Science and Technology

Facebook and its plan for “proper empires”

The future is not what it used to be. The tech giants were once seen as harbingers of a new utopia even by some leftists, but no more. Facebook has seen its moral stock crash, first with its role in the election of Trump and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Social media is now subject to harsh criticism even by some of those who made it (see Netflix’s The Social Dilemma). In recent weeks, the cache of documents released by ex-Facebook employee Frances Haugen has further damned Facebook. At the same time, Facebook’s rebranding as Meta points to plans that will make its commercial proposition...

Yes, celebrate Gagarin!

Rhodri Evans (Solidarity 604) quotes Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, who described the advances provided by the International Space Station as “meagre” to support his opposition to increased human space flight. Quoting this, whilst ignoring Rees’s belief in humanity’s expansion into the Galaxy on the basis of discovery and adventure, is however remarkably short-sighted. Rees rightly believes that the durability of robots makes them better suited to certain aspects of space flight, but has never ruled out human involvement in, nor humanity’s desire to explore space. Whilst probes have been flung...

Covid: the bother with boosters

The British government is acting as if it has opted for extra jabs as its first line against the probable new Covid surge in winter. Those, rather than social improvements (ventilation, workers’ control of workplace safety, full isolation pay for all, boosting the NHS and reversing privatisation, improved housing, improved social care) or mild restrictions (mandatory mask-wearing and work-from-home, limits on indoor crowding). While the government has spent billions on extra vaccines, and test-trace contracts of dubious efficacy, it still stonewalls on proper isolation pay for workers in...

Malaria kills more than Covid in Africa

We wrote recently about the first effective vaccine against malaria, which should be widely available in a few years. However, malaria continues to take a terrible toll, 409,000 deaths in 2019, 94% (384,000) in sub-Saharan Africa (1 in 600 infections).

Science, rockets and space

John Cunningham (Solidarity 603) points out that the USSR space programme was primarily geared to developing missile technology for the Cold War. He still cherishes his framed photo of Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin was surely brave and resourceful. But what cause were those qualities made to serve? Since 1972 no government has found sending humans (rather than scientific instruments) beyond low Earth orbit worthwhile even for prestige or possible military spin-offs. And on the International Space Station, the astronomer Martin Rees says: “The scientific returns have been meagre. We have learned a bit...

From Vostok to laughing stock

On 12 April 1961, the first human blasted off into space. It was an amazing achievement and was a display not only of the remarkable technological prowess of those who designed and built the spacecraft, but also of the person courage of the man inside the capsule. His name was Yuri Gagarin and he was just 27 years old. The craft he piloted was called Vostok 1. He is correctly honoured across Russia, and his memory revered, while the Soviet leaders of that time are long forgotten. Gagarin sadly died seven years later in a plane crash. Sixty years after Gagarin’s historic flight, the British...

The science of brains

InSolidarity 597 John Cunningham wrote that a materialist understanding of thought requires a deep understanding of the brain and its functioning at the physical level. Matt Cooper in Solidarity 598 called this a reductionist approach “which attempts to reduce the social-psychological to only a biological level”, arguing instead for psychology as “the study of observable behaviour… [and] the ideas, feelings or mental structures on which it is based”. I think both of these are true and both are partial. How can they both be true? The brain is an extremely complex entity and must be understood...

Women's Fightback: Your assistant may not be female

If you’ve updated the operating system on your iPhone recently you’ll notice Siri is no longer defaulting to a female voice. This is Apple’s response to criticism of the gender bias in virtual assistance. Digital sociologists Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy argue that Siri, and other voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, have been developed in order to “carry out ‘wifework’ — domestic duties that have traditionally fallen on (human) wives.” They accuse tech companies of designing feminised digital assistants who are “friendly and sometimes flirty, occasionally glitchy but...

Automation will not abolish work

Aaron Benanav’s book Automation and the Future of Work is aimed against what he calls the automation discourse. He defines this as a belief that high levels of technological unemployment will result from the introduction of new technology and that we will soon be faced with a largely automated economy. Such ideas can be found both on the left and right. Benanav rejects both their economic analysis and the political solutions such as Universal Basic Income (UBI) most commonly proposed to deal with the fallout from automation. I welcome Benanav’s riposte to the recent flurry of predictions of a...

A reply to Matt Cooper on the brain

In response to my posing the question is there a Marxist analysis of the brain, and the answer to my own question, "probably not", my old friend Matt Cooper argues that we need to be "much clearer".

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