greek temples. Other thinkers were deeply skeptical: David Hume, the 18th-century philosopher, considered the search for formulas to be absurd, because the perception of beauty was purely subjective, residing in individuals, not in the fabric of the universe. “To seek the real beauty, or real deformity,” he said, “is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter.” ... Over time, science took up the mystery. In the 1960s, the psychologist Robert Zajonc conducted a series of experiments where he showed subjects nonsense words, random shapes, and Chinese-like characters and asked them which they preferred. In study after study, people reliably gravitated toward the words and shapes they’d seen the most. Their preference was for familiarity. ... This discovery was known as the “mere-exposure effect,” and it is one of the sturdiest findings in modern psychology. ... People get tired of even their favorite songs and movies. They develop deep skepticism about overfamiliar buzzwords. ... A surprise seems to work best when it contains some element of familiarity. ... On the one hand, Hekkert told me, humans seek familiarity, because it makes them feel safe. On the other hand, people are charged by the thrill of a challenge, powered by a pioneer lust. This battle between familiarity and discovery affects us “on every level,” Hekkert says—not just our preferences for pictures and songs, but also our preferences for ideas and even people. ... The power of these eureka moments isn’t bound to arts and culture. It’s a force in the academic world as well. Scientists and philosophers are exquisitely sensitive to the advantage of ideas that already enjoy broad familiarity.
At home, before he gave the present to his wife, Muruganantham took out one of the pads and tore it open. As a kid, he had always been driven by an extraordinary curiosity to find out how things worked; he would compulsively dismantle any new thing he could lay his hands on — toys, bicycles, radios. Muruganantham expected to see something interesting inside the pad, especially because of how furtively the shopkeeper had handed him the pack, but the innards seemed to be nothing but compressed cotton. He wondered why 10 grams of cotton — costing barely a 10th of a rupee — was being sold for a price that was beyond the reach of 90 percent of Indian women. ... economic constraints have driven India’s government and industries to create cheaper versions of many Western products and technologies. India’s pharmaceutical companies have for many years been a major supplier of cheap generic drugs domestically as well as in other developing countries. In 2014, when the Indian Space Research Organization’s Mangalyaan spacecraft entered into orbit around Mars, a few days after a NASA probe did the same, the most-talked-about difference between the two missions was that Mangalyaan had cost about a 10th of what NASA had spent.
Despite years of economic growth, popular discontent at widespread corruption has grown stronger. A series of scandals about everything from shoddy housing to out-of-date vaccines has led to public cynicism about companies and the government’s ability to enforce rules. Social-credit scoring aims to change that by cracking down on the corrupt officials and companies that plague Chinese life. And it aims to keep a closer track on public opinion. In a society with few outlets for free expression, big data might paradoxically help make institutions more accountable. ... But it could also vastly increase snooping and social control. In other countries there have been many scare stories about Big Data leading to Big Brother. Most have proven false. But China is different. It is a one-party state, with few checks on its power, a tradition of social control and, in President Xi Jinping, a leader even more prone to authoritarianism than his immediate predecessors. The extent of social-credit scoring will depend on what the government intends, whether the technology works and how the party responds to public concerns. ... China treats personal information differently from the West. In democracies, laws limit what companies may do with it and the extent to which governments can get their hands on it. Such protections are imperfect everywhere. But in China they do not exist. The national-security law and the new cyber-security law give the government unrestricted access to almost all personal data.
The very act of a person seeing himself in a mirror or being represented in a portrait as the center of attention encouraged him to think of himself in a different way. He began to see himself as unique. Previously the parameters of individual identity had been limited to an individual’s interaction with the people around him and the religious insights he had over the course of his life. Thus individuality as we understand it today did not exist: people only understood their identity in relation to groups—their household, their manor, their town or parish—and in relation to God. ... the average person saw himself only as part of a community. This is why the medieval punishments of banishment and exile were so severe. A tradesman thrown out of his hometown would lose everything that gave him his identity. ... What happened in the fifteenth century was not so much that this community identity broke down, but rather that people started to become aware of their unique qualities irrespective of their loyalty to their community. That old sense of collective identity was overlaid with a new sense of personal self-worth.
There was a time, a few years back, when the most sophisticated cyber-warfare tools were still developed and used exclusively by the world’s most sophisticated cyber-warfare combatants: government spy agencies, such as the ultra-secret National Security Agency and its counterparts in Israel and other developed countries and their arch-rivals in China and Russia. The surveillance and monitoring capabilities that Edward Snowden unveiled to the world in 2013 were shocking and little understood, but an ordinary citizen could at least take comfort in the belief that, if he wasn’t a criminal or a spy, it was unlikely these tools would ever be used against him. ... That was then. ... last August, came the startling confirmation from Apple itself: a genuine remote jailbreak “in the wild,” the one discovered and identified by Marczak and the Lookout researchers. To everyone’s surprise it had been out there operating secretly for years. ... By 2010 a true black market for zero days was emerging beyond the usual black market. ... In this new black market few knew exactly who the buyers were, but it was widely assumed that many were governments looking for clever new ways to spy on their own citizenry.