Tag: Cory Doctorow

The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge

So said Daniel J. Boorstin. It’s been an interesting week for those, like me, who follow the development of interaction between humans and machines. Specifically, people seem shocked that voice assistants are being used for health questions, also that the companies who make them employ people to listen to samples of voice recordings to make them better.

Before diving into that, let’s just zoom out a bit and remind ourselves that the average level of digital literacies in the general population is pretty poor. Sometimes I wonder how on earth VC-backed companies manage to burn through so much cash. Then I remember the contortions that those who design visual interfaces go through so that people don’t have to think.

Discussing ‘fake news’ and our information literacy problem in Forbes, you can almost feel Kalev Leetaru‘s eye-roll when he says:

It is the accepted truth of Silicon Valley that every problem has a technological solution.

Most importantly, in the eyes of the Valley, every problem can be solved exclusively through technology without requiring society to do anything on its own. A few algorithmic tweaks, a few extra lines of code and all the world’s problems can be simply coded out of existence.

Kalev Leetaru

It’s somewhat tangential to the point I want to make in this article, but Cory Doctorow makes a a good point in this regard about fake news for Locus

Fake news is an instrument for measuring trauma, and the epistemological incoherence that trauma creates – the justifiable mistrust of the establishment that has nearly murdered our planet and that insists that making the richest among us much, much richer will benefit everyone, eventually.

Cory Doctorow

Before continuing, I’d just like to say that I’ve got some skin in the voice assistant game, given that our home has no fewer that six devices that use the Google Assistant (ten if you count smartphones and tablets).

Voice assistants are pretty amazing when you know exactly what you want and can form a coherent query. It’s essentially just clicking the top link on a Google search result, without any of the effort of pointing and clicking. “Hey Google, do I need an umbrella today?”

However, some people are suspicious of voice assistants to a degree that borders on the superstitious. There’s perhaps some valid reasons if you know your tech, but if you’re of the opinion that your voice assistant is ‘always recording’ and literally sending everything to Amazon, Google, Apple, and/or Donald Trump then we need to have words. Just think about that for a moment, realise how ridiculous it is, and move on.

This week an article by VRT NWS stoked fears like these. It was cleverly written so that those who read it quickly could easily draw the conclusion that Google is listening to everything you say. However, let me carve out the key paragraphs:

Why is Google storing these recordings and why does it have employees listening to them? They are not interested in what you are saying, but the way you are saying it. Google’s computer system consists of smart, self-learning algorithms. And in order to understand the subtle differences and characteristics of the Dutch language, it still needs to learn a lot.


Speech recognition automatically generates a script of the recordings. Employees then have to double check to describe the excerpt as accurately as possible: is it a woman’s voice, a man’s voice or a child? What do they say? They write out every cough and every audible comma. These descriptions are constantly improving Google’s search engines, which results in better reactions to commands. One of our sources explains how this works.


Every other provider of speech recognition products does this. Obviously. How else would you manage to improve voice recognition in real-world situations? What VRS NWS did was to get a sub-contractor to break a Non-Disclosure Agreement (and violate GDPR) to share recordings.

Google responded on their blog The Keyword, saying:

As part of our work to develop speech technology for more languages, we partner with language experts around the world who understand the nuances and accents of a specific language. These language experts review and transcribe a small set of queries to help us better understand those languages. This is a critical part of the process of building speech technology, and is necessary to creating products like the Google Assistant.

We just learned that one of these language reviewers has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data. Our Security and Privacy Response teams have been activated on this issue, are investigating, and we will take action. We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again.

We apply a wide range of safeguards to protect user privacy throughout the entire review process. Language experts only review around 0.2 percent of all audio snippets. Audio snippets are not associated with user accounts as part of the review process, and reviewers are directed not to transcribe background conversations or other noises, and only to transcribe snippets that are directed to Google.

The Keyword

As I’ve said before, due to the GDPR actually having teeth (British Airways was fined £183m last week) I’m a lot happier to share my data with large companies than I was before the legislation came in. That’s the whole point.

The other big voice assistant story, in the UK at least, was that the National Health Service (NHS) is partnering with Amazon Alexa to offer health advice. The BBC reports:

From this week, the voice-assisted technology is automatically searching the official NHS website when UK users ask for health-related advice.

The government in England said it could reduce demand on the NHS.

Privacy campaigners have raised data protection concerns but Amazon say all information will be kept confidential.

The partnership was first announced last year and now talks are under way with other companies, including Microsoft, to set up similar arrangements.

Previously the device provided health information based on a variety of popular responses.

The use of voice search is on the increase and is seen as particularly beneficial to vulnerable patients, such as elderly people and those with visual impairment, who may struggle to access the internet through more traditional means.


So long as this is available to all types of voice assistants, this is great news. The number of people I know, including family members, who have convinced themselves they’ve got serious problems by spending ages searching their symptoms, is quite frightening. Getting sensible, prosaic advice is much better.

Iliana Magra writes in the The New York Times that privacy campaigners are concerned about Amazon setting up a health care division, but that there are tangible benefits to certain sections of the population.

The British health secretary, Matt Hancock, said Alexa could help reduce strain on doctors and pharmacists. “We want to empower every patient to take better control of their health care,” he said in a statement, “and technology like this is a great example of how people can access reliable, world-leading N.H.S. advice from the comfort of their home.”

His department added that voice-assistant advice would be particularly useful for “the elderly, blind and those who cannot access the internet through traditional means.”

Iliana Magra

I’m not dismissing the privacy issues, of course not. But what I’ve found, especially recently, is that the knowledge, skills, and expertise required to be truly ‘Google-free’ (or the equivalent) is an order of magnitude greater than what is realistically possible for the general population.

It might be fatalistic to ask the following question, but I’ll do it anyway: who exactly do we expect to be building these things? Mozilla, one of the world’s largest tech non-profits is conspicuously absent in these conversations, and somehow I don’t think people aren’t going to trust governments to get involved.

For years, techies have talked about ‘personal data vaults’ where you could share information in a granular way without being tracked. Currently being trialled is the BBC box to potentially help with some of this:

With a secure Databox at its heart, BBC Box offers something very unusual and potentially important: it is a physical device in the person’s home onto which personal data is gathered from a range of sources, although of course (and as mentioned above) it is only collected with the participants explicit permission, and processed under the person’s control.

Personal data is stored locally on the box’s hardware and once there, it can be processed and added to by other programmes running on the box – much like apps on a smartphone. The results of this processing might, for example be a profile of the sort of TV programmes someone might like or the sort of theatre they would enjoy. This is stored locally on the box – unless the person explicitly chooses to share it. No third party, not even the BBC itself, can access any data in ‘the box’ unless it is authorised by the person using it, offering a secure alternative to existing services which rely on bringing large quantities of personal data together in one place – with limited control by the person using it.


It’s an interesting concept and, if they can get the user experience right, a potentially groundbreaking concept. Eventually, of course, it will be in your smartphone, which means that device really will be a ‘digital self’.

You can absolutely opt-out of whatever you want. For example, I opt out of Facebook’s products (including WhatsApp and Instagram). You can point out to others the reasons for that, but at some point you have to realise it’s an opinion, a lifestyle choice, an ideology. Not everyone wants to be a tech vegan, or live their lives under those who act as though they are one.

The proper amount of wealth is that which neither descends to poverty nor is far distant from it

So said Seneca, in a quotation I found via the consistently-excellent New Philosopher magazine. In my experience, ‘wealth’ is a relative concept. I’ve met people who are, to my mind, fabulously well-off, but don’t feel it because their peers are wealthier. Likewise, I’ve met people who aren’t materially well-off, but don’t realise they’re poor because their friends and colleagues are too.

Let’s talk about inequality. Cory Doctorow, writing for BoingBoing, points to an Institute for Fiscal Studies report (PDF) by Robert Joyce and Xiaowei Xu that is surprisingly readable. They note cultural differences around inequality and its link to (perceived) meritocracy: 

A recent experiment found that people were much more accepting of inequality when it resulted from merit instead of luck (Almas, Cappelen and Tungodden, 2019). Given the opportunity to redistribute gains to others, people were significantly less likely to do so when differences in gains reflected differences in productivity. The experiment also revealed differences between countries in people’s views of what is fair, with more Norwegians opting for redistribution even when gains were merit-based and more Americans accepting inequality even when outcomes were due to luck.

This suggests that to understand whether inequality is a problem, we need to understand the sources of inequality, views of what is fair and the implications of inequality as well as the levels of inequality. Are present levels of inequalities due to well-deserved rewards or to unfair bargaining power, regulatory failure or political capture? Can meritocracy be unfair? What is the moral status of luck? And what if inequalities derived from a fair process in one generation are transmitted on to future generations?

Robert Joyce and Xiaowei Xu

Can meritocracy be unfair? Yes, of course it can, as I pointed out in this article from a few years back. To quote myself:

I’d like to see meritocracy consigned to the dustbin of history as an outdated approach to society. At a time in history when we seek to be inclusive, to recognise and celebrate diversity, the use of meritocratic practices seems reactionary and regressive. Meritocracy applies a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach that — no surprises here — just happens to privilege those already in positions of power.

Doug Belshaw

Doctorow also cites Chris Dillow, who outlines in a blog post eight reasons why inequality makes us poorer. Dillow explains that “what matters is not so much the level of inequality as the effect it has”. I’ve attempted to summarise his reasons below:

  1. “Inequality encourages the rich to invest not innovation but in… means of entrenching their privilege and power”
  2. “Unequal corporate hierarchies can demotivate junior employees”
  3. “Economic inequality leads to less trust”
  4. “Inequality can prevent productivity-enhancing change”
  5. “Inequality can cause the rich to be fearful of future redistribution or nationalization, which will make them loath to invest”
  6. “Inequalities of power… have allowed governments to abandon the aim of truly full employment and given firms more ability to boost profits by suppressing wages and conditions [which] has disincentivized investments in labour-saving technologies”
  7. “High-powered incentives that generate inequality within companies can backfire… [as] they encourage bosses to hit measured targets and neglect less measurable things”
  8. “High management pay can entrench… the ‘forces of conservatism’ which are antagonistic to technical progress”

Meanwhile, Eleanor Ainge Roy reports for The Guardian that the New Zealand government has unveiled a ‘wellbeing budget’ focused on “mental health services and child poverty as well as record investment in measures to tackle family violence”. Their finance minister is quoted by Roy as saying:

For me, wellbeing means people living lives of purpose, balance and meaning to them, and having the capabilities to do so.

This gap between rhetoric and reality, between haves and have-nots, between the elites and the people, has been exploited by populists around the globe.

Grant Robertson

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for government to act on inequality. We can seize the initiative ourselves through co-operation. In The Boston Globe, Andy Rosen explains that different ways of organising are becoming more popular:

The idea has been percolating for a while in some corners of the tech world, largely as a response to the gig economy, in which workers are often considered contractors and don’t get the same protections and benefits as employees. In New York, for example, Up & Go, a kind of Uber for house cleaning, is owned by the cleaners who provide the services.


People who have followed the co-op movement say the model, and a broader shift toward increased employee and consumer control, is likely to become more prominent in coming years, especially as aging baby boomers look for socially responsible ways to cash out and retire by selling their companies to groups of employees.

ANdy Rosen

Some of the means by which we can make society a fairer and more equal place come through government intervention at the policy level. But we should never forget the power we have through self-organising and co-operating together.

Also check out:

Cory Doctorow on Big Tech, monopolies, and decentralisation

I’m not one to watch a 30-minute video, as usually it’s faster and more interesting to read the transcription. I’ll always make an exception, however, for Cory Doctorow who not only speaks almost as fast as I can read, but is so enthusiastic and passionate about his work that it’s a lot more satisfying to see him speak.

You have to watch his keynote at the Decentralized Web Summit last month. It’s not only a history lesson and a warning, but he puts in ways that really make you see what the problem is. Inspiring stuff.

Source: Boing Boing

What the EU’s copyright directive means in practice

The EU is certainly coming out swinging against Big Tech this year. Or at least it thinks it is. Yesterday, the European Parliament voted in favour of three proposals, outlined by the EFF’s indefatigable Cory Doctorow as:

1. Article 13: the Copyright Filters. All but the smallest platforms will have to defensively adopt copyright filters that examine everything you post and censor anything judged to be a copyright infringement.

2. Article 11: Linking to the news using more than one word from the article is prohibited unless you’re using a service that bought a license from the news site you want to link to. News sites can charge anything they want for the right to quote them or refuse to sell altogether, effectively giving them the right to choose who can criticise them. Member states are permitted, but not required, to create exceptions and limitations to reduce the harm done by this new right.

3. Article 12a: No posting your own photos or videos of sports matches. Only the “organisers” of sports matches will have the right to publicly post any kind of record of the match. No posting your selfies, or short videos of exciting plays. You are the audience, your job is to sit where you’re told, passively watch the game and go home.

Music Week pointed out that Article 13 is particularly problematic for artists:

While the Copyright Directive covers a raft of digital issues, a sticking point within the music industry had been the adoption of Article 13 which seeks to put the responsibility on online platforms to police copyright in advance of posting user generated content on their services, either by restricting posts or by obtaining full licenses for copyrighted material.

The proof of the pudding, as The Verge points out, will be in the interpretation and implementation by EU member states:

However, those backing these provisions say the arguments above are the result of scaremongering by big US tech companies, eager to keep control of the web’s biggest platforms. They point to existing laws and amendments to the directive as proof it won’t be abused in this way. These include exemptions for sites like GitHub and Wikipedia from Article 13, and exceptions to the “link tax” that allow for the sharing of mere hyperlinks and “individual words” describing articles without constraint.

I can’t help but think this is a ham-fisted way of dealing with a non-problem. As Doctorow also states, part of the issue here is the assumption that competition in a free market is at the core of creativity. I’d argue that’s untrue, that culture is built by respectfully appropriating and building on the work of others. These proposals, as they currently stand (and as I currently understand them) actively undermine internet culture.

Source: Music Week / EFF / The Verge

Cory Doctorow on the corruption at the heart of Facebook

I like Cory Doctorow. He’s a gifted communicator who wears his heart on his sleeve. In this article, he talks about Facebook and how what it’s wrought is a result of the corruption at its very heart.

It’s great that the privacy-matters message is finally reaching a wider audience, and it’s exciting to think that we’re approaching a tipping point for indifference to privacy and surveillance.

But while the acknowledgment of the problem of Big Tech is most welcome, I am worried that the diagnosis is wrong.

The problem is that we’re confusing automated persuasion with automated targeting. Laughable lies about Brexit, Mexican rapists, and creeping Sharia law didn’t convince otherwise sensible people that up was down and the sky was green.

Rather, the sophisticated targeting systems available through Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other Big Tech ad platforms made it easy to find the racist, xenophobic, fearful, angry people who wanted to believe that foreigners were destroying their country while being bankrolled by George Soros.

So, for example, people seem to think that Facebook advertisement caused people to vote for Trump. As if they were going to vote for someone else, and then changed their mind as a direct result of viewing ads. That’s not how it works.

Companies such as Cambridge Analytica might claim that they can rig elections and change people’s minds, but they’re not actually that sophisticated.

Cambridge Analytica are like stage mentalists: they’re doing something labor-intensive and pretending that it’s something supernatural. A stage mentalist will train for years to learn to quickly memorize a deck of cards and then claim that they can name your card thanks to their psychic powers. You never see the unglamorous, unimpressive memorization practice. Cambridge Analytica uses Facebook to find racist jerks and tell them to vote for Trump and then they claim that they’ve discovered a mystical way to get otherwise sensible people to vote for maniacs.

This isn’t to say that persuasion is impossible. Automated disinformation campaigns can flood the channel with contradictory, seemingly plausible accounts for the current state of affairs, making it hard for a casual observer to make sense of events. Long-term repetition of a consistent narrative, even a manifestly unhinged one, can create doubt and find adherents – think of climate change denial, or George Soros conspiracies, or the anti-vaccine movement.

These are long, slow processes, though, that make tiny changes in public opinion over the course of years, and they work best when there are other conditions that support them – for example, fascist, xenophobic, and nativist movements that are the handmaidens of austerity and privation. When you don’t have enough for a long time, you’re ripe for messages blaming your neighbors for having deprived you of your fair share.

Advertising and influencing works best when you provide a message that people already agree with in a way that they can easily share with others. The ‘long, slow processes’ that Doctorow refers to have been practised offline as well (think of Nazi propaganda, for example). Dark adverts on Facebook are tapping into feelings and reactions that aren’t peculiar to the digital world.

Facebook has thrived by providing ways for people to connect and communicate with one another. Unfortunately, because they’re so focused on profit over people, they’ve done a spectacularly bad job at making sure that the spaces in which people connect are healthy spaces that respect democracy.

There’s an old-fashioned word for this: corruption. In corrupt systems, a few bad actors cost everyone else billions in order to bring in millions – the savings a factory can realize from dumping pollution in the water supply are much smaller than the costs we all bear from being poisoned by effluent. But the costs are widely diffused while the gains are tightly concentrated, so the beneficiaries of corruption can always outspend their victims to stay clear.

Facebook doesn’t have a mind-control problem, it has a corruption problem. Cambridge Analytica didn’t convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters.

That last phrase is right on the money.

Source: Locus magazine

No-one wants a single identity, online or offline

It makes sense for companies reliant on advertising to not only get as much data as they can about you, but to make sure that you have a single identity on their platform to which to associate it.

This article by Cory Doctorow in BoingBoing reports on some research around young people and social media. As Doctorow states:

Social media has always had a real-names problem. Social media companies want their users to use their real names because it makes it easier to advertise to them. Users want to be able to show different facets of their identities to different people, because only a sociopath interacts with their boss, their kids, and their spouse in the same way.

I was talking to one of my Moodle colleagues about how, in our mid-thirties, we’re a ‘bridging’ generation between those who only went online in adulthood, and those who have only ever known a world with the internet. I got online for the first time when I was about fourteen or fifteen.

Those younger than me are well aware of the perils and pitfalls of a single online identity:

Amy Lancaster from the Journalism and Digital Communications school at the University of Central Lancashire studies the way that young people resent “the way Facebook ties them into a fixed self…[linking] different areas of a person’s life, carrying over from school to university to work.”

I think Doctorow has made an error around Amy’s surname, which is given as ‘Binns’ instead of ‘Lancaster’ both in the journal article and the original post.

Binns writes:

Young people know their future employers, parents and grandparents are present online, and so they behave accordingly. And it’s not only older people that affect behaviour.

My research shows young people dislike the way Facebook ties them into a fixed self. Facebook insists on real names and links different areas of a person’s life, carrying over from school to university to work. This arguably restricts the freedom to explore new identities – one of the key benefits of the web.

The desire for escapable transience over damning permanence has driven Snapchat’s success, precisely because it’s a messaging app that allows users to capture videos and pictures that are quickly removed from the service.

This is important for the work I’m leading around Project MoodleNet. It’s not just teenagers who want “escapable transience over damning permanence”.

Source: BoingBoing

Attention is an arms race

Cory Doctorow writes:

There is a war for your attention, and like all adversarial scenarios, the sides develop new countermeasures and then new tactics to overcome those countermeasures.

Using a metaphor from virology, he notes that we become to immune to certain types of manipulation over time:

When a new attentional soft spot is discovered, the world can change overnight. One day, every­one you know is signal boosting, retweeting, and posting Upworthy headlines like “This video might hurt to watch. Luckily, it might also explain why,” or “Most Of These People Do The Right Thing, But The Guys At The End? I Wish I Could Yell At Them.” The style was compelling at first, then reductive and simplistic, then annoying. Now it’s ironic (at best). Some people are definitely still susceptible to “This Is The Most Inspiring Yet Depressing Yet Hilarious Yet Horrifying Yet Heartwarming Grad Speech,” but the rest of us have adapted, and these headlines bounce off of our attention like pre-penicillin bacteria being batted aside by our 21st century immune systems.

However, the thing I’m concerned about is the kind of AI-based manipulation that is forever shape-shifting. How do we become immune to a moving target?

Source: Locus magazine