Tag: Audrey Watters (page 1 of 3)

Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted

So said Aldous Huxley. Recently, I discovered a episode of the podcast The Science of Success in which Dan Carlin was interviewed. Now Dan is the host of one of my favourite podcasts, Hardcore History as well as one he’s recently discontinued called Common Sense.

The reason the latter is on ‘indefinite hiatus’ was discussed on The Science of Success podcast. Dan feels that, after 30 years as a journalist, if he can’t get a grip on the current information landscape, then who can? It’s shaken him up a little.

One of the quotations he just gently lobbed into the conversation was from John Stuart Mill, who at one time or another was accused by someone of being ‘inconsistent’ in his views. Mill replied:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

John Stuart Mill

Now whether or not Mill said those exact words, the sentiment nevertheless stands. I reckon human beings have always made up their minds first and then chosen ‘facts’ to support their opinions. These days, I just think that it’s easier than ever to find ‘news’ outlets and people sharing social media posts to support your worldview. It’s as simple as that.


Last week I watched a stand-up comedy routine by Kevin Bridges on BBC iPlayer as part of his 2018 tour. As a Glaswegian, he made the (hilarious) analogy of social media as being like going into a pub.

(As an aside, this is interesting, as a decade ago people would often use the analogy of using social media as being like going to an café. The idea was that you could overhear, and perhaps join in with, interesting conversations that you hear. No-one uses that analogy any more.)

Bridges pointed out that if you entered a pub, sat down for a quiet pint, and the person next to you was trying to flog you Herbalife products, constantly talking about how #blessed they felt, or talking ambiguously for the sake of attention, you’d probably find another pub.

He was doing it for laughs, but I think he was also making a serious point. Online, we tolerate people ranting on and generally being obnoxious in ways we would never do offline.

The underlying problem of course is that any platform that takes some segment of the real world and brings it into software will also bring in all that segment’s problems. Amazon took products and so it has to deal with bad and fake products (whereas one might say that Facebook took people, and so has bad and fake people).

Benedict Evans

I met Clay Shirky at an event last month, which kind of blew my mind given that it was me speaking at it rather than him. After introducing myself, we spoke for a few minutes about everything from his choice of laptop to what he’s been working on recently. Curiously, he’s not writing a book at the moment. After a couple of very well-received books (Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus) Shirky has actually only published a slightly obscure book about Chinese smartphone manufacturing since 2010.

While I didn’t have time to dig into things there and then, and it would been a bit presumptuous of me to do so, it feels to me like Shirky may have ‘walked back’ some of his pre-2010 thoughts. This doesn’t surprise me at all, given that many of the rest of us have, too. For example, in 2014 he published a Medium article explaining why he banned his students from using laptops in lectures. Such blog posts and news articles are common these days, but it felt like was one of the first.


The last decade from 2010 to 2019, which Audrey Watters has done a great job of eviscerating, was, shall we say, somewhat problematic. The good news is that we connected 4.5 billion people to the internet. The bad news is that we didn’t really harness that for much good. So we went from people sharing pictures of cats, to people sharing pictures of cats and destroying western democracy.

Other than the ‘bad and fake people’ problem cited by Ben Evans above, another big problem was the rise of surveillance capitalism. In a similar way to climate change, this has been repackaged as a series of individual failures on the part of end users. But, as Lindsey Barrett explains for Fast Company, it’s not really our fault at all:

In some ways, the tendency to blame individuals simply reflects the mistakes of our existing privacy laws, which are built on a vision of privacy choices that generally considers the use of technology to be a purely rational decision, unconstrained by practical limitations such as the circumstances of the user or human fallibility. These laws are guided by the idea that providing people with information about data collection practices in a boilerplate policy statement is a sufficient safeguard. If people don’t like the practices described, they don’t have to use the service.

Lindsey Barrett

The problem is that we have monopolistic practices in the digital world. Fast Company also reports the four most downloaded apps of the 2010s were all owned by Facebook:

I don’t actually think people really understand that their data from WhatsApp and Instagram is being hoovered up by Facebook. I don’t then think they understand what Facebook then do with that data. I tried to lift the veil on this a little bit at the event where I met Clay Shirky. I know at least one person who immediately deleted their Facebook account as a result of it. But I suspect everyone else will just keep on keeping on. And yes, I have been banging my drum about this for quite a while now. I’ll continue to do so.

The truth is, and this is something I’ll be focusing on in upcoming workshops I’m running on digital literacies, that to be an ‘informed citizen’ these days means reading things like the EFF’s report into the current state of corporate surveillance. It means deleting accounts as a result. It means slowing down, taking time, and reading stuff before sharing it on platforms that you know care for the many, not the few. It means actually caring about this stuff.

All of this might just look and feel like a series of preferences. I prefer decentralised social networks and you prefer Facebook. Or I like to use Signal and you like WhatsApp. But it’s more than that. It’s a whole lot more than that. Democracy as we know it is at stake here.


As Prof. Scott Galloway has discussed from an American point of view, we’re living in times of increasing inequality. The tools we’re using exacerbate that inequality. All of a sudden you have to be amazing at your job to even be able to have a decent quality of life:

The biggest losers of the decade are the unremarkables. Our society used to give remarkable opportunities to unremarkable kids and young adults. Some of the crowding out of unremarkable white males, including myself, is a good thing. More women are going to college, and remarkable kids from low-income neighborhoods get opportunities. But a middle-class kid who doesn’t learn to code Python or speak Mandarin can soon find she is not “tracking” and can’t catch up.

Prof. Scott Galloway

I shared an article last Friday, about how you shouldn’t have to be good at your job. The whole point of society is that we look after one another, not compete with one another to see which of us can ‘extract the most value’ and pile up more money than he or she can ever hope to spend. Yes, it would be nice if everyone was awesome at all they did, but the optimisation of everything isn’t the point of human existence.

So once we come down the stack from social networks, to surveillance capitalism, to economic and markets eating the world we find the real problem behind all of this: decision-making. We’ve sacrificed stability for speed, and seem to be increasingly happy with dictator-like behaviour in both our public institutions and corporate lives.

Dictatorships can be more efficient than democracies because they don’t have to get many people on board to make a decision. Democracies, by contrast, are more robust, but at the cost of efficiency.

Taylor Pearson

A selectorate, according to Pearson, “represents the number of people who have influence in a government, and thus the degree to which power is distributed”. Aside from the fact that dictatorships tend to be corrupt and oppressive, they’re just not a good idea in terms of decision-making:

Said another way, much of what appears efficient in the short term may not be efficient but hiding risk somewhere, creating the potential for a blow-up. A large selectorate tends to appear to be working less efficiently in the short term, but can be more robust in the long term, making it more efficient in the long term as well. It is a story of the Tortoise and the Hare: slow and steady may lose the first leg, but win the race.

Taylor Pearson

I don’t think we should be optimising human beings for their role in markets. I think we should be optimising markets (if in fact we need them) for their role in human flourishing. The best way of doing that is to ensure that we distribute power and decision-making well.


So it might seem that my continual ragging on Facebook (in particular) is a small thing in the bigger picture. But it’s actually part of the whole deal. When we have super-powerful individuals whose companies have the ability to surveil us at will; who then share that data to corrupt regimes; who in turn reinforce the worst parts of the status quo; then I think we have a problem.

This year I’ve made a vow to be more radical. To speak my mind even more, and truth to power, especially when it’s inconvenient. I hope you’ll join me ✊

Friday flowerings

Did you see these things this week?

  • Happy 25th year, blogging. You’ve grown up, but social media is still having a brawl (The Guardian) — “The furore over social media and its impact on democracy has obscured the fact that the blogosphere not only continues to exist, but also to fulfil many of the functions of a functioning public sphere. And it’s massive. One source, for example, estimates that more than 409 million people view more than 20bn blog pages each month and that users post 70m new posts and 77m new comments each month. Another source claims that of the 1.7 bn websites in the world, about 500m are blogs. And WordPress.com alone hosts blogs in 120 languages, 71% of them in English.”
  • Emmanuel Macron Wants to Scan Your Face (The Washington Post) — “President Emmanuel Macron’s administration is set to be the first in Europe to use facial recognition when providing citizens with a secure digital identity for accessing more than 500 public services online… The roll-out is tainted by opposition from France’s data regulator, which argues the electronic ID breaches European Union rules on consent – one of the building blocks of the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation laws – by forcing everyone signing up to the service to use the facial recognition, whether they like it or not.”
  • This is your phone on feminism (The Conversationalist) — “Our devices are basically gaslighting us. They tell us they work for and care about us, and if we just treat them right then we can learn to trust them. But all the evidence shows the opposite is true. This cognitive dissonance confuses and paralyses us. And look around. Everyone has a smartphone. So it’s probably not so bad, and anyway, that’s just how things work. Right?”
  • Google’s auto-delete tools are practically worthless for privacy (Fast Company) — “In reality, these auto-delete tools accomplish little for users, even as they generate positive PR for Google. Experts say that by the time three months rolls around, Google has already extracted nearly all the potential value from users’ data, and from an advertising standpoint, data becomes practically worthless when it’s more than a few months old.”
  • Audrey Watters (Uses This) — “For me, the ideal set-up is much less about the hardware or software I am using. It’s about the ideas that I’m thinking through and whether or not I can sort them out and shape them up in ways that make for a good piece of writing. Ideally, that does require some comfort — a space for sustained concentration. (I know better than to require an ideal set up in order to write. I’d never get anything done.)”
  • Computer Files Are Going Extinct (OneZero) — “Files are skeuomorphic. That’s a fancy word that just means they’re a digital concept that mirrors a physical item. A Word document, for example, is like a piece of paper, sitting on your desk(top). A JPEG is like a painting, and so on. They each have a little icon that looks like the physical thing they represent. A pile of paper, a picture frame, a manila folder. It’s kind of charming really.”
  • Why Technologists Fail to Think of Moderation as a Virtue and Other Stories About AI (The LA Review of Books) — “Speculative fiction about AI can move us to think outside the well-trodden clichés — especially when it considers how technologies concretely impact human lives — through the influence of supersized mediators, like governments and corporations.”
  • Inside Mozilla’s 18-month effort to market without Facebook (Digiday) — “The decision to focus on data privacy in marketing the Mozilla brand came from research conducted by the company four years ago into the rise of consumers who make values-based decisions on not only what they purchase but where they spend their time.”
  • Core human values not eyeballs (Cubic Garden) — “Theres so much more to do, but the aims are high and important for not just the BBC, but all public service entities around the world. Measuring the impact and quality on peoples lives beyond the shallow meaningless metrics for public service is critical.”

Image: The why is often invisible via Jessica Hagy’s Indexed

Our nature is such that the common duties of human relationships occupy a great part of the course of our life

Michel de Montaigne, one of my favourite writers, had a very good friend, a ‘soulmate’ in the form of Étienne de la Boétie. He seems to have been quite the character, and an early influence for anarchist thought, before dying of the plague in 1563 at the age of 32.

His main work is translated into English as The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude where he suggests that the reason we get tyrants and other oppressors is because we, the people, allow them to have power over us. It all seems very relevant to our times, despite being written around 450 years ago!

We live in a time of what Patrick Stokes in New Philosopher calls ‘false media balance’. It’s worth quoting at length, I think:

The problem is that very often the controversy in question is over whether there even is a controversy to begin with. Some people think the world is flat: does that mean the shape of the world is a controversial topic? If you think the mere fact of disagreement means there’s a controversy there, then pretty much any topic you care to mention will turn out to be controversial if you look hard enough. But in a more substantial sense, there’s no real controversy here at all. The scientific journals aren’t full of heated arguments over the shape of the planet. The university geography departments aren’t divided into warring camps of flattists and spherists. There is no serious flat-earth research program in the geology literature.

So far, so obvious. But think about certain other scientific ‘controversies’ where competing arguments do get media time, such as climate change, or the safety and efficacy of vaccination. On the one side you have the overwhelming weight of expert opinion; on the other side amateur, bad-faith pseudoscience. In the substantial sense there aren’t even ‘two sides’ here after all.

Yet that’s not what we see; we just see two talking heads, offering competing views. The very fact both ‘heads’ were invited to speak suggests someone, somewhere has decided they are worth listening to. In other words, the very format implicitly drags every viewpoint to the same level and treats them as serious candidates for being true. That’s fine, you might reply: sapere aude! Smart and savvy viewers will see the bad arguments or shoddy claims for what they are, right? Except there’s some evidence that precisely the opposite happens. The message that actually sticks with viewers is not “the bad or pseudoscientific arguments are nonsense”, but rather that “there’s a real controversy here”.

There’s a name for this levelling phenomenon: false balance. The naïve view of balance versus bias contains no room for ‘true’ versus ‘false’ balance. Introducing a truth-value means we are not simply talking about neutrality anymore – which, as we’ve seen, nobody can or should achieve fully anyway. False balance occurs when we let in views that haven’t earned their place, or treat non-credible views as deserving the same seat at the table.

To avoid false balance, the media needs to make important and context-sensitive discriminations about what is a credible voice and what isn’t. They need balance as a verb, rather than a noun. To balance is an act, one that requires ongoing effort and constant readjustment. The risk, after all, is falling – perhaps right off the edge of the world.

Patrick Stokes

For many people, we receive a good proportion of our news via social networks. This means that, instead of being filtered by the mainstream media (who are doing a pretty bad job), the news it’s filtered by all of us, who are extremely partisan. We share things that validate our political, economic, moral, and social beliefs, and rail against those who state the opposite.

While we can wring our hands about the free speech aspect of this, it’s important to note the point that’s being made by the xkcd cartoon that accompanies today’s article: we don’t have to listen to other people if we don’t want to.

In a great post from 2015, Audrey Watters explains how she uses some auto-blocking apps to make her continued existence on Twitter tolerable. Again, it’s worth quoting at length:

I currently block around 3800 accounts on Twitter.

By using these automated blocking tools – particularly blocking accounts with few followers – I know that I’ve blocked a few folks in error. Teachers new to Twitter are probably the most obvious example. Of course, if someone feels as though I’ve accidentally blocked them, they can still contact me through other means. (And sometimes they do. And sometimes I unblock.)

But I’m not going to give up this little bit of safety and sanity I’ve found thanks to these collaborative blocking tools for fear of upsetting a handful of people who have mistakenly ended up being blocked by me. I’m sorry. I’m just not.

And I’m not in the least bit worried that, by blocking accounts, I’m somehow trapping myself in a “filter bubble.” I don’t need to be exposed to harassment and violence to know that harassment and violence are rampant. I don’t need to be exposed to racism and misogyny to know that racism and misogyny exist. I see that shit, I live that shit already daily, whether I block accounts on social media or not.

My blocking trolls doesn’t damage civic discourse; indeed, it helps me be able to be a part of it. Despite all the talk about the Internet and democratization of ideas and voices, the architecture of many of the technologies we use is designed to amplify certain ideas and voices and silence others, protect certain voices, expose others to violence. My blocking trolls doesn’t silence anybody. But it does help me have the stamina to maintain my voice.

People need not feel bad about blocking, worry that it’s impolitic or impolite. It’s already hard work to be online. Often, it’s emotional work. (And it’s work we do for free, I might add.) People – particularly people of color, women, marginalized groups – shouldn’t have to take on the extra work of dealing with abusers and harassers and trolls. Block. Block. Block. Save your energy for other battles, ones that you choose to engage in.

Audrey Watters

Blocking on the individual level is one thing, but what about whole instances running social networking software blocking other instances with which they’re technically interoperable?

There’s some really interesting conversations happening on the Fediverse at the moment. A ‘free speech’ social network called Gab, which was was forced to shut down as a centralised service will be soon relaunching as a fork of Mastodon.

In practice, this means that Gab can’t easily be easily shut down, and there’s many people on Mastodon, Pleroma, Misskey, and other social networks that make up the Fediverse, who are concerned about that. Those who have found a home on the Fediverse are disproportionately likely to have met with trolling, bullying, and abuse on centralised services such as Twitter.

Any service like Gab that’s technically compatible with popular Fediverse services such as Mastodon can, by default, piggyback on the latter’s existing ecosystem of apps. Some of these apps have decided to fight back. For example Tusky has taken a stand, as can be seen by this update from its main developer:

Before I go off to celebrate Midsummer by being in bed sick (Swedish woes), I want to share a small update.

Tusky will keep blocking servers which actively promote fascism. This in particular means Gab.

We will get our next release out just in time for the 4th of July.

Don’t even try to debate us about Free Speech. This is our speech, exercising #ANTIFA views. And we will keep doing it

We will post a bigger update at a later time about what this all really means.

@Tusky@mastodon.social

Some may wonder why, exactly, there’s such a problem here. After all, can’t individual users do what Audrey Watters is doing with Twitter, and block people on the individual level — either automatically, or manually?

The problem is that, due to practices such as sealioning, certain communities ‘sniff blood’ and then pile on:

Sealioning (also spelled sea-lioning and sea lioning) is a type of trolling or harassment which consists of pursuing people with persistent requests for evidence or repeated questions, while maintaining a pretense of civility. It may take the form of “incessant, bad-faith invitations to engage in debate”.

Wikipedia

So it feels like we’re entering a time with the balkanisation of the internet because of geo-politics (the so-called Splinternet), but also a retreat into online social interactions that are more… bounded.

It’s going to be interesting to see where the next 18 months takes us, I think. I can definitely see a decline in centralised social networks, especially among certain demographics. If I’m correct, and these people end up on federated social networks, then it’s up to those of already there to set not only the technical standards, but the moral standards, too.


Also check out:

  • The secret rules of the internet (The Verge) — “The moderators of these platforms — perched uneasily at the intersection of corporate profits, social responsibility, and human rights — have a powerful impact on free speech, government dissent, the shaping of social norms, user safety, and the meaning of privacy. What flagged content should be removed? Who decides what stays and why? What constitutes newsworthiness? Threat? Harm? When should law enforcement be involved?”
  • The New Wilderness (Idle Words) — “Ambient privacy is not a property of people, or of their data, but of the world around us. Just like you can’t drop out of the oil economy by refusing to drive a car, you can’t opt out of the surveillance economy by forswearing technology (and for many people, that choice is not an option). While there may be worthy reasons to take your life off the grid, the infrastructure will go up around you whether you use it or not.”
  • IQ rates are dropping in many developed countries and that doesn’t bode well for humanity (Think) — “Details vary from study to study and from place to place given the available data. IQ shortfalls in Norway and Denmark appear in longstanding tests of military conscripts, whereas information about France is based on a smaller sample and a different test. But the broad pattern has become clearer: Beginning around the turn of the 21st century, many of the most economically advanced nations began experiencing some kind of decline in IQ.”

Header image via xkcd