Diablo Cody: How would religious people react to life on Mars?

If a bunch of freaky-looking extraterrestrials actually made contact with us, I think that might blow a few minds. Can you imagine the reality show? ‘What happens when this Kansas family befriends a sassy Uranian? Here Comes Beezeltron XV14.’

A few weeks ago, I was wide-eyed and wired at 3am. As the mother of a toddler who shrieks in the night as new molars breach his virgin gum tissue, being awake at this hour is not terribly unusual for me. However, on this night, I was Out (which is terribly unusual for me).

I was sitting on the terrace of a hulking Italianate McMansion with a friend of mine, a Nasaemployed doctor who invented a prosthetic hand that sends actual sensory input to the wearer’s brain. Obviously, I’m much more impressive than he is, since I write movies. I mean, I guess the godlike ability to replicate nerve impulses is OK, but it’s no Jennifer’s Body.

My friend and I were, appropriately, looking at the stars. Not the actual stars, but fake laser galaxies that were projected on to the walls and floor of the terrace via a contraption from the mailorder gadget firm Hammacher Schlemmer.

The universe swirled around us, illuminating the gaudy ironwork and Venetian plaster that made the house look like a theme-park pavilion. The real stars were reduced to background players, winking dimly in the polluted California night. Two storeys below us, a group of revellers soaked in a colour-changing Jacuzzi, passing a wet cigarette back and forth and laughing about something.

My friend suddenly turned to me and said: “Do you know what event would completely change the world?”

I thought hard. “If someone brought us another round of vodka-grapefruits?”

“Well, yeah, that would be great. But really, there would be a huge mass consciousness shift if only we had proof of life outside earth,” my friend said, getting all Nasa on my drunk ass.

“Sure,” I said. “If a bunch of freaky-looking extraterrestrials actually made contact with us, I think that might blow a few minds. Can you imagine the reality show? ‘What happens when this Kansas family befriends a sassy Uranian? Here Comes Beezeltron XV14.’”

“I don’t even mean a full-on alien invasion,” my friend said. “I mean just proof that they exist. Even though most people can intellectualise that there are planets in the sky, the mere idea that something exists beyond us could trigger a spiritual revolution.”

I got what he was saying. In earth’s most popular religious traditions, the concept of God is wholly human-centred.

As a Catholic, I was raised to believe that God created me in His image; if you think about it, this teaching infers that God has nostrils, ear wax, tibiae and fibulae, a butt, and so forth.

That’s pretty arrogant. How would the world’s believers reconcile the idea of God with, say, a sentient vapour from Mars? Or the idea that we’re not the “perfect creation” we believed ourselves to be, that there are 200ft star-gods who stalk Alpha Centauri Bb?

I’m not even comfortable with the existence of Angelina Jolie, let alone a throbbing telepathic brain stem from the outer edge of the solar system. I need to feel that I am a superior being, not a primitive, stinking flesh-poppet from a stupid mudball called earth.

I write movies, after all.

Diablo Cody is a screenwriter, producer and director who wrote “Juno” and “Jennifer’s Body”

Diablo Cody. Image: AFP/Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.