Category: General (page 1 of 62)

‘The individual’ is an idea like other ideas

Blue sky through dark clouds

I thought I’d share some things that have really opened my eyes recently.

The first is a two-part interview with Vinay Gupta from the Emerge podcast in 2019. I’ve followed Vinay’s work ever since we tried to get Firecloud (a P2P publishing platforming using WebRTC) off the ground in 2013 when I was working at Mozilla. Ten years ahead of the curve, as always.

Working with Vinay absolutely blew my mind, and although we haven’t met up in person for a few years, he’s been changing the world in the meantime. He was the release manager for Ethereum, and he’s currently CEO of Mattereum.

The difference with Vinay, though, is that he’s enlightened. I don’t mean that in a LinkedIn kind of way. I mean that in a studied-under-a-Hindu-guru kind of way. This underpins all of the humanitarian work he does, some of which you can see at myhopeforthe.world

The two episodes on the Emerge podcast are entitled Waking Up in the Monster Factory (Part 1 / Part 2). I guarantee they are worth your time.


The second thing I’d like to share is a documentary series by Adam Curtis that was released last month. Entitled Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World it’s available on BBC iPlayer and YouTube.

The late, great Dai Barnes implored me to watch Curtis’ 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation. I’m only half way through the new documentary series, and it’s having a similar effect as when I watched that. A feeling of waking up, and seeing the world as it really is. It’s kind of counter-conspiracy theory.


The crucial thing for me, and my reason for sharing both of these, is a recognition that there’s no-one coming to save us. But, unlike those people discussed in the 99% Invisible podcast episode The Doom Boom, it’s up to us to figure out how to pull together collectively — instead of hunkering down and just making sure that our immediate family and friends are OK.


Quotation-as-title by Harold Rosenberg. Image by Antonino Visalli

Life is a great bundle of little things

As I’m catching up with news from various sources and bookmarking articles to come back and share via Thought Shrapnel, I also come across interesting tools and resources.

Here are some of them that I thought were interesting enough to share.

ArchiveWeb.page is “the latest tool from Webrecorder to turn your browser into a full-featured interactive web archiving system!”

Bookfeed.io is “a simple tool that allows you to specify a list of authors, and generates an RSS feed with each author’s most recently released book.”

Loudreader is “the world’s only ebook reader that can open .azw3 [and] .mobi files in a browser!”

NES.css is “a NES style (8bit-like) CSS framework.” (also see Simple.css)

novelWriter is “a markdown-like text editor designed for writing novels and larger projects of many smaller plain text documents.”

Open Peeps is a hand-drawn illustration library. “You can use Open Peeps in product illustration, marketing imagery, comics, product states, user flows, personas, storyboarding, invitations for your quinceañera…or anything else not on this list.”

Pattern Generator provides you with a way to “create unique, seamless, royalty-free patterns”.

Same Energy is “a visual search engine. You can use it to find beautiful art, photography, decoration ideas, or anything else.”

Screenstab allows you to “cut down on time and effort by auto-generating appealing graphics for marketing materials, social media posts, illustrations & presentation slides.”


Quotation-as-title by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Image by Jessica Lee.

Taste ripens at the expense of happiness

Oranges growing on a tree

🧐 Habits, Data, and Things That Go Bump in the Night: Microsoft for Education ⁠— “Microsoft’s ubiquity, however, is sometimes mistaken for banality. Because it is everywhere, because we have all used it forever, we assume we can trust it.”

I haven’t voluntarily used something made by Microsoft (as opposed to acquired by it) for… about 20 years?


You Can Set Screen-Time Rules That Don’t Ruin Your Kids’ Lives — “Bear in mind that the limits you set need not be a specific number of minutes. Try to think of other, more natural ways of breaking up their activities. Maybe your kids play one game before tackling homework. Also, consider granting them one day per weekend with fewer restrictions on screen-time socializing. Giving them more autonomy over their weekends helps approximate the fun and flexibility of their pre-COVID world, and lets them unwind and hang out more with their friends.”

This has been really hard to managed as a parent, and it’s easy to think that you’re always doing it wrong.


💬 Why do we keep on telling others what to do? — “Usually starting a conversation out with telling people what you feel they are doing wrong is going to make it a negative conversation all in all, and I tend to believe that it’s better to follow “the campfire rule”, try to make all people taking part in a conversation end up a bit better off than what they were when they started the conversation, and telling people what to do or what not to are going straight against this.”

Post-therapy, I’m much better at focusing on changing myself than trying to change others. I’d recommend therapy, but that might be construed as an implicit instruction…


🙌 Twitter Considers Subscription Fee for Tweetdeck, Unique Content — “To explore potential options outside ad sales, a number of Twitter teams are researching subscription offerings, including one using the code name “Rogue One,” according to people familiar with the effort. At least one idea being considered is related to “tipping,” or the ability for users to pay the people they follow for exclusive content, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions are internal. Other possible ways to generate recurring revenue include charging for the use of services like Tweetdeck or advanced user features like “undo send” or profile-customization options.”

This is fantastic news. It would destroy Twitter as it currently stands, but that’s fine as it’s much worse than it was a decade ago.


🔒 Do lockdowns work? — “It’s absurd thinking, but the sceptics have finally found an argument that cannot be categorically disproved. Lockdowns have a scientific rational: you can’t transmit a virus to people you don’t meet. Contrary to what Toby says in his article, they also have historic precedents: during the Spanish Flu, cities such as Philadelphia closed shops, churches, schools, bars and restaurants by law (they also made face masks mandatory). And now we have numerous natural experiments from around the world showing that infection rates fall when lockdowns are introduced.”

There will always be idiots who try and use their influence and eloquence to ensure they’re heard. Thankfully, there are people like this who can dismantle their arguments brick-by-brick.


Quotation-as-title by Jules Renard. Image. by Elena Mozhvilo.

Seeing through is rarely seeing into

On New Year’s Eve, Farmville shut down. Unlike everyone else who seemed to play the game a decade ago, I never experienced it. Why? Mercifully, I wasn’t on Facebook.

An article in The New York Times argues that Farmville, and other, similar, games made by Zynga, paved the way for the kind of ‘social’ experiences we have seen in the last decade. That is to say, mass behaviour modification disguised as a game.

Mia Consalvo, a professor in game studies and design at Concordia University in Canada, was among those who saw FarmVille constantly in front of her.

“When you log into Facebook, it’s like, ‘Oh, 12 of my friends need help,’” she said.

She questioned how social the game actually was, arguing that it didn’t create deep or sustained interactions.

“The game itself isn’t promoting a conversation between you and your friends, or encouraging you to spend time together within the game space,” she said. “It’s really just a mechanic of clicking a button.”

FarmVille Once Took Over Facebook. Now Everything Is FarmVille. (The New York Times)

It’s hardly surprising, then, that conspiracy theories have now become Alternative Reality Games (ARGs) or Live Action Role Playing Games (LARPs) where claims can never be falsified.

You may have heard of QAnon, the batshit-crazy conspiracy theory. As one game designer points out, it’s so effective, despite it being anti-rational, because of the incredible amounts of apophenia (“tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things”) it entails.

QAnon has often been compared to ARGs and LARPs and rightly so. It uses many of the same gaming mechanisms and rewards. It has a game-like feel to it that is evident to anyone who has ever played an ARG, online role-play (RP) or LARP before. The similarities are so striking that it has often been referred to as a LARP or ARG. However this beast is very very different from a game.

[…]

QAnon grows on the wild misinterpretation of random data, presented in a suggestive fashion in a milieu designed to help the users come to the intended misunderstanding. Maybe “guided apophenia” is a better phrase. Guided because the puppet masters are directly involved in hinting about the desired conclusions. They have pre-seeded the conclusions. They are constantly getting the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message Q is delivering.

A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon (Curioser Institute)

Ironically enough, the arc of my career, and many other knowledge workers like me, is to spot connections between similarly unrelated things.

As Dorian Taylor points out in his newsletter, there is a lot of money to be made as the ‘trusted intermediary’ between people and the information they desire.

The role of the intermediary is, nominally, to act as a trusted source, conduit, or steward of shared informational state. Being the trusted steward of shared informational state is functionally the same as owning it. Platform operators understand this in their bones, which is why they make their fiefdoms easy to join and hard to quit. And they do that by making the information you put into them hard to pry back out.

Setting the Tone for an Anti-Platform
(the making of Making Sense)

Taylor is talking mainly about platforms and standards, but the point remains that intermediaries only remain trusted so long as what they say is either objectively true (i.e. is ‘falsifiable’) or they can keep spinning the lies long enough.

In early 2021, we live in a world of what has become known as ‘fake news’ or ‘alternative facts’. As Caleb James DeLisle recently pointed out in an epic New Year’s Eve thread, however, is that there’s another way of understanding this as being a move away from what he calls ‘consensus reality’.

There are obviously facts which are beyond question: no matter how much you believe, jumping from a tall building will not make you fly. But social constructions accepted as truth are far more pervasive than most people think.

2020 is finally coming to a close, and like many people you probably cannot wait for this cursed year to be over. But did you stop to think that January 1st is only the boundary between years because Julius Caesar decreed it so? Social constructs are pervasive.

Caleb James DeLisle (Mastodon)

People having different ways of understanding the world is the default way that tribes of humans work. The scientific method, an agreement on objective facts, is a relatively new invention.

Since 2005, the hugely lucrative game that Big Tech has got us to play is adtech: behavioural modification through invasive advertising that tracks your every move. Now, though, we’re all at it, trying to modify one another’s behaviour to get the external world to adhere to the internal one we’ve created.


Quotation-as-title from Elizabeth Bransco. Image by Mari Helin.

See you in 2021!

Thought Shrapnel is now on its usual December hiatus, so see you next year for more links and thoughts on the intersection of technology and society!

Doug

A world without apps?

Steve Jobs standing next to a huge screen that shows the original iPhone. The words on the screen read "Your life in your pocket. The ultimate digital device."

When Steve Jobs demonstrated the iPhone in 2007, he didn’t show off the App Store. That’s because it didn’t exist.

The full Safari engine is inside of iPhone. And so, you can write amazing Web 2.0 and Ajax apps that look exactly and behave exactly like apps on the iPhone. And these apps can integrate perfectly with iPhone services. They can make a call, they can send an email, they can look up a location on Google Maps.

Steve Jobs

Jobs’ vision was for a world where web apps worked as well as native apps. Unfortunately, at the time, web technologies weren’t quite ready for his vision, so, almost as a temporary workaround, Apple invented a billion-dollar industry.

Writing in The New York Times, Shira Ovide reflects on the recent controversy around Epic Games and Apple, among other things, and wonders whether we actually need apps?

Apple and Google dictate much of what is allowed on the world’s phones. There are good outcomes from this, including those companies weeding out bad or dangerous apps and giving us one place to find them.

But this comes with unhappy side effects. Apple and Google charge a significant fee on many in-app purchases, and they’ve forced app makers into awkward workarounds. (Ever try to buy a Kindle e-book on an iPhone app? You can’t.) The growing complaints from app makers show that the downsides of app control may be starting to outweigh the benefits.

You know what’s free from Apple and Google’s iron grip? The web. Smartphones could lean on the web instead.

Shira Ovide, Imagine a World Without Apps (The new York Times)

It’s almost impossible for a small developer to get discovered in the Apple and Google app stores these days. As VentureBeat put it three years ago, “you have a better chance of making the NBA than making your app viral.”

Progressive Web Apps, or PWAs, make an alternative, web-centric world a reality. When Google launched its gaming service, Stadia, on iOS, it used a PWA to bypass the Apple App Store.

Screenshots showing Pinterest PWA being installed on a smartphone.
Image via Tigren

Organisations from Twitter and Tinder to the Financial Times have PWAs. Pinterest used it to increase the number of people installing their app by 45%.

This is about imagining an alternate reality where companies don’t need to devote money to creating apps that are tailored to iPhones and Android phones, can’t work on any other devices and obligate app makers to hand over a cut of each sale.

Maybe more smaller digital companies could thrive. Maybe our digital services would be cheaper and better. Maybe we’d have more than two dominant smartphone systems. Or maybe it would be terrible. We don’t know because we’ve mostly lived with unquestioned smartphone app dominance.

Shira Ovide, Imagine a World Without Apps (The new York Times)

Initiatives such as Mozilla’s Firefox OS were cursed with being too early to the market. Had they kept going, or if it were launching now, I think we’d see very different adoption rates.

As it is, and as Todd Weaver, CEO of Purism points out, it’s going to require a combination of both market dynamics and regulation to fix the current situation. Let’s get back to that original vision of the web as the platform for human flourishing.

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.

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:

‘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)

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!).