What kind of world do we want? (or, why regulation matters)

I saw a thread on Mastodon recently, which included this image:

Three images with the title 'Space required to Transport 48 People'. Each image is the same, with cars backed up down a road. The caption for each image is 'Car', 'Electric Car' and 'Autonomous Car', respectively.

Someone else replied with a meme showing a series of images with the phrase “They feed us poison / so we buy their ‘cures’ / while they ban our medicine”. The poison in this case being cars burning fossil fuels, the cures being electric and/or autonomous cars, and the medicine public transport.

There’s similar kind of thinking in the world of tech, with at least one interviewee in the documentary The Social Dilemma saying that people should be paid for their data. I’ve always been uneasy about this, so it’s good to see the EFF come out strongly against it:

Let’s be clear: getting paid for your data—probably no more than a handful of dollars at most—isn’t going to fix what’s wrong with privacy today. Yes, a data dividend may sound at first blush like a way to get some extra money and stick it to tech companies. But that line of thinking is misguided, and falls apart quickly when applied to the reality of privacy today. In truth, the data dividend scheme hurts consumers, benefits companies, and frames privacy as a commodity rather than a right.

EFF strongly opposes data dividends and policies that lay the groundwork for people to think of the monetary value of their data rather than view it as a fundamental right. You wouldn’t place a price tag on your freedom to speak. We shouldn’t place one on our privacy, either.

Hayley Tsukayama, Why Getting Paid for Your Data Is a Bad Deal (EFF)

As the EFF points out, who would get to set the price of that data, anyway? Also, individual data is useful to companies, but so is data in aggregate. Is that covered by such plans?

Facebook makes around $7 per user, per quarter. Even if they gave you all of that, is that a fair exchange?

Those small checks in exchange for intimate details about you are not a fairer trade than we have now. The companies would still have nearly unlimited power to do what they want with your data. That would be a bargain for the companies, who could then wipe their hands of concerns about privacy. But it would leave users in the lurch.

All that adds up to a stark conclusion: if where we’ve been is any indication of where we’re going, there won’t be much benefit from a data dividend. What we really need is stronger privacy laws to protect how businesses process our data—which we can, and should do, as a separate and more protective measure.

Hayley Tsukayama, Why Getting Paid for Your Data Is a Bad Deal (EFF)

As the rest of the article goes on to explain, we’re already in a world of ‘pay for privacy’ which is exacerbating the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. We need regulation and legislation to curb this before it gallops away from us.

A candour affected is a dagger concealed

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

Slowly-boiling frogs in Facebook’s surveillance panopticon

I can’t think of a worse company than Facebook than to be creating a IRL surveillance panopticon. But, I have to say, it’s entirely on-brand.

On Wednesday, the company announced a plan to map the entire world, beyond street view. The company is launching a set of glasses that contains cameras, microphones, and other sensors to build a constantly updating map of the world in an effort called Project Aria. That map will include the inside of buildings and homes and all the objects inside of them. It’s Google Street View, but for your entire life.

Dave Gershgorn, Facebook’s Project Aria Is Google Maps — For Your Entire Life (OneZero)

We’re like slowly-boiling frogs with this stuff. Everything seems fine. Until it’s not.

The company insists any faces and license plates captured by Aria glasses wearers will be anonymized. But that won’t protect the data from Facebook itself. Ostensibly, Facebook will possess a live map of your home, pictures of your loved ones, pictures of any sensitive documents or communications you might be looking at with the glasses on, passwords — literally your entire life. The employees and contractors who have agreed to wear the research glasses are already trusting the company with this data.

Dave Gershgorn, Facebook’s Project Aria Is Google Maps — For Your Entire Life (OneZero)

With Amazon cosying up to police departments in the US with its Ring cameras, we really are hurtling towards surveillance states in the West.

Who has access to see the data from this live 3D map, and what, precisely, constitutes private versus public data? And who makes that determination? Faces might be blurred, but people can be easily identified without their faces. What happens if law enforcement wants to subpoena a day’s worth of Facebook’s LiveMap? Might Facebook ever build a feature to try to, say, automatically detect domestic violence, and if so, what would it do if it detected it?

Dave Gershgorn, Facebook’s Project Aria Is Google Maps — For Your Entire Life (OneZero)

Judges already requisition Fitbit data to solve crimes. No matter what Facebook say are their intentions around Project Aria, this data will end up in the hands of law enforcement, too.


More details on Project Aria:

To pursue the unattainable is insanity, yet the thoughtless can never refrain from doing so

Two people talking to one another

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

‘Prepper’ philosophy

This morning, I came across a long web page from 2016, presumably created as a reaction to everything that went down that year (little did we know!)

Ostensibly, it’s about preparing for scenarios in life that are relatively likely. It’s pretty epic. While I’ve converted it to PDF and printed all 68 pages out to read in more detail, there were some parts that jumped out at me, which I’ll share here.

[T]he purpose of this guide is to combat the mindset of learned helplessness by promoting simple, level-headed, personal preparedness techniques that are easy to implement, don’t cost much, and will probably help you cope with whatever life throws your way.

lcamtuf, Doomsday Prepping For Less Crazy Folk

Growing up, my mother was the kind of woman who always had extra tins in the cupboards ‘just in case’. Recently, my wife has taken this to the next level, with documents containing details on our stash including best before dates, etc.

Effective preparedness can be simple, but it has to be rooted in an honest and systematic review of the risks you are likely to face. Plenty of excited newcomers begin by shopping for ballistic vests and night vision goggles; they would be better served by grabbing a fire extinguisher, some bottled water, and then putting the rest of their money in a rainy-day fund.

LCAMTUF, DOOMSDAY PREPPING FOR LESS CRAZY FOLK

I see this document, which goes into money, self-defence, hygiene, and even relationships as neighbours as more of a philosophy of life.

Rational prepping is meant to give you confidence to go about your business, knowing that you are well-equipped to weather out adversities. But it should not be about convincing yourself that the collapse is just around the corner, and letting that thought consume and disrupt your life.

Stay positive: the world is probably not ending, and there is a good chance that it will be an even better place for our children than it is for us. But the universe is a harsh mistress, and there is only so much faith we should be putting in good fortune, in benevolent governments, or in the wonders of modern technology. So, always have a backup plan.

LCAMTUF, DOOMSDAY PREPPING FOR LESS CRAZY FOLK

Recommended reading 👍

(also check out the author’s hyperinflation gallery)

Much will have more

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Quotation-as-title by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Image from top-linked post.

Philosophical anxiety as a superpower

Anxiety is a funny thing. Some people are anxious over specific things, while others, like me, have a kind of general background anxiety. It’s only recently have I’ve admitted that to myself.

Some might call this existential or philosophical anxiety and, to a greater or lesser extent, it’s part of the human condition.

Humans are philosophising animals precisely because we are the anxious animal: not a creature of the present, but regretful about the past and fearful of the future. We philosophise to understand our past, to make our future more comprehensible… Philosophy is the path that we hope gets us there. Anxiety is our dogged, unpleasant and indispensable companion.

Samir Chopra, Anxiety isn’t a pathology. It drives us to push back the unknown (Psyche)

One of the things my therapist has been pushing me on recently is my tolerance for, and ability to sit with uncertainty. We all want to know something for definite, but it’s rarely possible.

We are anxious; we seek relief by enquiring, by asking questions, while not knowing the answers; greater or lesser anxieties might heave into view as a result. As we realise the dimensions of our ultimate concerns, we find our anxiety is irreducible, for our increasing bounties of knowledge – scientific, technical or conceptual – merely bring us greater burdens of uncertainty.

Samir Chopra, Anxiety isn’t a pathology. It drives us to push back the unknown (Psyche)

To be able to tolerate the philosophical anxiety of not knowing, then, is a form of superpower. It may not necessarily make us happy, but it does make us free.

Anxiety then, rather than being a pathology, is an essential human disposition that leads us to enquire into the great, unsolvable mysteries that confront us; to philosophise is to acknowledge a crucial and animating anxiety that drives enquiry onward. The philosophical temperament is a curious and melancholic one, aware of the incompleteness of human knowledge, and the incapacities that constrain our actions and resultant happiness.

Samir Chopra, Anxiety isn’t a pathology. It drives us to push back the unknown (Psyche)

Ultimately, it’s OK to be anxious, as it makes us human and takes us beyond mere rationality to a deeper, more powerful understanding of who (and why) we are.

The most fundamental enquiry of all is into our selves; anxiety is the key to this sacred inner chamber, revealing which existential problematic – the ultimate concerns of death, meaning, isolation, freedom – we are most eager to resolve.

Samir Chopra, Anxiety isn’t a pathology. It drives us to push back the unknown (Psyche)

You can’t tech your way out of problems the tech didn’t create

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), is a US-based non-profit that exists to defend civil liberties in the digital world. They’ve been around for 30 years, and I support them financially on a monthly basis.

In this article by Corynne McSherry, EFF’s Legal Director, she outlines the futility in attempts by ‘Big Social’ to do content moderation at scale:

[C]ontent moderation is a fundamentally broken system. It is inconsistent and confusing, and as layer upon layer of policy is added to a system that employs both human moderators and automated technologies, it is increasingly error-prone. Even well-meaning efforts to control misinformation inevitably end up silencing a range of dissenting voices and hindering the ability to challenge ingrained systems of oppression.

CORYNNE MCSHERRY, CONTENT MODERATION AND THE U.S. ELECTION: WHAT TO ASK, WHAT TO DEMAND (EFF)

Ultimately, these monolithic social networks have a problem around false positives. It’s in their interests to be over-zealous, as they’re increasingly under the watchful eye of regulators and governments.

We have been watching closely as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, while disclaiming any interest in being “the arbiters of truth,” have all adjusted their policies over the past several months to try arbitrate lies—or at least flag them. And we’re worried, especially when we look abroad. Already this year, an attempt by Facebook to counter election misinformation targeting Tunisia, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, and seven other African countries resulted in the accidental removal of accounts belonging to dozens of Tunisian journalists and activists, some of whom had used the platform during the country’s 2011 revolution. While some of those users’ accounts were restored, others—mostly belonging to artists—were not.

Corynne McSherry, Content Moderation and the U.S. Election: What to Ask, What to Demand (EFF)

McSherry’s analysis is spot-on: it’s the algorithms that are a problem here. Social networks employ these algorithms because of their size and structure, and because of the cost of human-based content moderation. After all, these are companies with shareholders.

Algorithms used by Facebook’s Newsfeed or Twitter’s timeline make decisions about which news items, ads, and user-generated content to promote and which to hide. That kind of curation can play an amplifying role for some types of incendiary content, despite the efforts of platforms like Facebook to tweak their algorithms to “disincentivize” or “downrank” it. Features designed to help people find content they’ll like can too easily funnel them into a rabbit hole of disinformation.

CORYNNE MCSHERRY, CONTENT MODERATION AND THE U.S. ELECTION: WHAT TO ASK, WHAT TO DEMAND (EFF)

She includes useful questions for social networks to answer about content moderation:

  • Is the approach narrowly tailored or a categorical ban?
  • Does it empower users?
  • Is it transparent?
  • Is the policy consistent with human rights principles?

But, ultimately…

You can’t tech your way out of problems the tech didn’t create. And even where content moderation has a role to play, history tells us to be wary. Content moderation at scale is impossible to do perfectly, and nearly impossible to do well, even under the most transparent, sensible, and fair conditions

CORYNNE MCSHERRY, CONTENT MODERATION AND THE U.S. ELECTION: WHAT TO ASK, WHAT TO DEMAND (EFF)

I’m so pleased that I don’t use Facebook products, and that I only use Twitter these days as a place to publish links to my writing.

Instead, I’m much happier on the Fediverse, a place where if you don’t like the content moderation approach of the instance you’re on, you can take your digital knapsack and decide to call another place home. You can find me here (for now!).

Even those of a harsh and unyielding nature will endure gentle treatment: no creature is fierce and frightening if it is stroked

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Quotation-as-title by Seneca. Image from top-linked post.

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Quotation-as-title by Eric Hoffer. Image from top-linked post.

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