Fighting health disinformation on Wikipedia

This is great to see:

As part of efforts to stop the spread of false information about the coronavirus pandemic, Wikipedia and the World Health Organization announced a collaboration on Thursday: The health agency will grant the online encyclopedia free use of its published information, graphics and videos.

Donald G. McNeil Jr., Wikipedia and W.H.O. Join to Combat Covid Misinformation (The New York Times)

Compared to Twitter’s dismal efforts at fighting disinformation, the collaboration is welcome news.

The first W.H.O. items used under the agreement are its “Mythbusters” infographics, which debunk more than two dozen false notions about Covid-19. Future additions could include, for example, treatment guidelines for doctors, said Ryan Merkley, chief of staff at the Wikimedia Foundation, which produces Wikipedia.

Donald G. McNeil Jr., Wikipedia and W.H.O. Join to Combat Covid Misinformation (The New York Times)

More proof that the for-profit private sector is in no way more ‘innovative’ or effective than non-profits, NGOs, and government agencies.

Seeing through is rarely seeing into

Statue of a man showing bicep muscles, but the statue is crumbling

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Quotation-as-title by Elizabeth Bransco. Image from top-linked post.

Perceptions of the past

The History teacher in me likes this simple photo quiz site that shows how your perception of the past can easily be manipulated by how photographs are presented.

Gatekeepers of opportunity and the lottery of privilege

Despite starting out as a pejorative term, ‘meritocracy’ is something that, until recently, few people seem to have had a problem with. One of the best explanations of why meritocracy is a problematic idea is in this Mozilla article from a couple of years ago. Basically, it ascribes agency to those who were given opportunities due to pre-existing privilege.

In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Sandel makes some very good points about the American university system, which can be more broadly applied to other western nations, such as the UK, which have elite universities.

The meritocratic hubris of elites is the conviction by those who land on top that their success is their own doing, that they have risen through a fair competition, that they therefore deserve the material benefits that the market showers upon their talents. Meritocratic hubris is the tendency of the successful to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. It goes along with the tendency to look down on those less fortunate, and less credentialed, than themselves. That gives rise to the sense of humiliation and resentment of those who are left out.

Michael Sandel, quoted in ‘The Insufferable Hubris of the Well-Credentialed

As someone who is reasonably well-credentialed, I nevertheless see a fundamental problem with requiring a degree as an ‘entry-level’ qualification. That’s why I first got interested in Open Badges nearly a decade ago.

Despite the best efforts of the community, elite universities have a vested in maintaining the status quo. Eventually, the whole edifice will come crashing down, but right now, those universities are the gatekeepers to opportunity.

Society as a whole has made a four-year university degree a necessary condition for dignified work and a decent life. This is a mistake. Those of us in higher education can easily forget that most Americans do not have a four-year college degree. Nearly two-thirds do not.

[…]

We also need to reconsider the steep hierarchy of prestige that we have created between four-year colleges and universities, especially brand-name ones, and other institutions of learning. This hierarchy of prestige both reflects and exacerbates the tendency at the top to denigrate or depreciate the contributions to the economy made by people whose work does not depend on having a university diploma.

So the role that universities have been assigned, sitting astride the gateway of opportunity and success, is not good for those who have been left behind. But I’m not sure it’s good for elite universities themselves, either.

MICHAEL SANDEL, QUOTED IN ‘THE INSUFFERABLE HUBRIS OF THE WELL-CREDENTIALED

Thankfully, Sandel, has a rather delicious solution to decouple privilege from admission to elite universities. It’s not a panacea, but I like it a first step.

What might we do about it? I make a proposal in the book that may get me in a lot of trouble in my neighborhood. Part of the problem is that having survived this high-pressured meritocratic gauntlet, it’s almost impossible for the students who win admission not to believe that they achieved their admission as a result of their own strenuous efforts. One can hardly blame them. So I think we should gently invite students to challenge this idea. I propose that colleges and universities that have far more applicants than they have places should consider what I call a “lottery of the qualified.” Over 40,000 students apply to Stanford and to Harvard for about 2,000 places. The admissions officers tell us that the majority are well-qualified. Among those, fill the first-year class through a lottery. My hunch is that the quality of discussion in our classes would in no way be impaired.

The main reason for doing this is to emphasize to students and their parents the role of luck in admission, and more broadly in success. It’s not introducing luck where it doesn’t already exist. To the contrary, there’s an enormous amount of luck in the present system. The lottery would highlight what is already the case.

MICHAEL SANDEL, QUOTED IN ‘THE INSUFFERABLE HUBRIS OF THE WELL-CREDENTIALED

Would people like me be worse off in a more egalitarian system? Probably. But that’s kind of the point.

Tedious sports

This made me smile:

You can divide most sports into those that take place in the real world (road cycling, sailing, cross country running) and those that are played on the artificial space of a court or pitch. Some (golf, croquet) occupy an uncertain middle ground, which may be one of the reasons they are so tedious to watch. Others (football, rugby) started as the former and, as they were codified, became the latter.

Jon Day, Better on TV (London Review of Books)

Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed

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Quotation-as-title from Pascal. Image from top-linked post.

Biometric surveillance in a post-pandemic future

I woke up today to the news that, in the UK, the police will get access to to the data on people told to self-isolate on a ‘case-by-case basis’. As someone pointed out on Mastodon, this was entirely predictable.

They pointed to this article by Yuval Noah Harari from March of this year, which also feels like a decade ago. In it, he talks about post-pandemic society being a surveillance nightmare:

You could, of course, make the case for biometric surveillance as a temporary measure taken during a state of emergency. It would go away once the emergency is over. But temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon. My home country of Israel, for example, declared a state of emergency during its 1948 War of Independence, which justified a range of temporary measures from press censorship and land confiscation to special regulations for making pudding (I kid you not). The War of Independence has long been won, but Israel never declared the emergency over, and has failed to abolish many of the “temporary” measures of 1948 (the emergency pudding decree was mercifully abolished in 2011). 

Yuval Noah Harari: the world after coronavirus (The Financial times)

Remember the US ‘war on terror’? That led to an incredible level of domestic and foreign surveillance that was revealed by Edward Snowden a few years ago.

The trouble, though, is that health is a clear and visible thing, a clear and present danger. Privacy is more nebulous with harms often being in the future, so the trade-off is between the here and now and, well, the opposite.

Even when infections from coronavirus are down to zero, some data-hungry governments could argue they needed to keep the biometric surveillance systems in place because they fear a second wave of coronavirus, or because there is a new Ebola strain evolving in central Africa, or because . . . you get the idea. A big battle has been raging in recent years over our privacy. The coronavirus crisis could be the battle’s tipping point. For when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health.

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: THE WORLD AFTER CORONAVIRUS (THE FINANCIAL TIMES)

For me, just like Harari, the way that governments choose to deal with the pandemic shows their true colours.

The coronavirus epidemic is thus a major test of citizenship. In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians. If we fail to make the right choice, we might find ourselves signing away our most precious freedoms, thinking that this is the only way to safeguard our health.

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: THE WORLD AFTER CORONAVIRUS (THE FINANCIAL TIMES)

Ethics is the result of the human will

Sabelo Mhlambi is a computer scientist, researcher and Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. He focuses on the ethical implications of technology in the developing world, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, and has written a great, concise essay on technological ethics in relation to the global north and south.

Ethics is not missing in technology, rather we are witnessing the ethics in technology – the ethics of the powerful. The ethics of individualism.

Mhlambi makes a number of important points, and I want to share three of them. First, he says that ethics is the result of human will, not algorithmic processes:

Ethics should not be left to algorithmic definitions and processes, ultimately ethics is a result of the human will. Technology won’t save us. The abdication of social and environmental responsibility by creators of technology should not be allowed to become the norm.

Second, technology is a driver of change in society, and, because technology is not neutral, we have individualism baked into the tools we use:

Ethics describes one’s relationship and responsibilities to others and the environment. Ethics is the protocol for human interaction, with each other and with the world. Different ethical systems may be described through this scale: Individualistic systems promote one’s self assertion through the limitation of one’s relationship and responsibilities to others and the environment. In contrast, a more communal ethics asserts the self through the encouragement of one’s relationship and responsibilities to the community and the environment.

This is, he says, a form of colonialism:

Technology designed and deployed beyond its ethical borders poses a threat to social stability in different regions with different ethical systems, norms and values. The imposition of a society’s beliefs on another is colonial. This relationship can be observed even amongst members of the South as the more economically developed nations extend their technology and influence into less developed nations, the East to Africa relationship being an example.

Third, over and above the individualism and colonialism, the technologies we use are unrepresentative because they do not take into account the lived experiences and view of marginalised groups:

In the development and funding of technology, marginalized groups are underrepresented. Their values and views are unaccounted for. In the software industry marginalized groups make a minority of the labor force and leadership roles. The digital divide continues to increase when technology is only accessible through the languages of the well developed nations. 

It’s an important essay, and one that I’ll no doubt be returning to in the weeks and months to come.

Even while a thing is in the act of coming into existence, some part of it has already ceased to be

Cat next to laptop which has on-screen "System error"

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Quotation-as-title from Marcus Aurelius. Image from top-linked post.

Forward momentum above all things

This page on a Brian Eno fan site was re-shared on Hacker News this week. It features text from an email from Eno himself, explaining why, although he’s grateful that people want to discuss his work, he doesn’t want to necessarily see it:

I think the reason I feel uncomfortable about such a thing is that it becomes a sort of weight on my shoulders. I start to feel an obligation to live up to something, instead of just following my nose wherever it wants to go at the moment. Of course success has many nice payoffs, but one of the disadvantages is that you start to be made to feel responsible for other people’s feelings: what I’m always hearing are variations of “why don’t you do more records like – (insert any album title) ” or “why don’t you do more work with – (insert any artist’s name)?”. I don’t know why, these questions are un answerable, why is it so bloody important to you, leave me alone….these are a few of my responses. But the most important reason is “If I’d followed your advice in the first place I’d never have got anywhere”.

Eno goes on to explain that being constantly reminded of your ‘exhaust’, of what you’ve already done isn’t very conducive to future creative work:

I’m afraid to say that admirers can be a tremendous force for conservatism, for consolidation. Of course it’s really wonderful to be acclaimed for things you’ve done – in fact it’s the only serious reward, becasue it makes you think “it worked! I’m not isolated!” or something like that, and irt makes you feel gratefully connected to your own culture. But on the other hand, there’s a tremendously strong pressure to repeat yourself, to do more of that thing we all liked so much. I can’t do that – I don’t have the enthusiasm to push through projects that seem familiar to me ( – this isn’t so much a question of artistic nobility or high ideals: I just get too bloody bored), but at the same time I do feel guilt for ‘deserting my audience’ by not doing the things they apparently wanted. I’d rather not feel this guilt, actually, so I avoid finding out about situations that could cause it.

Finally, Eno explains that, just like everyone else, there are days when he wonders where the creative spark comes from:

The problem is that people nearly always prefer what I was doing a few years earlier – this has always been true. The other problem is that so, often, do I! Discovering things is clumsy and sporadic, and the results don’t at first compare well with the glossy and lauded works of the past. You have to keep reminding yourself that they went through that as well, otherwise they become frighteningly accomplished. That’s another problem with being made to think about your own past – you forget its genesis and start to feel useless awe toward syour earlier self “How did I do it? Wherever did these ideas come from?”. Now, the workaday everyday now, always looks relatively less glamorous than the rose-tinted then (except for those magic mhours when your finger is right on the pulse, and those times only happen when you’ve abandoned the lifeline of your own history).

Being creative comes not from looking back, but looking forward. As the enigmatic Taylor, a character in the TV series Billions states in one episode, we should prize “forward momentum above all things”.

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