Norman Lear’s work was an integral part of American life in the second half of the 20th Century. Television programs like Maude, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons dragged television out of the 1950s and into the real world. As Variety states: “Lear’s shows were the first to address the serious political, cultural and social flashpoints of the day – racism, abortion, feminism, homosexuality, the Vietnam war – by working pointed new wrinkles into the standard domestic comedy formula. No subject was taboo: Two 1977 episodes of All in the Family revolved around the attempted rape of lead character Archie Bunker’s wife Edith.”
All in the Family, which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1979, typified the clash of generations. Middle-aged bigot Archie Bunker – played by Carrol O’Connor – was a right-wing King Lear in Queens, raging at the radical changes in society. Archie didn’t let ignorance get in the way of his opinions; once he argued that people who lived in communes were communists. The thing is, the old dog was actually capable of learning new tricks. Archie never evolved into any kind of saint. But over the nine seasons "Family" aired, experience taught Archie the benefits of listening to (and respecting) viewpoints far different from his own.
All in the Family was the jewel in Lear’s crown, but don’t forget the highly popular shows One Day at a Time (which featured Bonnie Franklin as a divorcee raising two daughters in the Midwest) and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (with Louise Lasser as the titular figure in a parody of soap opera conventions). Good or bad, Lear’s work was never indifferent.
More recently, you may have heard about Lear’s lively activism. His TV shows were themselves arguments for free and unfettered speech, and Lear supported a slate of liberal causes. In 1981 he founded People for the American Way. The organization’s website describes the ways that PFAW has “engaged cultural and community leaders and individual activists in campaigns promoting freedom of expression, civic engagement, fair courts, and legal and lived equality for LGBTQ people.”
Lear’s life was a long and fulfilling one. In 1978 he was given the first of two Peabody Awards, the most prestigious award in television. “To Norman Lear,” it reads, “...for giving us comedy with a social conscience. He uses humor to give us a better understanding of social issues. He lets us laugh at our own shortcomings and prejudices, and while doing this, maintains the highest entertainment standards.”
A pioneer, a gadfly of the state, a mensch. To paraphrase a lyric from All in the Family’s theme song, “Mister, we could use a guy like Norman Lear again.”
China’s Facial Recognition Technology has Advanced, but is it Safe?
Facial recognition technology is getting better, and every industry from fast food to law enforcement is beginning to utilize it.
About six months ago, Chinese conglomerate Alibaba released technology that allows customers to pay for goods via facial recognition. The tech giant, now worth over 500 billion dollars, chose KFC as the testing ground for their new payment method; a logical move, considering Alibaba is invested in Yum! China, the company responsible for every KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut operating within the country. This "Smile to Pay" method is possible because of Face++, a company that focuses on facial and body recognition technology. And the commercial sector isn't the only area that's investing heavily in facial recognition tech in China. There are train stations in Beijing that use facial recognition (based off of government IDs) to print out tickets, and many office buildings (including Alibaba's headquarters) are phasing out key cards in favor of this newer security measure. Still, the most common usage of facial recognition –and possibly the most difficult to come to terms with– is the identification of potential criminals.
As early as last August, Chinese police forces in Hangzhou, a city with a population comparable to New York, began using surveillance cameras fitted with this technology to identify suspects. Recently, Chinese police officers began using electronic sunglasses fitted with facial recognition software. These glasses allow officers to access a database and pull up information on any person that comes into their line of sight. While this technology seems like it belongs in a Ridley Scott movie, it's here now. And it's important for us to recognize its political and social implications.
You don't have to be a luddite to spot the dangerous precedent set by this new technology. When police officers can access your personal data on the fly, it's certainly reasonable to wonder about your civil rights. Still, this technology doesn't seem to be the privacy-erasing apocalypse that haunts the dreams of libertarians everywhere. It's helped police officers in China identify people involved in kidnappings and hit and runs, as well as scammers using fake IDs. With regard to privacy, the pros to using this technology seem to outweigh the cons. Where this tech becomes an issue, is in its inability to deal with nuance. For example, authorities in Shenzhen City are using facial recognition to automatically issue fines (via text) to jaywalkers. This technology will also keep records on repeat offenders, and has the potential to affect their credit scores.
Officers in China review footage using facial recognition software
The issue this technology presents is similar to that of traffic cameras. Before they were banned in New Jersey, these cameras would issue tickets for running red lights and making illegal turns. The issue was, that these cameras were programmed to operate within the strictest possible parameters. They followed the law to a tee. Since the program was completely automated, there was no way for the cameras to look at each case individually. Tickets were shot out at a rapid clip, arriving by mail to anyone who so much as made a right turn a second after the light turned red. From a government funding standpoint, it was a slam dunk, and the towns that put these traffic cams up made a ton of money from issuing the tickets, but the public outcry against the cameras was huge. While China has a much more authoritarian social structure than we do in the States, it's doubtful that the people of Shenzhen City will embrace this new system of doling out fines.
A facial recognition programs scans the face of a passerby
As usual, the fundamental issue with this new tech isn't something deliberately insidious by design, nor is it the way in which it's used by law enforcement. The real problem, as is the problem with all automated technologies, is its inability to replicate human decision making. There's no amount of programming that will allow this technology to distinguish subtle differences between offenders. There's a reason why we shouldn't let algorithms run our police departments; it's impossible to account for the nearly infinite amount of variables that go into human behavior. While there are certainly patterns, if we rely too heavily on these machines, we set the precedent that their programming is superior to our officers' powers of deduction. Machines are fundamentally tools that help us complete jobs-they can't do the jobs for us.
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