Tag: sustainability

The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources

This map of what happens when you interact with a digital assistant such as the Amazon Echo is incredible. The image is taken from a length piece of work which is trying to bring attention towards the hidden costs of using such devices.

With each interaction, Alexa is training to hear better, to interpret more precisely, to trigger actions that map to the user’s commands more accurately, and to build a more complete model of their preferences, habits and desires. What is required to make this possible? Put simply: each small moment of convenience – be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song – requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data. The scale of resources required is many magnitudes greater than the energy and labor it would take a human to operate a household appliance or flick a switch. A full accounting for these costs is almost impossible, but it is increasingly important that we grasp the scale and scope if we are to understand and govern the technical infrastructures that thread through our lives.

It’s a tour de force. Here’s another extract:

When a human engages with an Echo, or another voice-enabled AI device, they are acting as much more than just an end-product consumer. It is difficult to place the human user of an AI system into a single category: rather, they deserve to be considered as a hybrid case. Just as the Greek chimera was a mythological animal that was part lion, goat, snake and monster, the Echo user is simultaneously a consumer, a resource, a worker, and a product. This multiple identity recurs for human users in many technological systems. In the specific case of the Amazon Echo, the user has purchased a consumer device for which they receive a set of convenient affordances. But they are also a resource, as their voice commands are collected, analyzed and retained for the purposes of building an ever-larger corpus of human voices and instructions. And they provide labor, as they continually perform the valuable service of contributing feedback mechanisms regarding the accuracy, usefulness, and overall quality of Alexa’s replies. They are, in essence, helping to train the neural networks within Amazon’s infrastructural stack.

Well worth a read, especially alongside another article in Bloomberg about what they call ‘oral literacy’ but which I referred to in my thesis as ‘oracy’:

Should the connection between the spoken word and literacy really be so alien to us? After all, starting in the 1950s, basic literacy training in elementary schools in the United States has involved ‘phonics.’ And what is phonics but a way of attaching written words to the sounds they had been or could become? The theory grew out of the belief that all those lines of text on the pages of schoolbooks had become too divorced from their sounds; phonics was intended to give new readers a chance to recognize written language as part of the world of language they already knew.

The technological landscape is reforming what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Interestingly, some of that is a kind of a return to previous forms of human interaction that we used to value a lot more.

Sources: Anatomy of AI and Bloomberg

Simple sustainable stories

Some people are easy to follow online. They have one social media account to which they post regularly, and back that up with a single website where they expand on those points.

Stowe Boyd, whose work I’ve followed (or attempted to follow) for a few years now, is not one of these people. In fact, the number of platforms he tried earlier this year prompted me to get in touch with him to ask just how many platforms now had his subscribers’ email addresses.

Ironically, it was only last week that I decided to support Stowe’s latest venture via Substack. However, in a post yesterday he explains that he’s going ‘back to square one’:

I won’t recapitulate the many transitions that have gone on in my search for the ‘right’ newsletter/subscription technologies over the past year. But I have come to the conclusion that I am more interested in growing the community of Work Futures readers than I am in trying to make cash flow from it.

The thing I’ve learned about posting things to the internet over the last twenty years is that nobody cares. People support things that reflect who they believe themselves to be right now. That changes over time.

So if you’re putting things online, you have to make sure it works for you. Even the most fun jobs imaginable can become… something else if you focus too much on what a fickle audience wants.

As I said, I am motivated to take these steps in part by the desire to simplify my daily activities, and shelve work patterns that suck time. But I am equally motivated by making the discourse around these topics more open, while encouraging people to support Work Futures, but in that order of importance.

Openness always wins. You can support Stowe’s work via donations, and my work via Patreon.

Source: Work Futures

Clickbait and switch?

Should you design for addiction or for loyalty? That’s the question posed by Michelle Manafy in this post for Nieman Lab. It all depends, she says, on whether you’re trying to attract users or an audience.

With advertising as the primary driver of web revenue, many publishers have chased the click dragon. Seeking to meet marketers’ insatiable desire for impressions, publishers doubled down on quick clicks. Headlines became little more than a means to a clickthrough, often regardless of whether the article would pay off or even if the topic was worthy of coverage. And — since we all know there are still plenty of publications focusing on hot headlines over substance — this method pays off. In short-term revenue, that is.

However, the reader experience that shallow clicks deliver doesn’t develop brand affinity or customer loyalty. And the negative consumer experience has actually been shown to extend to any advertising placed in its context. Sure, there are still those seeking a quick buck — but these days, we all see clickbait for what it is.

Audiences mature over time and become wary of particular approaches. Remember “…and you’ll not believe what came next” approaches?

Ask Manafy notes, it’s much easier to design for addiction than to build an audience. The former just requires lots and lots of tracking — something at which the web has become spectacularly good at, due to advertising.

For example, many push notifications are specifically designed to leverage the desire for human interaction to generate clicks (such as when a user is alerted that their friend liked an article). Push notifications and alerts are also unpredictable (Will we have likes? Mentions? New followers? Negative comments?). And this unpredictability, or B.F. Skinner’s principle of variable rewards, is the same one used in those notoriously addictive slot machines. They’re also lucrative — generating more revenue in the U.S. than baseball, theme parks, and movies combined. A pull-to-refresh even smacks of a slot machine lever.

The problem is that designing for addiction isn’t a long-term strategy. Who plays Farmville these days? And the makers of Candy Crush aren’t exactly crushing it with their share price these days.

Sure, an addict is “engaged” — clicking, liking, swiping — but what if they discover that your product is bad for them? Or that it’s not delivering as much value as it does harm? The only option for many addicts is to quit, cold turkey. Sure, many won’t have the willpower, and you can probably generate revenue off these users (yes, users). But is that a long-term strategy you can live with? And is it a growth strategy, should the philosophical, ethical, or regulatory tide turn against you?

The ‘regulatory tide’ referenced here is exemplified through GDPR, which is already causing a sea change in attitude towards user data. Compliance with teeth, it seems, gets results.

Designing for sustainability isn’t just good from a regulatory point of view, it’s good for long-term business, argues Manafy:

Where addiction relies on an imbalanced and unstable relationship, loyal customers will return willingly time and again. They’ll refer you to others. They’ll be interested in your new offerings, because they will already rely on you to deliver. And, as an added bonus, these feelings of goodwill will extend to any advertising you deliver too. Through the provision of quality content, delivered through excellent experiences at predictable and optimal times, content can become a trusted ally, not a fleeting infatuation or unhealthy compulsion.

Instead of thinking of your audience as ‘users’ waiting for their next hit, she suggests, think of them as your audience. That’s a much better approach and will help you make much better design decisions.

Source: Nieman Lab

Potentially huge wind farm proposed in the North Sea

Dogger Bank, which thousands of years ago as Doggerland would have been visible from the North East of England where I live, is the proposed site for a huge new wind farm complex with a central island power hub.

To accommodate all the equipment, the island would take up around 5-6 sq km, about a fifth the size of Hayling Island in the English Channel.

While the actual engineering challenge of building the island seems enormous, Van der Hage is not daunted. “Is it difficult? In the Netherlands, when we see a piece of water we want to build islands or land. We’ve been doing that for centuries. That is not the biggest challenge,” he said.

The short YouTube video is pretty cool.

Source: The Guardian