Quotation-as-title by Elizabeth Bransco. Image from top-linked post.
Tag: Ian Bogost
Pandemics, remote work, and global phase shifts
Last week, I tweeted this:
I get the feeling that, between film and TV shows on Netflix, Amazon deliveries, and social interaction on Twitter and Mastodon, beyond close friends and family, no-one would even realise if I’d been quarantined.
Writing in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost points out that Every Place Is the Same Now, because you go to every place with your personal screen, a digital portal to the wider world.
Anywhere has become as good as anywhere else. The office is a suitable place for tapping out emails, but so is the bed, or the toilet. You can watch television in the den—but also in the car, or at the coffee shop, turning those spaces into impromptu theaters. Grocery shopping can be done via an app while waiting for the kids’ recital to start. Habits like these compress time, but they also transform space. Nowhere feels especially remarkable, and every place adopts the pleasures and burdens of every other. It’s possible to do so much from home, so why leave at all?Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)
If you’re a knowledge worker, someone who deals with ideas and virtual objects rather than things in ‘meatspace’, then there is nothing tying you to a particular geographical place. This may be liberating, but it’s also quite… weird.
It’s easy but disorienting, and it makes the home into a very strange space. Until the 20th century, one had to leave the house for almost anything: to work, to eat or shop, to entertain yourself, to see other people. For decades, a family might have a single radio, then a few radios and a single television set. The possibilities available outside the home were far greater than those within its walls. But now, it’s not merely possible to do almost anything from home—it’s also the easiest option. Our forebears’ problem has been inverted: Now home is a prison of convenience that we need special help to escape.Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)
I’ve worked from home for the last eight years, and now can’t imagine going back to working any other way. Granted, I get to travel pretty much every month, but that 95% being-at-home statistic still includes my multi-day international trips.
I haven’t watched it recently, but in 2009 a film called Surrogates starring Bruce Willis foreshadowed the kind of world we’re creating. Here’s the synopsis via IMDB:
People are living their lives remotely from the safety of their own homes via robotic surrogates — sexy, physically perfect mechanical representations of themselves. It’s an ideal world where crime, pain, fear and consequences don’t exist. When the first murder in years jolts this utopia, FBI agent Greer discovers a vast conspiracy behind the surrogate phenomenon and must abandon his own surrogate, risking his life to unravel the mystery.IMDB
If we replace the word ‘robotic’ with ‘virtual’ in this plot summary, then it’s a close approximation to the world in which some of us now live. Facetuned Instagram selfies project a perfect life. We construct our own narratives and then believe the story we have concocted. Everything is amazing but no-one’s happy.
Even Zoom, the videoconferencing software I use most days for work, has an option to smooth out wrinkles, change your background, and make everything look a bit more sparkly. Our offline lives can be gloriously mundane, but online, thanks to various digital effects, we can make them look glorious. And why wouldn’t we?
I think we’ll see people and businesses optimising for how they look and sound online, including recruitment. The ability to communicate effectively at a distance with people who you may never meet in person is a skill that’s going to be in high demand, if it isn’t already.
Remote working may be a trend, but one which is stubbornly resisted by some bosses who are convinced they have to keep a close eye on employees to get any work out of them.
However, when those bosses are forced to implement remote working policies to keep their businesses afloat, and nothing bad happens as a result, this attitude can, and probably will, change. Remote working, when done properly, is not only more cost-effective for businesses, but often leads to higher productivity and self-reported worker happiness.
Being ‘good in the room‘ is fine, and I’m sure it will always be highly prized, but I also see confident, open working practices as something that’s rising in perceived value. Chairing successful online meetings is at least as important as chairing ones offline, for example. We need to think of ways of being able recognise these remote working skills, as it’s not something in which you can receive a diploma.
For workers, of course, there are so many benefits of working from home that I’m not even sure where to start. Your health, relationships, and happiness are just three things that are likely to dramatically improve when you start working remotely.
For example, let’s just take the commute. This dominates the lives of non-remote workers, usually taking an hour or more out of a their day — every day. Commuting is tiring and inconvenient, but people are currently willing to put up with long commutes to afford a decently-sized house, or to live in a nicer area.
So, let’s imagine that because of the current pandemic (which some are calling the world’s biggest remote-working experiment) businesses decide that having their workers being based from home has multi-faceted benefits. What happens next?
Well, if a large percentage (say we got up to ~50%) of the working population started working remotely over the next few months and years, this would have a knock-on effect. We’d see changes in:
- House prices
- Community cohesion
- High street
- Home delivery
…to name but a few. I think it would be a huge net benefit for society, and hopefully allow for much greater civic engagement and democratic participation.
I’ll conclude with a quotation from Nafeez Ahmed’s excellent (long!) post on what he’s calling a global phase shift. Medium says it’s a 30-minute read, but I reckon it’s about half that.
Ahmed points out in stark detail the crisis, potential future scenarios, and the opportunity we’ve got. I particularly appreciate his focus on the complete futility of what he calls “a raw, ‘fend for yourself’ approach”. We must work together to solve the world’s problems.
The coronavirus outbreak is, ultimately, a lesson in not just the inherent systemic fragilities in industrial civilization, but also the limits of its underlying paradigm. This is a paradigm premised on a specific theory of human nature, the neoclassical view of Homo-Economicus, human beings as dislocated units which compete with each other to maximise their material self-gratification through endless consumption and production. That paradigm and its values have brought us so far in our journey as a species, but they have long outlasted their usefulness and now threaten to undermine our societies, and even our survival as a species.
Getting through coronavirus will be an exercise not just in building societal resilience, but relearning the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values. It is high time to recognize that such ethical values are not simply human constructs, products of socialization. They are cognitive categories which reflect patterns of behaviour in individuals and organizations that have an evolutionary, adaptive function. In the global phase shift, systems which fail to incorporate these values into their structures will eventually die.Nafeez Ahmed
Just as crises can be manufactured by totalitarian regimes to seize power and control populations, perhaps natural crises can be used to make us collectively realise we need to pull together?
So said Sydney Smith. Let’s talk about surveillance. Let’s talk about surveillance capitalism and surveillance humanitarianism. But first, let’s talk about machine learning and algorithms; in other words, let’s talk about what happens after all of that data is collected.
Writing in The Guardian, Sarah Marsh investigates local councils using “automated guidance systems” in an attempt to save money.
The systems are being deployed to provide automated guidance on benefit claims, prevent child abuse and allocate school places. But concerns have been raised about privacy and data security, the ability of council officials to understand how some of the systems work, and the difficulty for citizens in challenging automated decisions.Sarah Marsh
The trouble is, they’re not particularly effective:
It has emerged North Tyneside council has dropped TransUnion, whose system it used to check housing and council tax benefit claims. Welfare payments to an unknown number of people were wrongly delayed when the computer’s “predictive analytics” erroneously identified low-risk claims as high risk
Meanwhile, Hackney council in east London has dropped Xantura, another company, from a project to predict child abuse and intervene before it happens, saying it did not deliver the expected benefits. And Sunderland city council has not renewed a £4.5m data analytics contract for an “intelligence hub” provided by Palantir.Sarah Marsh
When I was at Mozilla there were a number of colleagues there who had worked on the OFA (Obama For America) campaign. I remember one of them, a DevOps guy, expressing his concern that the infrastructure being built was all well and good when there’s someone ‘friendly’ in the White House, but what comes next.
Well, we now know what comes next, on both sides of the Atlantic, and we can’t put that genie back in its bottle. Swingeing cuts by successive Conservative governments over here, coupled with the Brexit time-and-money pit means that there’s no attention or cash left.
If we stop and think about things for a second, we probably wouldn’t don’t want to live in a world where machines make decisions for us, based on algorithms devised by nerds. As Rose Eveleth discusses in a scathing article for Vox, this stuff isn’t ‘inevitable’ — nor does it constitute a process of ‘natural selection’:
Often consumers don’t have much power of selection at all. Those who run small businesses find it nearly impossible to walk away from Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, Etsy, even Amazon. Employers often mandate that their workers use certain apps or systems like Zoom, Slack, and Google Docs. “It is only the hyper-privileged who are now saying, ‘I’m not going to give my kids this,’ or, ‘I’m not on social media,’” says Rumman Chowdhury, a data scientist at Accenture. “You actually have to be so comfortable in your privilege that you can opt out of things.”
And so we’re left with a tech world claiming to be driven by our desires when those decisions aren’t ones that most consumers feel good about. There’s a growing chasm between how everyday users feel about the technology around them and how companies decide what to make. And yet, these companies say they have our best interests in mind. We can’t go back, they say. We can’t stop the “natural evolution of technology.” But the “natural evolution of technology” was never a thing to begin with, and it’s time to question what “progress” actually means.Rose Eveleth
I suppose the thing that concerns me the most is people in dire need being subject to impersonal technology for vital and life-saving aid.
For example, Mark Latonero, writing in The New York Times, talks about the growing dangers around what he calls ‘surveillance humanitarianism’:
By surveillance humanitarianism, I mean the enormous data collection systems deployed by aid organizations that inadvertently increase the vulnerability of people in urgent need.
Despite the best intentions, the decision to deploy technology like biometrics is built on a number of unproven assumptions, such as, technology solutions can fix deeply embedded political problems. And that auditing for fraud requires entire populations to be tracked using their personal data. And that experimental technologies will work as planned in a chaotic conflict setting. And last, that the ethics of consent don’t apply for people who are starving.Mark Latonero
It’s easy to think that this is an emergency, so we should just do whatever is necessary. But Latonero explains the risks, arguing that the risk is shifted to a later time:
If an individual or group’s data is compromised or leaked to a warring faction, it could result in violent retribution for those perceived to be on the wrong side of the conflict. When I spoke with officials providing medical aid to Syrian refugees in Greece, they were so concerned that the Syrian military might hack into their database that they simply treated patients without collecting any personal data. The fact that the Houthis are vying for access to civilian data only elevates the risk of collecting and storing biometrics in the first place.Mark Latonero
There was a rather startling article in last weekend’s newspaper, which I’ve found online. Hannah Devlin, again writing in The Guardian (which is a good source of information for those concerned with surveillance) writes about a perfect storm of social media and improved processing speeds:
[I]n the past three years, the performance of facial recognition has stepped up dramatically. Independent tests by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (Nist) found the failure rate for finding a target picture in a database of 12m faces had dropped from 5% in 2010 to 0.1% this year.
The rapid acceleration is thanks, in part, to the goldmine of face images that have been uploaded to Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and captioned news articles in the past decade. At one time, scientists would create bespoke databases by laboriously photographing hundreds of volunteers at different angles, in different lighting conditions. By 2016, Microsoft had published a dataset, MS Celeb, with 10m face images of 100,000 people harvested from search engines – they included celebrities, broadcasters, business people and anyone with multiple tagged pictures that had been uploaded under a Creative Commons licence, allowing them to be used for research. The dataset was quietly deleted in June, after it emerged that it may have aided the development of software used by the Chinese state to control its Uighur population.
In parallel, hardware companies have developed a new generation of powerful processing chips, called Graphics Processing Units (GPUs), uniquely adapted to crunch through a colossal number of calculations every second. The combination of big data and GPUs paved the way for an entirely new approach to facial recognition, called deep learning, which is powering a wider AI revolution.Hannah Devlin
Those of you who have read this far and are expecting some big reveal are going to be disappointed. I don’t have any ‘answers’ to these problems. I guess I’ve been guilty, like many of us have, of the kind of ‘privacy nihilism’ mentioned by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic:
Online services are only accelerating the reach and impact of data-intelligence practices that stretch back decades. They have collected your personal data, with and without your permission, from employers, public records, purchases, banking activity, educational history, and hundreds more sources. They have connected it, recombined it, bought it, and sold it. Processed foods look wholesome compared to your processed data, scattered to the winds of a thousand databases. Everything you have done has been recorded, munged, and spat back at you to benefit sellers, advertisers, and the brokers who service them. It has been for a long time, and it’s not going to stop. The age of privacy nihilism is here, and it’s time to face the dark hollow of its pervasive void.Ian Bogost
The only forces that we have to stop this are collective action, and governmental action. My concern is that we don’t have the digital savvy to do the former, and there’s definitely the lack of will in respect of the latter. Troubling times.