Issue #432
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👋🏼 Hello!

I hope you're well. I'm writing this on Saturday from an airport lounge en-route to Colorado for The Badge Summit. I'm feeling doubly-guilty for flying (given the climate crisis), and for leaving behind my wife who tested positive for Covid yesterday. I've already had it, am fully-vaccinated, am testing negative, and have no symptoms. The kids are at my parents'.

After the US, I'm heading to a family wedding and then Team Belshaw will be on holiday in France. I'll be back at the end of August, hopefully with another newsletter for your enjoyment! Have a great summer (or winter, you know, not to be hemisphere-ist...)

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💥 Best of Thought Shrapnel

Of the 27 posts I published in July 2022 on Thought Shrapnel, these were my three favourites.
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Algorithmic Anxiety

I listened to a great episode of CBC’s Spark podcast with the excellent Nora Young on what ownership will look like in 2050. One of the contributors talked about what it might look like to be “on the wrong side of the API”. In other words, the person responding to the request, rather than giving it.

We’re already heading towards a dystopia when people are having their behaviour influenced by black box algorithms that we don’t understand. This article talks about shopping on Instagram and listing property on Airbnb, but the point (and the anxiety) is universal.
Only in the middle of the past decade, though, did recommender systems become a pervasive part of life online. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all shifted away from chronological feeds—showing messages in the order in which they were posted—toward more algorithmically sequenced ones, displaying what the platforms determined would be most engaging to the user. Spotify and Netflix introduced personalized interfaces that sought to cater to each user’s tastes. (Top Picks for Kyle!) Such changes made platforms feel less predictable and less transparent. What you saw was never quite the same as what anyone else was seeing. You couldn’t count on a feed to work the same way from one month to the next. Just last week, Facebook implemented a new default Home tab on its app that prioritizes recommended content in the vein of TikTok, its main competitor.

Almost every other major Internet platform makes use of some form of algorithmic recommendation. Google Maps calculates driving routes using unspecified variables, including predicted traffic patterns and fuel efficiency, rerouting us mid-journey in ways that may be more convenient or may lead us astray. The food-delivery app Seamless front-loads menu items that it predicts you might like based on your recent ordering habits, the time of day, and what is “popular near you.” E-mail and text-message systems supply predictions for what you’re about to type. (“Got it!”) It can feel as though every app is trying to guess what you want before your brain has time to come up with its own answer, like an obnoxious party guest who finishes your sentences as you speak them. We are constantly negotiating with the pesky figure of the algorithm, unsure how we would have behaved if we’d been left to our own devices. No wonder we are made anxious. In a recent essay for Pitchfork, Jeremy D. Larson described a nagging feeling that Spotify’s algorithmic recommendations and automated playlists were draining the joy from listening to music by short-circuiting the process of organic discovery: “Even though it has all the music I’ve ever wanted, none of it feels necessarily rewarding, emotional, or personal.”

[...]

“Algorithmic anxiety,” however, is the most apt phrase I’ve found for describing the unsettling experience of navigating today’s online platforms. Shagun Jhaver, a scholar of social computing, helped define the phrase while conducting research and interviews in collaboration with Airbnb in 2018. Of fifteen hosts he spoke to, most worried about where their listings were appearing in users’ search results. They felt “uncertainty about how Airbnb algorithms work and a perceived lack of control,” Jhaver reported in a paper co-written with two Airbnb employees. One host told Jhaver, “Lots of listings that are worse than mine are in higher positions.” On top of trying to boost their rankings by repainting walls, replacing furniture, or taking more flattering photos, the hosts also developed what Jhaver called “folk theories” about how the algorithm worked. They would log on to Airbnb repeatedly throughout the day or constantly update their unit’s availability, suspecting that doing so would help get them noticed by the algorithm. Some inaccurately marked their listings as “child safe,” in the belief that it would give them a bump. (According to Jhaver, Airbnb couldn’t confirm that it had any effect.) Jhaver came to see the Airbnb hosts as workers being overseen by a computer overlord instead of human managers. In order to make a living, they had to guess what their capricious boss wanted, and the anxious guesswork may have made the system less efficient over all.
Source: The Age of Algorithmic Anxiety | The New Yorker
Flooded houses

The future is the least renewable resource

Carlos Alvarez Pereira, vice president of the Club of Rome is interviewed by WIRED about a book called The Limits to Growth, published in 1972. Interestingly, he’s both critical of capitalism and confident that a cultural movement “hidden in plain sight” means that we’ll be in a better position than we are now.

The computer modeling made it plain: If people continued to overextract finite resources, pollute on a massive scale, and balloon the human population in an unsustainable way, civilization could collapse within a century. It sounds like that modeling could have been done last week, what with climate change, water shortages, and microplastics corrupting every corner of the Earth. But in fact it dropped in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, published by the Club of Rome, an international organization of intellectuals founded in 1968.

To mark the book’s 50 year anniversary, WIRED sat down with Alvarez Pereira to talk about how that future is shaping up, what’s changed in the half-century since Limits, and how humanity might correct course. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

[...]

WIRED: Presumably economists weren’t too fond of it because growth is inherent to capitalism. And unchecked growth really, a kind of maniacal, ecologically-destructive growth at all costs that’s built into the system.

CAP: What the system has done, as a mechanism to continue with growth at all costs, is actually to burn the future. And the future is the least renewable resource. There is no way that we can reuse the time we had when we started this conversation. And by building up a system which is more debt-driven—where we keep consumption going, but by creating more and more debt—what we’re actually doing is burning or stealing the time of people in the future. Because their time will be devoted to repaying the debt.
Source: The Infamous 1972 Report That Warned of Civilization’s Collapse | WIRED
Pattern

Is our society structured in a way which encourages people to make less than the greatest contribution they could?

Colin Percival is the founder of Tarsnap which is a somewhat-niche cryptographically-secure backup solution. In this post, he replies to a comment he saw that he’s potentially wasting his life on something less important than the world’s biggest problems.

His point, I think, is that starting your own business is the only way these days of being able to do the kind of deep work which people like him find fulfilling. So I guess the question is whether there’s an even better way of structuring society to enable even greater contribution?
First, to dispense with the philosophical argument: Yes, this is my life, and yes, I’m free to use — or waste — it however I please; but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking if this is how my time could be best spent. That applies doubly if the question is not merely about the choices I made but is rather a broader question: Is our society structured in a way which encourages people to make less than the greatest contribution they could?

[...]

In many ways, starting my own company has given me the sort of freedom which academics aspire to. Sure, I have customers to assist, servers to manage (not that they need much management), and business accounting to do; but professors equally have classes to teach, students to supervise, and committees to attend. When it comes to research, I can follow my interests without regard to the whims of granting agencies and tenure and promotion committees: I can do work like scrypt, which is now widely known but languished in obscurity for several years after I published it; and equally I can do work like kivaloo, which has been essentially ignored for close to a decade, with no sign of that ever changing.

[...]

Is there a hypothetical world where I would be an academic working on the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture right now? Sure. It’s probably a world where high-flying students are given, upon graduation, some sort of “mini-Genius Grant”. If I had been awarded a five-year $62,500/year grant with the sole condition of “do research”, I would almost certainly have persevered in academia and — despite working on the more interesting but longer-term questions — have had enough publications after those five years to obtain a continuing academic position. But that’s not how granting agencies work; they give out one or two year awards, with the understanding that those who are successful will apply for more funding later.
Source: On the use of a life | Daemonic Dispatches

✍️ The rest of Thought Shrapnel

There are other nuggets, but it's up to you to find them! Here's the other 24 posts I published:

📅 Weeknotes

  • Weeknote 30/2022 — "This week caught me by surprise. It wasn’t supposed to be that way."
  • Weeknote 29/2022 — "I’ve just come back from spending eight hours at a football tournament in the changeable weather of North East England."
  • Weeknote 28/2022 — "It’s 16 degrees C and raining where I am as I sit down to write this. I’ve just been for a gentle run."
  • Weeknote 27/2022 — "I took three Covid tests this week. All of them were negative, but can you really, truly trust a lateral flow test?"
  • Weeknote 26/2022 — "I’m reading Umberto Eco’s final novel, Numero Zero, at the moment. In it, one of the characters talks about his difficulties in buying a car."

Until next month!

Doug
Doug Belshaw
Thought Shrapnel Weekly is published by Dr. Doug Belshaw. You can connect with him by replying to this email, or via the socials.


Some say he's not getting better at Wordle. Others say his brain might curdle. No-one thinks he's good at hurdles.
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