Saturday spinnings

As usual, I’m taking a month off Thought Shrapnel duties during the month of August. So this is my last post for a few weeks.

In the meantime, consider deactivating your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. See how it makes you feel, and perhaps I’ll run into you on the Fediverse? (start here)


Sinead Bovell

I Am a Model and I Know That Artificial Intelligence Will Eventually Take My Job

There are major issues of transparency and authenticity here because the beliefs and opinions don’t actually belong to the digital models, they belong to the models’ creators. And if the creators can’t actually identify with the experiences and groups that these models claim to belong to (i.e., person of color, LGBTQ, etc.), then do they have the right to actually speak on those issues? Or is this a new form of robot cultural appropriation, one in which digital creators are dressing up in experiences that aren’t theirs?

Sinead Bovell (Vogue)

This is an incredible article that looks at machine learning and AI through the lens of an industry I hadn’t thought of as being on the brink of being massively disrupted by technology.


How Capitalism Drives Cancel Culture

It is strange that “cancel culture” has become a project of the left, which spent the 20th century fighting against capricious firings of “troublesome” employees. A lack of due process does not become a moral good just because you sometimes agree with its targets. We all, I hope, want to see sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination decrease. But we should be aware of the economic incentives here, particularly given the speed of social media, which can send a video viral, and see onlookers demand a response, before the basic facts have been established. Afraid of the reputational damage that can be incurred in minutes, companies are behaving in ways that range from thoughtless and uncaring to sadistic.

[…]

If you care about progressive causes, then woke capitalism is not your friend. It is actively impeding the cause, siphoning off energy, and deluding us into thinking that change is happening faster and deeper than it really is. When people talk about the “excesses of the left”—a phenomenon that blights the electoral prospects of progressive parties by alienating swing voters—in many cases they’re talking about the jumpy overreactions of corporations that aren’t left-wing at all.

Helen Lewis (The Atlantic)

Cancel culture is problematic, and mainly because of the unequal power structures involved. This is an important read. See also this article by Albert Wenger which has some suggestions towards the end in this regard.


Woman working at a laptop

How to Stay Productive When the World Is on Fire

The goal of productivity is to get the things you have to get done finished so you can spend more time on the things you want to do. Don’t fall into the busy trap, where you judge your self-worth by how productive you are or how much you’ve contributed to your company or manager. We’re all just trying to keep our heads above water. I hope these tips will help you do the same.

Alan Henry (WIRED)

As I wrote yesterday on my personal blog, I have a bit of an issue with perfectionism. So this reminder, along with the other great advice in the article, was a timely reminder.


Why you should be thanking your employees more often

If you treat somebody with disdain, of course, you give that person a psychological incentive to diminish your opinion and to want you to be less powerful. Inversely, if you demonstrate understanding and appreciation of someone’s contribution, you create a psychological incentive in the individual to give greater weight to your opinion. And that person will want to strengthen the weight of your opinion in the eyes of others. Appreciation and gratitude breed appreciation and gratitude.

Bruce Tulgan (Fast Company)

Creating a productive, psychologically safe, and emotionally intelligent environment means thanking people for the work they do. That means for their day-to-day activities, not just when they put in a herculean effort. A paycheck is not thanks enough for the work we do and the value we provide.


Old blue boat

Nostalgia reimagined

More interesting still is that nostalgia can bring to mind time-periods we didn’t directly experience. In the film Midnight in Paris (2011), Gil is overwhelmed by nostalgic thoughts about 1920s Paris – which he, a modern-day screenwriter, hasn’t experienced – yet his feelings are nothing short of nostalgic. Indeed, feeling nostalgic for a time one didn’t actually live through appears to be a common phenomenon if all the chatrooms, Facebook pages and websites dedicated to it are anything to go by. In fact, a new word has been coined to capture this precise variant of nostalgia – anemoia, defined by the Urban Dictionary and the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as ‘nostalgia for a time you’ve never known’.

How can we make sense of the fact that people feel nostalgia not only for past experiences but also for generic time periods? My suggestion, inspired by recent evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience, is that the variety of nostalgia’s objects is explained by the fact that its cognitive component is not an autobiographical memory, but a mental simulation – an imagination, if you will – of which episodic recollections are a sub-class.

Nigel Warburton (Aeon)

In the UK at least, shows like Downton Abbey and Call The Midwife are popular. My view of this is that, as this article would seem to support, it’s a kind of nostalgia for a time that was imagined to be better.

There’s a sinister side to this, as well. This kind of nostalgia seems to be particularly prevalent among more conservative-leaning (white) people harking back to a time of greater divisions in society along race and class lines. I think it’s rather disturbing.


The World Is Noisy. These Groups Want to Restore the Quiet

Quiet Parks International (QPI) is a nonprofit working to establish certification for quiet parks to raise awareness of and preserve quiet places. The fledgling organization—whose members include audio engineers, scientists, environmentalists, and musicians—has identified at least 262 sites worldwide, including 30 in the US, that it believes are quiet or could become so with management changes….

QPI has no regulatory authority, but like the International Dark Sky Association’s Dark Sky Parks initiative, the nonprofit believes its certification—granted only after a detailed, three-day sound analysis—can encourage public support of preservation efforts and provide guidelines for protection. “The places that are quiet today … are basically leftovers—places that are out of the way,” Quiet Parks cofounder Gordon Hempton says.

Jenny Morber (WIRED)

I live in a part of the world close to both a designated Dark Sky Park and mountains into which I can escape. Light and noise pollution threaten both of them, so I’m glad to hear of these efforts.


Header image by Uillian Vargas

Saturday sailings

I deactivated my Twitter account this week. I’ve done that before, but this time I’m honestly not sure if I’ll reactivate it.

Given that I get a fair few links through Twitter, I wonder if the kind of things I share in these weekly link roundups will change? We shall see, I guess. You can connect with me via the Fediverse: https://mastodon.social/@dajbelshaw


33 Myths of the System (book cover)

33 Myths of the System

Drawing on the entire history of radical thought, while seeking to plumb their common depths, 33 Myths of the System, presents a synthesis of independent criticism, a straightforward exposure of the justifications of the world-system, along with a new way to perceive and understand the unhappy supermind that directs, penetrates and even lives our lives.

Darren Allen

While I didn’t agree with absolutely everything in this free e-book, it’s fair to say it blew my mind. Highly recommended, especially for thoughtful people. One of the best things I’ve read in the last decade in terms of getting me to question… everything.


A catastrophe at Twitter

In any case, Twitter’s response to the incident offered further cause for distress. The company’s initial tweet on the subject said almost nothing, and two hours later it had followed only to say what many users were forced to discover for themselves: that Twitter had disabled the ability of many verified users to tweet or reset their passwords while it worked to resolve the hack’s underlying cause.

The near-silencing of politicians, celebrities, and the national press corps led to much merriment on the service — see this, along with Those good tweets below, for some fun — but the move had other, darker implications. Twitter is, for better and worse, one of the world’s most important communications systems, and among its users are accounts linked to emergency medical services. The National Weather Service in Lincoln, IL, for example, had just tweeted a tornado warning before suddenly going dark. To the extent that anyone was relying on that account for further information about those tornadoes, they were out of luck.

Casey Newton (The INterface)

I didn’t actually deactivate my Twitter account because of the hack — that was actually more to do with the book mentioned above — but as a verified user, this certainly reinforced my decision. Just a reminder that at least one person with nuclear codes uses Twitter as their primary means of communication.


This is Fine: Optimism & Emergency in the P2P Network

Centralised platforms crave data collection and thirst for trust from the communities they seek to exploit. These platforms sell bloated, overpowered hardware that cannot be repaired, vulnerable to drops in consumer spending or spasms in the supply chain. They anxiously eye legislation to compel encryption backdoors, which will further weaken the trust they need so badly. They wobble beneath network disruptions (such as the worldwide slowdowns in March under COVID-19 load surges) that incapacitate cloud-dependent devices. They sleep with one eye open in countries where authoritarian governments compel them or their employees to operate as an informal arm of enforcement. These current trajectories point to the accelerating erosion of centralised platform power.

Cade Diehm (The New Design Congress)

This is an incredible article that’s very well presented. I keep talking about the importance of decentralisation, and this article backs that up — but also explains how and why decentralised social networks need to do better.


CRT monitors on shelves

Our remote work future is going to suck

While the upsides to remote work are true, for many people remote work is a poison pill — one where you are given “control” in the name of productivity in exchange for some pretty nasty long-term effects.

In reality, remote work makes you vulnerable to outsourcing, reduces your job to a metric, creates frustrating change-averse bureaucracies, and stifles your career growth. The lack of scrutiny our remote future faces is going to result in frustrated workers and ineffective companies.

Sean Blanda

I’m a proponent of remote work, but I was nodding along to many of the points made in this post. Context is everything, and there’s something to be said about being able to go home to escape work.


CO2 emissions on the web

Your content site probably doesn’t need JavaScript. You probably don’t need a CSS framework. You probably don’t need a custom font. Use responsive images. Extend your HTTP cache lifetimes. Use a static site generator or wp2static.com instead of dynamically generating each page on the fly, despite never changing. Consider ditching that third-party analytics service that you never look at anyway, especially if they also happen to sell ads. Run your website through websitecarbon.com. Choose a green web host.

Danny van Kooten

This week I changed the theme over at my personal blog to one that is much lighter. When I shared what I’d done on Mastodon, someone commented that they didn’t think it would make that much difference. This post was written by someone who popped up to rebut what they said.


Ask a Sane Person: Jia Tolentino on Practicing the Discipline of Hope

INTERVIEW: What has this pandemic confirmed or reinforced about your view of society?

TOLENTINO: That capitalist individualism has turned into a death cult; that the internet is a weak substitute for physical presence; that this country criminally undervalues its most important people and its most important forms of labor; that we’re incentivized through online mechanisms to value the representation of something (like justice) over the thing itself; that most of us hold more unknown potential, more negative capability, than we’re accustomed to accessing; that the material conditions of life in America are constructed and maintained by those best set up to exploit them; and that the way we live is not inevitable at all.  

Christopher Bollen

I have to confess to not knowing who Jia Tolentino was before stumbling across this via the Hurry Slowly newsletter (although I must have read her writing before). This is a fantastic interview, which you should read in its entirety.


Header image by Fab Lentz

Friday fadings

I’m putting this together quickly before heading off to the Lake District camping with my son for a couple of nights. I’m pretty close to burnout with all of the things that have happened recently, so need some time on top of mountains and under the stars 🏕️


Slack verticals vs Microsoft

The Slack Social Network

Slack Connect is about more than chat: not only can you have multiple companies in one channel, you can also manage the flow of data between different organizations; to put it another way, while Microsoft is busy building an operating system in the cloud, Slack has decided to build the enterprise social network. Or, to put it in visual terms, Microsoft is a vertical company, and Slack has gone fully horizontal.

Ben Thompson (Stratechery)

The difference between consulting full-time now versus when I last did it in 2017 is that everyone adds you to their Slack workspace. This is simultaneously fantastic and terrible. What’s being described here is more on the ‘Work OS’ stuff I shared in last week’s link roundup.

See also Stephen Downes’ commentary on mini-apps that perform particular functions inside other apps.


Only 9% of visitors give GDPR consent to be tracked

Advertising funded businesses are aware that the minority of visitors want to give consent.

They are simply riding the ad train and milking the cash cow for as long as they can get away with before GDPR gets enforced and they either shut down, adapt to a more sustainable business model or explore even more privacy invasive practices.

And the alternative to the advertising-funded web? Charge for services. And have your premium subscribers fund the free plans.

Marko Saric

This is interesting, and backs up the findings in this journal article about the ‘dark patterns’ prevalent around GDPR consent on the web. The author of this post found that only 48% of people clicked on the banner and, as the title states, only 9% of those gave permission to be tracked.


Oak National Academy: lockdown saviour or DfE tool?

There are some who are alarmed by the nature of the creature that the DfE has helped bring to life, seeing Oak as an enterprise established by a narrow strata of figures from DfE-favoured multi-academy trusts; and as a potential vehicle for the department to promote a “traditionalist” agenda in teaching, or even create the subject matter of a government-approved curriculum.

John Morgan (TES)

I welcome this critical article in the TES of Oak National Academy. My two children find the lessons ‘cringey’, not every subject is covered, and the more you look into it, the more it seems like a front for a pedagogical coup.


The More Senior Your Job Title, the More You Need to Keep a Journal

Journal entries should provide not only a record of what happened but how we reacted emotionally; writing it down brings a certain clarity that puts things in perspective. In other cases, it’s a form of mental rehearsal to prepare for particularly sensitive issues where there’s no one to talk with but yourself. Journals can also be the best way to think through big-bet decisions and test one’s logic.

Dan Ciampa (Harvard Business Review

When I turned 18, I decided to keep a diary of my adult life. After about a decade, that had become a sporadic record of times when things weren’t going so well. Now, 21 years later, I merely keep my #HashtagADay journal up-to-date.

But writing things down is really useful, as is having someone to talk to with whom you don’t have an emotion-based relationship. After nine sessions of CBT, I wish I’d had someone like my therapist to talk to at a much younger age. Not because I’m ‘broken’ but because I’m human.


Rome burning

Top 10 books about tumultuous times

There’s nothing like a crisis of survival to show people’s true natures. Though I’ve written a good deal about tumultuous times, both fiction (English Passengers) and non-fiction (Rome: a History in Seven Sackings), I can’t say I’m too interested in the tumult itself. I’m more interested in the decisions people make during such crises – how they ride the wave.

Matthew Kneale (THe GUardian)

I don’t think I’d heard of any of these books before reading this article! That being said, I’ve just joined Verso’s new Book Club so my backlog just got a lot longer…


Full Employment

Keynes once proposed that we could jump-start an economy by paying half the unemployed people to dig holes and the other half to fill them in.

No one’s really tried that experiment, but we did just spend 150 years subsidizing our ancestors to dig hydrocarbons out of the ground. Now we’ll spend 200-300 years subsidizing our descendants to put them back in there.

Cory Doctorow (Locus Online)

I’ve quoted the end of this fantastic article, but you should read the whole thing. Doctorow, in his own inimitable way, absolutely eviscerates the prediction that a ‘General Artificial Intelligence’ will destroy most jobs.


Header image by Patrick Hendry

Saturday shakings

Whew, so many useful bookmarks to re-read for this week’s roundup! It took me a while, so let’s get on with it…


Cartoon picture of someone working from home

What is the future of distributed work?

To Bharat Mediratta, chief technology officer at Dropbox, the quarantine experience has highlighted a huge gap in the market. “What we have right now is a bunch of different productivity and collaboration tools that are stitched together. So I will do my product design in Figma, and then I will submit the code change on GitHub, I will push the product out live on AWS, and then I will communicate with my team using Gmail and Slack and Zoom,” he says. “We have all that technology now, but we don’t yet have the ‘digital knowledge worker operating system’ to bring it all together.”

WIRED

OK, so this is a sponsored post by Dropbox on the WIRED website, but what it highlights is interesting. For example, Monday.com (which our co-op uses) rebranded itself a few months ago as a ‘Work OS’. There’s definitely a lot of money to be made for whoever manages to build an integrated solution, although I think we’re a long way off something which is flexible enough for every use case.


The Definition of Success Is Autonomy

Today, I don’t define success the way that I did when I was younger. I don’t measure it in copies sold or dollars earned. I measure it in what my days look like and the quality of my creative expression: Do I have time to write? Can I say what I think? Do I direct my schedule or does my schedule direct me? Is my life enjoyable or is it a chore?

Ryan Holiday

Tim Ferriss has this question he asks podcast guests: “If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it what would it say and why?” I feel like the title of this blog post is one of the answers I would give to that question.


Do The Work

We are a small group of volunteers who met as members of the Higher Ed Learning Collective. We were inspired by the initial demand, and the idea of self-study, interracial groups. The initial decision to form this initiative is based on the myriad calls from people of color for white-bodied people to do internal work. To do the work, we are developing a space for all individuals to read, share, discuss, and interrogate perspectives on race, racism, anti-racism, identity in an educational setting. To ensure that the fight continues for justice, we need to participate in our own ongoing reflection of self and biases. We need to examine ourselves, ask questions, and learn to examine our own perspectives. We need to get uncomfortable in asking ourselves tough questions, with an understanding that this is a lifelong, ongoing process of learning.

Ian O’Byrne

This is a fantastic resource for people who, like me, are going on a learning journey at the moment. I’ve found the podcast Seeing White by Scene on Radio particularly enlightening, and at times mind-blowing. Also, the Netflix documentary 13th is excellent, and available on YouTube.


Welding a motherboard

How to Make Your Tech Last Longer

If we put a small amount of time into caring for our gadgets, they can last indefinitely. We’d also be doing the world a favor. By elongating the life of our gadgets, we put more use into the energy, materials and human labor invested in creating the product.

Brian X. Chen (The new York times)

This is a pretty surface-level article that basically suggests people take their smartphone to a repair shop instead of buying a new one. What it doesn’t mention is that aftermarket operating systems such as the Android-based LineageOS can extend the lifetime of smartphones by providing security updates long beyond those provided by vendors.


Law enforcement arrests hundreds after compromising encrypted chat system

EncroChat sold customized Android handsets with GPS, camera, and microphone functionality removed. They were loaded with encrypted messaging apps as well as a secure secondary operating system (in addition to Android). The phones also came with a self-destruct feature that wiped the device if you entered a PIN.

The service had customers in 140 countries. While it was billed as a legitimate platform, anonymous sources told Motherboard that it was widely used among criminal groups, including drug trafficking organizations, cartels, and gangs, as well as hitmen and assassins.

EncroChat didn’t become aware that its devices had been breached until May after some users noticed that the wipe function wasn’t working. After trying and failing to restore the features and monitor the malware, EncroChat cut its SIM service and shut down the network, advising customers to dispose of their devices.

Monica Chin (The Verge)

It goes without saying that I don’t want assassins, drug traffickers, and mafia types to be successful in life. However, I’m always a little concerned when there are attacks on encryption, as they’re compromising systems also potentially used by protesters, activists, and those who oppose the status quo.


Uncovered: 1,000 phrases that incorrectly trigger Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant

The findings demonstrate how common it is for dialog in TV shows and other sources to produce false triggers that cause the devices to turn on, sometimes sending nearby sounds to Amazon, Apple, Google, or other manufacturers. In all, researchers uncovered more than 1,000 word sequences—including those from Game of Thrones, Modern Family, House of Cards, and news broadcasts—that incorrectly trigger the devices.

“The devices are intentionally programmed in a somewhat forgiving manner, because they are supposed to be able to understand their humans,” one of the researchers, Dorothea Kolossa, said. “Therefore, they are more likely to start up once too often rather than not at all.”

Dan Goodin (Ars Technica)

As anyone with voice assistant-enabled devices in their home will testify, the number of times they accidentally spin up, or misunderstand what you’re saying can be amusing. But we can and should be wary of what’s being listened to, and why.


The Five Levels of Remote Work

The Five Levels of Remote Work — and why you’re probably at Level 2

Effective written communication becomes critical the more companies embrace remote work. With an aversion to ‘jumping on calls’ at a whim, and a preference for asynchronous communication… [most] communications [are] text-based, and so articulate and timely articulation becomes key.

Steve Glaveski (The Startup)

This is from March and pretty clickbait-y, but everyone wants to know how they can improve – especially if didn’t work remotely before the pandemic. My experience is that actually most people are at Level 3 and, of course, I’d say that I and my co-op colleagues are at Level 5 given our experience…


Why Birds Can Fly Over Mount Everest

All mammals, including us, breathe in through the same opening that we breathe out. Can you imagine if our digestive system worked the same way? What if the food we put in our mouths, after digestion, came out the same way? It doesn’t bear thinking about! Luckily, for digestion, we have a separate in and out. And that’s what the birds have with their lungs: an in point and an out point. They also have air sacs and hollow spaces in their bones. When they breathe in, half of the good air (with oxygen) goes into these hollow spaces, and the other half goes into their lungs through the rear entrance. When they breathe out, the good air that has been stored in the hollow places now also goes into their lungs through that rear entrance, and the bad air (carbon dioxide and water vapor) is pushed out the front exit. So it doesn’t matter whether birds are breathing in or out: Good air is always going in one direction through their lungs, pushing all the bad air out ahead of it.

Walter Murch (Nautilus)

Incredible. Birds are badass (and also basically dinosaurs).


Montaigne Fled the Plague, and Found Himself

In the many essays of his life he discovered the importance of the moderate life. In his final essay, “On Experience,” Montaigne reveals that “greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to circumscribe and set oneself in order.” What he finds, quite simply, is the importance of the moderate life. We must then, he writes, “compose our character, not compose books.” There is nothing paradoxical about this because his literary essays helped him better essay his life. The lesson he takes from this trial might be relevant for our own trial: “Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live properly.”

Robert Zaresky (The New York Times)

Every week, Bryan Alexander replies to the weekly Thought Shrapnel newsletter. Last week, he sent this article to both me and Chris Lott (who produces the excellent Notabilia).

We had a bit of a chat, with us sharing our love of How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer by Sarah Bakewell, and well as the useful tidbits it’s possible glean from Stefan Zweig’s short biography simply entitled Montaigne.


Header image by Nicolas Comte

Using WhatsApp is a (poor) choice that you make

People often ask me about my stance on Facebook products. They can understand that I don’t use Facebook itself, but what about Instagram? And surely I use WhatsApp? Nope.

Given that I don’t usually have a single place to point people who want to read about the problems with WhatsApp, I thought I’d create one.


WhatsApp is a messaging app that was acquired by Facebook for the eye-watering amount of $19 billion in 2014. Interestingly, a BuzzFeed News article from 2018 cites documents confidential documents from the time leading up to the acquisition that were acquired by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. They show the threat WhatsApp posed to Facebook at the time.

US mobile messenger apps (iPhone) graph from August 2012 to March 2013
A document obtained by the DCMS as part of their investigations

As you can see from the above chart, Facebook executives were shown in 2013 that WhatsApp (8.6% reach) was growing rapidly and posed a huge threat to Facebook Messenger (13.7% reach).

So Facebook bought WhatsApp. But what did they buy? If, as we’re led to believe, WhatsApp is ‘end-to-end encrypted’ then Facebook don’t have access to the messages of users. So what’s so valuable?


Brian Acton, one of the founders of WhatsApp (and a man who got very rich through its sale) has gone on record saying that he feels like he sold his users’ privacy to Facebook.

Facebook, Acton says, had decided to pursue two ways of making money from WhatsApp. First, by showing targeted ads in WhatsApp’s new Status feature, which Acton felt broke a social compact with its users. “Targeted advertising is what makes me unhappy,” he says. His motto at WhatsApp had been “No ads, no games, no gimmicks”—a direct contrast with a parent company that derived 98% of its revenue from advertising. Another motto had been “Take the time to get it right,” a stark contrast to “Move fast and break things.”

Facebook also wanted to sell businesses tools to chat with WhatsApp users. Once businesses were on board, Facebook hoped to sell them analytics tools, too. The challenge was WhatsApp’s watertight end-to-end encryption, which stopped both WhatsApp and Facebook from reading messages. While Facebook didn’t plan to break the encryption, Acton says, its managers did question and “probe” ways to offer businesses analytical insights on WhatsApp users in an encrypted environment.

Parmy Olson (Forbes)

The other way Facebook wanted to make money was to sell tools to businesses allowing them to chat with WhatsApp users. These tools would also give “analytical insights” on how users interacted with WhatsApp.

Facebook was allowed to acquire WhatsApp (and Instagram) despite fears around monopolistic practices. This was because they made a promise not to combine data from various platforms. But, guess what happened next?

In 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19b, and promised users that it wouldn’t harvest their data and mix it with the surveillance troves it got from Facebook and Instagram. It lied. Years later, Facebook mixes data from all of its properties, mining it for data that ultimately helps advertisers, political campaigns and fraudsters find prospects for whatever they’re peddling. Today, Facebook is in the process of acquiring Giphy, and while Giphy currently doesn’t track users when they embed GIFs in messages, Facebook could start doing that anytime.

Cory Doctorow (EFF)

So Facebook is harvesting metadata from its various platforms, tracking people around the web (even if they don’t have an account), and buying up data about offline activities.

All of this creates a profile. So yes, because of end-ot-end encryption, Facebook might not know the exact details of your messages. But they know that you’ve started messaging a particular user account around midnight every night. They know that you’ve started interacting with a bunch of stuff around anxiety. They know how the people you message most tend to vote.


Do I have to connect the dots here? This is a company that sells targeted adverts, the kind of adverts that can influence the outcome of elections. Of course, Facebook will never admit that its platforms are the problem, it’s always the responsibility of the user to be ‘vigilant’.

Man reading a newspaper
A WhatsApp advert aiming to ‘fighting false information’ (via The Guardian)

So you might think that you’re just messaging your friend or colleague on a platform that ‘everyone’ uses. But your decision to go with the flow has consequences. It has implications for democracy. It has implications on creating a de facto monopoly for our digital information. And it has implications around the dissemination of false information.

The features that would later allow WhatsApp to become a conduit for conspiracy theory and political conflict were ones never integral to SMS, and have more in common with email: the creation of groups and the ability to forward messages. The ability to forward messages from one group to another – recently limited in response to Covid-19-related misinformation – makes for a potent informational weapon. Groups were initially limited in size to 100 people, but this was later increased to 256. That’s small enough to feel exclusive, but if 256 people forward a message on to another 256 people, 65,536 will have received it.

[…]

A communication medium that connects groups of up to 256 people, without any public visibility, operating via the phones in their pockets, is by its very nature, well-suited to supporting secrecy. Obviously not every group chat counts as a “conspiracy”. But it makes the question of how society coheres, who is associated with whom, into a matter of speculation – something that involves a trace of conspiracy theory. In that sense, WhatsApp is not just a channel for the circulation of conspiracy theories, but offers content for them as well. The medium is the message.

William Davies (The Guardian)

I cannot control the decisions others make, nor have I forced my opinions on my two children, who (despite my warnings) both use WhatsApp to message their friends. But, for me, the risk to myself and society of using WhatsApp is not one I’m happy with taking.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Header image by Rachit Tank

Saturday shoutings

The link I’m most enthusiastic about sharing this week is one to a free email-based course I’ve created with my co-op colleagues. It’s entitled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Virtual Meetings and part of a new series we’re working on.

Skills for the New Normal

The other links are slightly fewer in number this week because time, it turns out, is finite.


Clean Language: David Grove Questioning Method

Developing Questions
“(And) what kind of X (is that X)?”
“(And) is there anything else about X?”
“(And) where is X? or (And) whereabouts is X?”
“(And) that’s X like what?”
“(And) is there a relationship between X and Y?”
“(And) when X, what happens to Y?

Sequence and Source Questions
“(And) then what happens? or (And) what happens next?”
“(And) what happens just before X?”
“(And) where could X come from?”

Intention Questions
“(And) what would X like to have happen?”
“(And) what needs to happen for X?”
“(And) can X (happen)?”

The first two questions: “What kind of X (is that X)?” and “Is there anything else about X?” are the most commonly used.

As a general guide, these two questions account for around 50% of the questions asked in a typical Clean Language session.

BusinessBalls

I had a great chat with Kristian Still this week, for the first time in about a decade. Kristian was part of EdTechRoundUp back in the day, and early EduTwitter. Among the many things we discussed is his enthusiasm for “clean questioning” which I’m going to investigate further.


How ‘Sustainable’ Web Design Can Help Fight Climate Change

Even our throwaway habits can add up to a mountain of carbon. Consider all the little social emails we shoot back and forth—“thanks,” “got it,” “lol.” The UK energy firm Ovo examined email usage and—using data from Lancaster University professor Mike Berners-Lee, who analyzes carbon footprints—they found that if every adult in the UK just sent one less “thank you” email per day, it would cut 16 tons of carbon each year, equal to 22 round-trip flights between New York and London. They also found that 49 percent of us often send thank-you emails to people “within talking distance.” We can lower our carbon output if we’d just take the headphones off for a minute and stop behaving like a bunch of morlocks.

Clive Thompson (WIRED)

Small differences all add up. Our design choices and the decisions we make about technology all have a part to play in fighting climate change.


Apple, Big Sur, and the rise of Neumorphism

When you boil it down, neumorphism is a focus on how light moves in three-dimensional space. Its predecessor, skeumorphism, created realism in digital interfaces by simulating textures on surfaces like felt on a poker table or the brushed metal of a tape recorder. An ancillary — though under-developed — aspect of this design style was lighting that interacted realistically with the materials that were being represented; this is why shadows and darkness were so prevalent in those early interfaces.

Jack Koloskus (Input)

The dominant design language over the last five years, without doubt, has been Google’s Material Design. Will a neumorphic approach take over? It’s certainly an interesting approach.


Snowden: Tech Workers Are Complicit in How Their Companies Hurt Society

He called on those in the tech industry to look at the bigger picture regarding their work and its implications beyond simply a project—and to think deeply and take a stronger stand with regards to who their labor actually serves.

“It’s not enough to read, it’s not enough to believe in something, it’s not enough to write something, you have to eventually stand for something if you want things to change,” he said.

Kevin Truong (Motherboard)

The tech industry is an interesting one as it’s a relatively new and immature one, at least in its current guise. As a result, the ethics, and the checks and balances aren’t quite there yet.

To my mind, things like unions and professional associations show maturity and the kind of coming together that don’t put moral decisions on the shoulders of individuals, but rather on the whole sector.


Brexit

Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness

[T]here is a narrative chasm between the twee and borderless dreamscape of fantasy Britain and actual, material Britain, where rents are rising and racists are running brave. The chasm is wide, and a lot of people are falling into it. The omnishambles of British politics is what happens when you get scared and mean and retreat into the fairytales you tell about yourself. When you can no longer live within your own contradictions. When you want to hold on to the belief that Britain is the land of Jane Austen and John Lennon and Sir Winston Churchill, the war hero who has been repeatedly voted the greatest Englishman of all time. When you want to forget that Britain is also the land of Cecil Rhodes and Oswald Mosley and Sir Winston Churchill, the brutal colonial administrator who sanctioned the building of the first concentration camps and condemned millions of Indians to death by starvation. These are not contradictions, even though the drive to separate them is cracking the country apart. If you love your country and don’t own its difficulties and its violence, you don’t actually love your country. You’re just catcalling it as it goes by.

Laurie Penny (Longreads)

I always find looking at my country through the lens of foreigners cringe-inducing. I suppose it’s a narrative produced for tourists but, sadly, we seem to have believed our own rhetoric, and look where it’s gotten us…


How Big Tech Monopolies Distort Our Public Discourse

The idea that Big Tech can mold discourse through bypassing our critical faculties by spying on and analyzing us is both self-serving (inasmuch as it helps Big Tech sell ads and influence services) and implausible, and should be viewed with extreme skepticism

But you don’t have to accept extraordinary claims to find ways in which Big Tech is distorting and degrading our public discourse. The scale of Big Tech makes it opaque and error-prone, even as it makes the job of maintaining a civil and productive space for discussion and debate impossible.

Cory Doctorow (EFF)

A tour de force from Doctorow, who eviscerates the companies that make up ‘Big Tech’ and the role they have in hollowing-out civic society.


Header image by Andrea Piacquadio

The highest ambition of the integrated spectacle is to turn secret agents into revolutionaries and revolutionaries into secret agents

This article is about, and quotes heavily from Guy Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle published twenty years after his 1967 Society of the Spectacle. I wanted to share all of the bits that I highlighted, as I think it speaks directly into our currently times, so buckle-up.


Debord never gives a single definition of ‘the spectacle’ but rather alludes to it in such a way that the reader is left in no doubt as to what it is. Here’s one such section:

Rather than talk of the spectacle, people often prefer to use to the term ‘media’. And by this they mean to describe a mere instrument, a kind of public service which with impartial ‘professionalism’ would facilitate the new wealth of mass communication through mass media – a form of communication which has at last attained a unilateral purity, whereby decisions already taken are presented for passive admiration. For what is communicated are orders; and with perfect harmony, those who give them are also those who tell us what they think of them.

p.6

There are three kinds of spectacle, the ‘concentrated’ spectacle and ‘diffuse’ spectacle that Debord discusses in his earlier work, and then the ‘integrated’ spectacle that he introduces in Comments. Briefly, the concentrated spectacle can be seen in totalitarian regimes, whereas the diffuse spectacle is in evidence in democracies such as the United States.

The integrated spectacle shows itself to be simultaneously concentrated and diffuse…

For the final sense of the integrated spectacle is this – that it has integrated itself into reality to the same extent as it was describing it. As a result, this reality no longer confronts the integrated spectacle as something alien. When the spectacle was concentrated, the grater part of surrounding society escaped it; when diffuse, a small part; today, no part.

p.9

One way of thinking about this in 2020 is the extent to which we carry around the media (a.k.a. the integrated spectacle) in our pockets. It permeates and mediates our reality, and we conform ourselves to its whims and ideas – for example, on social media platforms for likes and follows. We spend our time pointing out the falsity of media reports contrary to our beliefs, always within the construct of the spectacle.

Often enough society’s bosses declare themselves ill-served by their media employees: more often they blame the spectators for the common, almost bestial manner in which they indulge in the media’s delights. A virtually infinite number of supposed differences within the media thus serve to screen what is in fact the result of a spectacular convergence, pursued with remarkable tenacity.

p.7

Experts are dead in the traditional sense, all that remain are media professionals who help explain the spectacle and serve to perpetuate its existence.

With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning. For every imbecility presented by the spectacle, there are only the media’s professionals to give an answer, with a few respectful rectifications or remonstrations.

p.16

What can one do about this? Choose to live outside the grip of the spectacle? Debord says this is practically impossible, as to do so is to be a pariah.

An anti-spectacular notoriety has become something extremely rare. I myself am one of the last people to retain one, having never had any other. But it has also become extraordinarily suspect. Society has officially declared itself to be spectacular. To be known outside spectacular relations is already to be known as an enemy of society.

p.18

This is part of the problem that people are up against when trying to do things that are counter-cultural. The counter-culture is part of the spectacle, and has been commodified; packaged up to be sold at low prices to everyone via t-shirts, mugs, and other trinkets.

The spectacle requires a fleetness of foot imparted to it by everyone’s acquiescence to maintain velocity. This is achieved partly through news cycles that produce outrage but then move on quickly to the next target.

When the spectacle stops talking about something for three days, it is as if it did not exist. For it has then gone on to talk about something else, and it is that which henceforth, in short, exists. The practical consequences, as we see, are enormous.

p.20

The spectacular machinery of our age is therefore ill-suited for the kind of messaging required during, say, a global pandemic. The spectacle feeds on our emotions, on our base fears, on our need for safety. It ‘others’ people, ensuring that there is always a them vs us.

Such a perfect democracy constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.

p.24

This explains why COVID-19 cannot possibly, so the conspiracy theorists say, come from bats but instead must surely be the ‘weaponised’ product of an enemy laboratory. It’s the reason why two and two are put together to make five, with 5G masts and George Soros and Bill Gates and a ‘plandemic’ serving to fill the role of terrorist.

Making connections between seemingly disparate people, technologies, and ideas is easier in a world where the spectacle provides a never-ending supply of memetic imagery, designed to resonate on an emotional leve.

At the technological level, when images chosen and constructed by someone else have everywhere become the individual’s principle connection to the world he formerly observed for himself, it has certainly not been forgotten that these images can tolerate anything and everything; because within the same image all things can be juxtaposed without contradiction. The flow of images carries everything before it, and it is similarly someone else who controls at will this simplified summary of the sensible world; who decides where the flow will lead as well as the rhythm of what should be shown, like some perpetual, arbitrary surprise, leaving no time for reflection, and entirely independent of what the spectator might understand or think of it.

p.27-28

Today, algorithms used by social media platforms dictate what we as users see and do not see. Baby photos precede photos of protesters which are followed by an advert for a new soft drink. No wonder we’re not sure what to think.

The only response is submission to the spectacle, of the reduction of the self to a pawn in a game played by someone, or something, else.

Paradoxically, permanent self-denial is the price the individual pays for the tiniest bit of social status. Such an existence demands a fluid fidelity, a succession of continually disappointing commitments to false products. It is a matter of running hard to keep up with the inflation of devalued signs of life.

p.32

All of this is depressing enough without adding in deliberate attempts to reduce our agency by means of feeding false information with the aim to leave us confused, apathetic, and less inclined to vote in democratic elections. After all, what’s the point when there is no coherent narrative?

Unlike the straightforward lie, disinformation must inevitably contain a degree of truth but one deliberately manipulated by an artful enemy. That is what makes it so attractive to the defenders of the dominant society. The power which speaks of disinformation does not believe itself to be absolutely faultless, but knows that it can attribute to any precise criticism the excessive insignificance which characterises disinformation; with the result that it will never have to admit to any particular fault.

p.45

So we get false flag campaigns, deflection, no-apology apologies, until things, as they always do with the spectacle, move on. As Debord points out, we live in a world “without room for verification” (p.48), so we might as well share that headline that confirms our existing beliefs by retweeting (without reading) as it passes us by.

In the 19th century, it made sense for Ludwig Feuerbach, a thinker who greatly influenced Karl Marx, to point to an emerging preference for the imaginary over the real.

Today, however, the tendency to replace the real with the artificial is ubiquitous. In this regard, it is fortuitous that traffic pollution has necessitated the replacement of the Marly Horses in place de la Concorde, or the Roman statues in the doorway of Saint-Trophime in Arles, by plastic replicas. Everything will be more beautiful than before, for the tourists’ cameras.

p.51

Here is the problem for the person, or group of people, wishing to smash the spectacle, to dismantle it, to take it apart. It must be done in one go, rather than piecemeal. Otherwise, the spectacle has too much capacity to self-repair.

In a certain sense the coherence of spectacular society proves revolutionaries right, since it is evident that one cannot reform the most trifling detail without taking the whole thing apart. But at the same time this coherence has eliminated every organised revolutionary tendency by eliminating those social terrains where it had more or less effectively been able to find expression: from trade unions to newspapers, towns to books.

p.80

So there can be no conclusion, only awareness. We live in completely different times to our forebears. I’ll leave the last word to Debord.

Old prejudices everywhere belied, precautions now useless, and even the residues of scruples from an earlier age, still clog up the thinking of quite a number of rulers, preventing them from recognising something which practice demonstrates and proves every single day. Not only are the subjected led to believe that to all intents and purposes they are still living in a world which in fact has been eliminated, but the rulers themselves sometimes suffer from the absurd belief that in some respects they do too.

p.87-88

Header image by elCarito

Saturday scrapings

Every week, I go back through the links I’ve saved, pick out the best ones, and share them here. This week is perhaps even more eclectic than usual. Enjoy!


Marcus Henderson

Meet the Farmer Behind CHAZ’s Vegetable Gardens

Marcus was the first to start gardening in the park, though he was quickly joined by friends and strangers. This isn’t the work of a casual amateur; Henderson has an Energy Resources Engineering degree from Stanford University, a Master’s degree in Sustainability in the Urban Environment, and years of experience working in sustainable agriculture. His Instagram shows him hard at work on various construction and gardening projects, and he’s done community development at organic farms around the world.

Matt Baume (The Stranger)

I love this short article about Marcus Henderson, the first person to start planting in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.


The Rich Are ‘Defunding’ Our Democracy

“Apparently,” comments [journalist David] Sirota, “we’re expected to be horrified by proposals to reduce funding for the militarized police forces that are violently attacking peaceful protesters — but we’re supposed to obediently accept the defunding of the police forces responsible for protecting the population from the wealthy and powerful.”

Sam Pizzigati (Inequality.org)

A lot of people have been shocked by the calls to ‘defund the police’ on the back of the Black Lives Matter protests. The situation is undoubtedly worse in the US, but I particularly liked this explainer image, that I came across via Mastodon:

Teapot with label 'Defund the police' which has multiple spouts pouring into cups entitled 'Education', 'Universal healthcare', 'Youth services', 'Housing', and 'Other community investments'

Peasants’ Revolt

Yet perhaps the most surprising feature of the revolt is that in-spite of the modern title, Peasants’ Revolt didn’t gain usage until the late nineteenth century, the people who animated the movement weren’t peasants at all. They were in many respects the village elite. True, they weren’t noble magnates, but they were constables, stewards and jurors. In short, people who were on the up and saw an opportunity to press their agenda.

Robert Winter

I love reading about things I used to teach, especially when they’re written by interesting people about which I want to know more. This blog post is by Robert Winter, “philosopher and historian by training, Operations Director by pay cheque”. I discovered is as part of the #100DaysToOffload challenge, largely happening on the Fediverse, and to which I’m contributing.


Red blood cells

Three people with inherited diseases successfully treated with CRISPR

Two people with beta thalassaemia and one with sickle cell disease no longer require blood transfusions, which are normally used to treat severe forms of these inherited diseases, after their bone marrow stem cells were gene-edited with CRISPR.

Michael Le Page (New Scientist)

CRISPR is a way of doing gene editing within organisms. sAs far as I’m aware, this is one of the first times it’s been used to treat conditions in humans. I’m sure it won’t be the last.


Choose Your Own Fake News

Choose Your Own Fake News is an interactive “choose your own adventure” game. Play the game as Flora, Jo or Aida from East Africa, and navigate the world of disinformation and misinformation through the choices you make. Scrutinize news and information about job opportunities, vaccines and upcoming elections to make the right choices!

This is the kind of thing that the Mozilla Foundation does particularly well: either producing in-house, or funding very specific web-based tools to teach people things. In this case, it’s fake news. And it’s really good.


Why are Google and Apple dictating how European democracies fight coronavirus?

The immediate goal for governments and tech companies is to strike the right balance between privacy and the effectiveness of an application to limit the spread of Covid-19. This requires continuous collaboration between the two with the private sector, learning from the experience of national health authorities and adjusting accordingly. Latvia, together with the rest of Europe, stands firm in defending privacy, and is committed to respecting both the individual’s right to privacy and health while applying its own solutions to combat Covid-19.

Ieva Ilves (The Guardian)

This is an article written by an an adviser to the president of Latvia on information and digital policy. They explain some of the nuance behind the centralised vs decentralised contact tracing app models which I hadn’t really thought about.


Illustration of Lévy walks

Random Search Wired Into Animals May Help Them Hunt

Lévy walks are now seen as a movement pattern that a nervous system can produce in the absence of useful sensory or mnemonic information, when it is an animal’s most advantageous search strategy. Of course, many animals may never employ a Lévy walk: If a polar bear can smell a seal, or a cheetah can see a gazelle, the animals are unlikely to engage in a random search strategy. “We expect the adaptation for Lévy walks to have appeared only where they confer practical advantages,” Viswanathan said.

Liam Drew (QUanta Magazine)

If you’ve watched wildlife documentaries, you probably know about Lévy walks (or ‘flights’). This longish article gives a fascinating insight into the origin of the theory and how it can be useful in protecting different species.


A plan to turn the atmosphere into one, enormous sensor

One of AtmoSense’s first goals will be to locate and study phenomena at or close to Earth’s surface—storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mining operations and “mountain waves”, which are winds associated with mountain ranges. The aim is to see if atmospheric sensing can outperform existing methods: seismographs for earthquakes, Doppler weather radar for storms and so on.

The Economist

This sounds potentially game-changing. I can see the positives, but I wonder what the negatives will be?


Paths of desire: lockdown has lent a new twist to the trails we leave behind

Desire paths aren’t anything new – the term has been traced back to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who wrote of “lignes de désir” in his 1958 book The Poetics of Space. Nature author Robert Macfarlane has written more recently about the inherent poetry of the paths. In his 2012 book The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Macfarlane calls them “elective easements” and says: “Paths are human; they are traces of our relationships.” Desire paths have been created by enthusiastic dogs in back gardens, by superstitious humans avoiding scaffolding and by students seeking shortcuts to class. Yet while illicit trails may have marked the easier (ie shorter) route for centuries, the pandemic has turned them into physical markers of our distance. Desire paths are no longer about making life easier for ourselves, but about preserving life for everyone.

Amelia Tait (The Guardian)

I’ve used desire paths as a metaphor many times in presentations and workshops over the last decade. This is an article that specifically talks about how they’ve sprung up during the pandemic.


Header image by Hans Braxmeier

Everyone has a mob self and an individual self, in varying proportions

Digital mediation, decentralisation, and context collapse

Is social media ‘real life’? A recent Op-Ed in The New York Times certainly things so:

An argument about Twitter — or any part of the internet — as “real life” is frequently an argument about what voices “matter” in our national conversation. Not just which arguments are in the bounds of acceptable public discourse, but also which ideas are considered as legitimate for mass adoption. It is a conversation about the politics of the possible. That conversation has many gatekeepers — politicians, the press, institutions of all kinds. And frequently they lack creativity.

Charlie Warzel (The New York Times)

I’ve certainly been a proponent over the years for the view that digital interactions are no less ‘real’ than analogue ones. Yes, you’re reading a book when you do so on an e-reader. That’s right, you’re meeting someone when doing so over video conference. And correct, engaging in a Twitter thread counts as a conversation.

Now that everyone’s interacting via digital devices during the pandemic, things that some parts of the population refused to count as ‘normal’ have at least been normalised. It’s been great to see so much IRL mobilisation due to protests that started online, for example with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.


With this very welcome normalisation, however, I’m not sure there’s a general understanding about how digital spaces mediate our interactions. Offline, our conversations are mediated by the context in which we find ourselves: we speak differently at home, on the street, and in the pub. Meanwhile, online, we experience context collapse as we take our smartphones everywhere.

We forget that we interact in algorithmically-curated environments that favour certain kinds of interactions over others. Sometimes these algorithms can be fairly blunt instruments, for example when ‘Dominic Cummings’ didn’t trend on Twitter despite him being all over the news. Why? Because of anti-porn filters.

Other times, things are quite subtle. I’ve spoken on numerous occasions why I don’t use Facebook products. Part of the reason for this is that I don’t trust their privacy practices or algorithms. For example, a recent study showed that Instagram (which, of course, is owned by Facebook) actively encourages users to show some skin.

While Instagram claims that the newsfeed is organized according to what a given user “cares about most”, the company’s patent explains that it could actually be ranked according to what it thinks all users care about. Whether or not users see the pictures posted by the accounts they follow depends not only on their past behavior, but also on what Instagram believes is most engaging for other users of the platform.

Judith Duportail, Nicolas Kayser-Bril, Kira Schacht and Édouard Richard (Algorithm Watch)

I think I must have linked back to this post of mine from six years ago more than any other one I’ve written: Curate or Be Curated: Why Our Information Environment is Crucial to a Flourishing Democracy, Civil Society. To quote myself:

The problem with social networks as news platforms is that they are not neutral spaces. Perhaps the easiest way to get quickly to the nub of the issue is to ask how they are funded. The answer is clear and unequivocal: through advertising. The two biggest social networks, Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp), are effectively “services with shareholders.” Your interactions with other people, with media, and with adverts, are what provide shareholder value. Lest we forget, CEOs of publicly-listed companies have a legal obligation to provide shareholder value. In an advertising-fueled online world this means continually increasing the number of eyeballs looking at (and fingers clicking on) content. 

Doug Belshaw (Connected learning Alliance)

Herein lies the difficulty. We can’t rely on platforms backed by venture capital as they end up incentivised to do the wrong kinds of things. Equally, no-one is going to want to use a platform provided by a government.

This is why really do still believe that decentralisation is the answer here. Local moderation by people you know and/or trust that can happen on an individual or instance level. Algorithmic curation for the benefit of users which can be turned on or off by the user. Scaling both vertically and horizontally.

At the moment it’s not the tech that’s holding people back from such decentralisation but rather two things. The first is the mental model of decentralisation. I think that’s easy to overcome, as back in 2007 people didn’t really ‘get’ Twitter, etc. The second one is much more difficult, and is around the dopamine hit you get from posting something on social media and becoming a minor celebrity. Although it’s possible to replicate this in decentralised environments, I’m not sure we’d necessarily want to?


Slightly modified quotation-as-title by D.H. Lawrence. Header image by Prateek Katyal

Saturday soundings

Black Lives Matter. The money from this month’s kind supporters of Thought Shrapnel has gone directly to the 70+ community bail funds, mutual aid funds, and racial justice organizers listed here.


IBM abandons ‘biased’ facial recognition tech

A 2019 study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that none of the facial recognition tools from Microsoft, Amazon and IBM were 100% accurate when it came to recognising men and women with dark skin.

And a study from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology suggested facial recognition algorithms were far less accurate at identifying African-American and Asian faces compared with Caucasian ones.

Amazon, whose Rekognition software is used by police departments in the US, is one of the biggest players in the field, but there are also a host of smaller players such as Facewatch, which operates in the UK. Clearview AI, which has been told to stop using images from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, also sells its software to US police forces.

Maria Axente, AI ethics expert at consultancy firm PwC, said facial recognition had demonstrated “significant ethical risks, mainly in enhancing existing bias and discrimination”.

BBC News

Like many newer technologies, facial recognition is already a battleground for people of colour. This is a welcome, if potential cynical move, by IBM who let’s not forget literally provided technology to the Nazis.


How Wikipedia Became a Battleground for Racial Justice

If there is one reason to be optimistic about Wikipedia’s coverage of racial justice, it’s this: The project is by nature open-ended and, well, editable. The spike in volunteer Wikipedia contributions stemming from the George Floyd protests is certainly not neutral, at least to the extent that word means being passive in this moment. Still, Koerner cautioned that any long-term change of focus to knowledge equity was unlikely to be easy for the Wikipedia editing community. “I hope that instead of struggling against it they instead lean into their discomfort,” she said. “When we’re uncomfortable, change happens.”

Stephen Harrison (Slate)

This is a fascinating glimpse into Wikipedia and how the commitment to ‘neutrality’ affects coverage of different types of people and event feeds.


Deeds, not words

Recent events have revealed, again, that the systems we inhabit and use as educators are perfectly designed to get the results they get. The stated desire is there to change the systems we use. Let’s be able to look back to this point in two years and say that we have made a genuine difference.

Nick Dennis

Some great questions here from Nick, some of which are specific to education, whereas others are applicable everywhere.


Sign with hole cut out saying 'NO JUSTICE NO PEACE'

Audio Engineers Built a Shield to Deflect Police Sound Cannons

Since the protests began, demonstrators in multiple cities have reported spotting LRADs, or Long-Range Acoustic Devices, sonic weapons that blast sound waves at crowds over large distances and can cause permanent hearing loss. In response, two audio engineers from New York City have designed and built a shield which they say can block and even partially reflect these harmful sonic blasts back at the police.

Janus Rose (Vice)

For those not familiar with the increasing militarisation of police in the US, this is an interesting read.


CMA to look into Facebook’s purchase of gif search engine

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is inviting comments about Facebook’s purchase of a company that currently provides gif search across many of the social network’s competitors, including Twitter and the messaging service Signal.

[…]

[F]or Facebook, the more compelling reason for the purchase may be the data that Giphy has about communication across the web. Since many services that integrate with the platform not only use it to find gifs, but also leave the original clip hosted on Giphy’s servers, the company receives information such as when a message is sent and received, the IP address of both parties, and details about the platforms they are using.

Alex Hern (The Guardian)

In my 2012 TEDx Talk I discussed the memetic power of gifs. Others might find this news surprising, but I don’t think I would have been surprised even back then that it would be such a hot topic in 2020.

Also by the Hern this week is an article on Twitter’s experiments around getting people to actually read things before they tweet/retweet them. What times we live in.


Human cycles: History as science

To Peter Turchin, who studies population dynamics at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the appearance of three peaks of political instability at roughly 50-year intervals is not a coincidence. For the past 15 years, Turchin has been taking the mathematical techniques that once allowed him to track predator–prey cycles in forest ecosystems, and applying them to human history. He has analysed historical records on economic activity, demographic trends and outbursts of violence in the United States, and has come to the conclusion that a new wave of internal strife is already on its way1. The peak should occur in about 2020, he says, and will probably be at least as high as the one in around 1970. “I hope it won’t be as bad as 1870,” he adds.

Laura Spinney (Nature)

I’m not sure about this at all, because if you go looking for examples of something to fit your theory, you’ll find it. Especially when your theory is as generic as this one. It seems like a kind of reverse fortune-telling?


Universal Basic Everything

Much of our economies in the west have been built on the idea of unique ideas, or inventions, which are then protected and monetised. It’s a centuries old way of looking at ideas, but today we also recognise that this method of creating and growing markets around IP protected products has created an unsustainable use of the world’s natural resources and generated too much carbon emission and waste.

Open source and creative commons moves us significantly in the right direction. From open sharing of ideas we can start to think of ideas, services, systems, products and activities which might be essential or basic for sustaining life within the ecological ceiling, whilst also re-inforcing social foundations.

TessyBritton

I’m proud to be part of a co-op that focuses on openness of all forms. This article is a great introduction to anyone who wants a new way of looking at our post-COVID future.


World faces worst food crisis for at least 50 years, UN warns

Lockdowns are slowing harvests, while millions of seasonal labourers are unable to work. Food waste has reached damaging levels, with farmers forced to dump perishable produce as the result of supply chain problems, and in the meat industry plants have been forced to close in some countries.

Even before the lockdowns, the global food system was failing in many areas, according to the UN. The report pointed to conflict, natural disasters, the climate crisis, and the arrival of pests and plant and animal plagues as existing problems. East Africa, for instance, is facing the worst swarms of locusts for decades, while heavy rain is hampering relief efforts.

The additional impact of the coronavirus crisis and lockdowns, and the resulting recession, would compound the damage and tip millions into dire hunger, experts warned.

Fiona Harvey (The Guardian)

The knock-on effects of COVID-19 are going to be with us for a long time yet. And these second-order effects will themselves have effects which, with climate change also being in the mix, could lead to mass migrations and conflict by 2025.


Mice on Acid

What exactly a mouse sees when she’s tripping on DOI—whether the plexiglass walls of her cage begin to melt, or whether the wood chips begin to crawl around like caterpillars—is tied up in the private mysteries of what it’s like to be a mouse. We can’t ask her directly, and, even if we did, her answer probably wouldn’t be of much help.

Cody Kommers (Nautilus)

The bit about ‘ego disillusion’ in this article, which is ostensibly about how to get legal hallucinogens to market, is really interesting.


Header image by Dmitry Demidov

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