Tag: New York Times (page 1 of 3)

Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome

Facebook Accused of Watching Instagram Users Through Cameras (The Verge)

In the complaint filed Thursday in federal court in San Francisco, New Jersey Instagram user Brittany Conditi contends the app’s use of the camera is intentional and done for the purpose of collecting “lucrative and valuable data on its users that it would not otherwise have access to.”


Facebook Has Been a Disaster for the World (The New York Times)

Facebook has been incredibly lucrative for its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who ranks among the wealthiest men in the world. But it’s been a disaster for the world itself, a powerful vector for paranoia, propaganda and conspiracy-theorizing as well as authoritarian crackdowns and vicious attacks on the free press. Wherever it goes, chaos and destabilization follow.


Kim Kardashian West joins Facebook and Instagram boycott (BBC News)

I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation – created by groups to sow division and split America apart,” Kardashian West said.


Quotation-as-title from Dr Johnson.

Pandemic-induced awkwardness

By this point in the year, I would have travelled away from my home office at least once per month to see real, live 3D human beings who aren’t other members of my family.

Even if you are ensconced in a pandemic pod with a romantic partner or family members, you can still feel lonely — often camouflaged as sadness, irritability, anger and lethargy — because you’re not getting the full range of human interactions that you need, almost like not eating a balanced diet. We underestimate how much we benefit from casual camaraderie at the office, gym, choir practice or art class, not to mention spontaneous exchanges with strangers.

Kate Murphy, We’re All Socially Awkward Now, The New York Times

As the author points out, our skills can atrophy just like muscles if we don’t use them, and interacting via screens is often quite different to interacting offline.

Saturday shakings

Whew, so many useful bookmarks to re-read for this week’s roundup! It took me a while, so let’s get on with it…


Cartoon picture of someone working from home

What is the future of distributed work?

To Bharat Mediratta, chief technology officer at Dropbox, the quarantine experience has highlighted a huge gap in the market. “What we have right now is a bunch of different productivity and collaboration tools that are stitched together. So I will do my product design in Figma, and then I will submit the code change on GitHub, I will push the product out live on AWS, and then I will communicate with my team using Gmail and Slack and Zoom,” he says. “We have all that technology now, but we don’t yet have the ‘digital knowledge worker operating system’ to bring it all together.”

WIRED

OK, so this is a sponsored post by Dropbox on the WIRED website, but what it highlights is interesting. For example, Monday.com (which our co-op uses) rebranded itself a few months ago as a ‘Work OS’. There’s definitely a lot of money to be made for whoever manages to build an integrated solution, although I think we’re a long way off something which is flexible enough for every use case.


The Definition of Success Is Autonomy

Today, I don’t define success the way that I did when I was younger. I don’t measure it in copies sold or dollars earned. I measure it in what my days look like and the quality of my creative expression: Do I have time to write? Can I say what I think? Do I direct my schedule or does my schedule direct me? Is my life enjoyable or is it a chore?

Ryan Holiday

Tim Ferriss has this question he asks podcast guests: “If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it what would it say and why?” I feel like the title of this blog post is one of the answers I would give to that question.


Do The Work

We are a small group of volunteers who met as members of the Higher Ed Learning Collective. We were inspired by the initial demand, and the idea of self-study, interracial groups. The initial decision to form this initiative is based on the myriad calls from people of color for white-bodied people to do internal work. To do the work, we are developing a space for all individuals to read, share, discuss, and interrogate perspectives on race, racism, anti-racism, identity in an educational setting. To ensure that the fight continues for justice, we need to participate in our own ongoing reflection of self and biases. We need to examine ourselves, ask questions, and learn to examine our own perspectives. We need to get uncomfortable in asking ourselves tough questions, with an understanding that this is a lifelong, ongoing process of learning.

Ian O’Byrne

This is a fantastic resource for people who, like me, are going on a learning journey at the moment. I’ve found the podcast Seeing White by Scene on Radio particularly enlightening, and at times mind-blowing. Also, the Netflix documentary 13th is excellent, and available on YouTube.


Welding a motherboard

How to Make Your Tech Last Longer

If we put a small amount of time into caring for our gadgets, they can last indefinitely. We’d also be doing the world a favor. By elongating the life of our gadgets, we put more use into the energy, materials and human labor invested in creating the product.

Brian X. Chen (The new York times)

This is a pretty surface-level article that basically suggests people take their smartphone to a repair shop instead of buying a new one. What it doesn’t mention is that aftermarket operating systems such as the Android-based LineageOS can extend the lifetime of smartphones by providing security updates long beyond those provided by vendors.


Law enforcement arrests hundreds after compromising encrypted chat system

EncroChat sold customized Android handsets with GPS, camera, and microphone functionality removed. They were loaded with encrypted messaging apps as well as a secure secondary operating system (in addition to Android). The phones also came with a self-destruct feature that wiped the device if you entered a PIN.

The service had customers in 140 countries. While it was billed as a legitimate platform, anonymous sources told Motherboard that it was widely used among criminal groups, including drug trafficking organizations, cartels, and gangs, as well as hitmen and assassins.

EncroChat didn’t become aware that its devices had been breached until May after some users noticed that the wipe function wasn’t working. After trying and failing to restore the features and monitor the malware, EncroChat cut its SIM service and shut down the network, advising customers to dispose of their devices.

Monica Chin (The Verge)

It goes without saying that I don’t want assassins, drug traffickers, and mafia types to be successful in life. However, I’m always a little concerned when there are attacks on encryption, as they’re compromising systems also potentially used by protesters, activists, and those who oppose the status quo.


Uncovered: 1,000 phrases that incorrectly trigger Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant

The findings demonstrate how common it is for dialog in TV shows and other sources to produce false triggers that cause the devices to turn on, sometimes sending nearby sounds to Amazon, Apple, Google, or other manufacturers. In all, researchers uncovered more than 1,000 word sequences—including those from Game of Thrones, Modern Family, House of Cards, and news broadcasts—that incorrectly trigger the devices.

“The devices are intentionally programmed in a somewhat forgiving manner, because they are supposed to be able to understand their humans,” one of the researchers, Dorothea Kolossa, said. “Therefore, they are more likely to start up once too often rather than not at all.”

Dan Goodin (Ars Technica)

As anyone with voice assistant-enabled devices in their home will testify, the number of times they accidentally spin up, or misunderstand what you’re saying can be amusing. But we can and should be wary of what’s being listened to, and why.


The Five Levels of Remote Work

The Five Levels of Remote Work — and why you’re probably at Level 2

Effective written communication becomes critical the more companies embrace remote work. With an aversion to ‘jumping on calls’ at a whim, and a preference for asynchronous communication… [most] communications [are] text-based, and so articulate and timely articulation becomes key.

Steve Glaveski (The Startup)

This is from March and pretty clickbait-y, but everyone wants to know how they can improve – especially if didn’t work remotely before the pandemic. My experience is that actually most people are at Level 3 and, of course, I’d say that I and my co-op colleagues are at Level 5 given our experience…


Why Birds Can Fly Over Mount Everest

All mammals, including us, breathe in through the same opening that we breathe out. Can you imagine if our digestive system worked the same way? What if the food we put in our mouths, after digestion, came out the same way? It doesn’t bear thinking about! Luckily, for digestion, we have a separate in and out. And that’s what the birds have with their lungs: an in point and an out point. They also have air sacs and hollow spaces in their bones. When they breathe in, half of the good air (with oxygen) goes into these hollow spaces, and the other half goes into their lungs through the rear entrance. When they breathe out, the good air that has been stored in the hollow places now also goes into their lungs through that rear entrance, and the bad air (carbon dioxide and water vapor) is pushed out the front exit. So it doesn’t matter whether birds are breathing in or out: Good air is always going in one direction through their lungs, pushing all the bad air out ahead of it.

Walter Murch (Nautilus)

Incredible. Birds are badass (and also basically dinosaurs).


Montaigne Fled the Plague, and Found Himself

In the many essays of his life he discovered the importance of the moderate life. In his final essay, “On Experience,” Montaigne reveals that “greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to circumscribe and set oneself in order.” What he finds, quite simply, is the importance of the moderate life. We must then, he writes, “compose our character, not compose books.” There is nothing paradoxical about this because his literary essays helped him better essay his life. The lesson he takes from this trial might be relevant for our own trial: “Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live properly.”

Robert Zaresky (The New York Times)

Every week, Bryan Alexander replies to the weekly Thought Shrapnel newsletter. Last week, he sent this article to both me and Chris Lott (who produces the excellent Notabilia).

We had a bit of a chat, with us sharing our love of How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer by Sarah Bakewell, and well as the useful tidbits it’s possible glean from Stefan Zweig’s short biography simply entitled Montaigne.


Header image by Nicolas Comte

Saturday scrubbings

This week on Thought Shrapnel I’ve been focused on messing about with using OBS to create videos. So much, in fact, that this weekend I’m building a new PC to improve the experience.

Sometimes in these link roundups I try and group similar kinds of things together. But this week, much as I did last week, I’ve just thrown them all in a pot like Gumbo.

Tell me which links you find interesting, either in the comments, or on Twitter or the Fediverse (feel free to use the hashtag #thoughtshrapnel)


Melting Ice Reveals a “Lost” Viking-Era Pass in Norway’s Mountains

About 60 artifacts have been radiocarbon dated, showing the Lendbreen pass was widely used from at least A.D. 300. “It probably served as both an artery for long-distance travel and for local travel between permanent farms in the valleys to summer farms higher in the mountains, where livestock grazed for part of the year,” says University of Cambridge archaeologist James Barrett, a co-author of the research.

Tom Metcalfe (Scientific American)

I love it when the scientific and history communities come together to find out new things about our past. Especially about the Vikings, who were straight-up amazing.


University proposes online-only degrees as part of radical restructuring

Confidential documents seen by Palatinate show that the University is planning “a radical restructure” of the Durham curriculum in order to permanently put online resources at the core of its educational offer, in response to the Covid-19 crisis and other ongoing changes in both national and international Higher Education.

The proposals seek to “invert Durham’s traditional educational model”, which revolves around residential study, replacing it with one that puts “online resources at the core enabling us to provide education at a distance.” 

Jack Taylor & Tom Mitchell (Palatinate)

I’m paying attention to this as Durham University is one of my alma maters* but I think this is going to be a common story across a lot of UK institutions. They’ve relied for too long on the inflated fees brought in by overseas students and now, in the wake of the pandemic, need to rapidly find a different approach.

*I have a teaching qualification and two postgraduate degrees from Durham, despite a snooty professor telling me when I was 17 years old that I’d never get in to the institution 😅


Abolish Silicon Valley: memoir of a driven startup founder who became an anti-capitalist activist

Liu grew up a true believer in “meritocracy” and its corollaries: that success implies worth, and thus failure is a moral judgment about the intellect, commitment and value of the failed.

Her tale — starting in her girlhood bedroom and stretching all the way to protests outside of tech giants in San Francisco — traces a journey of maturity and discovery, as Liu confronts the mounting evidence that her life’s philosophy is little more than the self-serving rhetoric of rich people defending their privilege, the chasm between her lived experience and her guiding philosophy widens until she can no longer straddle it.

Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing)

This book is next on my non-fiction reading list. If your library is closed and doesn’t have an online service, try this.


Cup, er, drying itself...

7 things ease the switch to remote-only workplaces

You want workers to post work as it’s underway—even when it’s rough, incomplete, imperfect. That requires a different mindset, though one that’s increasingly common in asynchronous companies. In traditional companies, people often hesitate to circulate projects or proposals that aren’t polished, pretty, and bullet-proofed. It’s a natural reflex, especially when people are disconnected from each other and don’t communicate casually. But it can lead to long delays, especially on projects in which each participant’s progress depends on the progress and feedback of others. Location-independent companies need a culture in which people recognize that a work-in-progress is likely to have gaps and flaws and don’t criticize each other for them. This is an issue of norms, not tools.

Edmund L. Andrews-Stanford (Futurity)

I discovered this via Stephen Downes, who highlights the fifth point in this article (‘single source of truth’). I’ve actually highlighted the sixth one (‘breaking down the barriers to sharing work’) as I’ve also seen that as an important thing to check for when hiring.


How the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory tore through the internet

The level of interest in the coronavirus pandemic – and the fear and uncertainty that comes with it – has caused tired, fringe conspiracy theories to be pulled into the mainstream. From obscure YouTube channels and Facebook pages, to national news headlines, baseless claims that 5G causes or exacerbates coronavirus are now having real-world consequences. People are burning down 5G masts in protest. Government ministers and public health experts are now being forced to confront this dangerous balderdash head-on, giving further oxygen and airtime to views that, were it not for the major technology platforms, would remain on the fringe of the fringe. “Like anti-vax content, this messaging is spreading via platforms which have been designed explicitly to help propagate the content which people find most compelling; most irresistible to click on,” says Smith from Demos.

James temperton (wired)

The disinformation and plain bonkers-ness around this ‘theory’ of linking 5G and the coronavirus is a particularly difficult thing to deal with. I’ve avoided talking about it on social media as well as here on Thought Shrapnel, but I’m sharing this as it’s a great overview of how these things spread — and who’s fanning the flames.


A Manifesto Against EdTech© During an Emergency Online Pivot

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented moment in the history of social structures such as education. After all of the time spent creating emergency plans and three- or five-year road maps that include fail safe options, we find ourselves in the actual emergency. Yet not even a month into global orders of shelter in place, there are many education narratives attempting to frame the pandemic as an opportunity. Extreme situations can certainly create space for extraordinary opportunities, but that viewpoint is severely limited considering this moment in time. Perhaps if the move to distance/online/remote education had happened in a vacuum that did not involve a global pandemic, millions sick, tens of thousands dead, tens of millions unemployed, hundreds of millions hungry, billions anxious and uncertain of society’s next step…perhaps then this would be that opportunity moment. Instead, we have a global emergency where the stress is felt everywhere but it certainly is not evenly distributed, so learning/aligning/deploying/assessing new technology for the classroom is not universally feasible. You can’t teach someone to swim while they’re drowning.

Rolin Moe

Rolin Moe is a thoughtful commentator on educational technology. This post was obviously written quickly (note the typo in the URL when you click through, as well as some slightly awkward language) and I’m not a fan of the title Moe has settled on. That being said, the point about this not being an ‘opportunity’ for edtech is a good one.


Dishes washing themselves

NHS coronavirus app: memo discussed giving ministers power to ‘de-anonymise’ users

Produced in March, the memo explained how an NHS app could work, using Bluetooth LE, a standard feature that runs constantly and automatically on all mobile devices, to take “soundings” from other nearby phones through the day. People who have been in sustained proximity with someone who may have Covid-19 could then be warned and advised to self–isolate, without revealing the identity of the infected individual.

However, the memo stated that “more controversially” the app could use device IDs, which are unique to all smartphones, “to enable de-anonymisation if ministers judge that to be proportionate at some stage”. It did not say why ministers might want to identify app users, or under what circumstances doing so would be proportionate.

David Pegg & Paul Lewis (The Guardian)

This all really concerns me, as not only is this kind of technology only going be of marginal use in fighting the coronavirus, once this is out of the box, what else is it going to be used for? Also check out Vice’s coverage, including an interview with Edward Snowden, and this discussion at Edgeryders.


Is This the Most Virus-Proof Job in the World?

It’s hard to think of a job title more pandemic-proof than “superstar live streamer.” While the coronavirus has upended the working lives of hundreds of millions of people, Dr. Lupo, as he’s known to acolytes, has a basically unaltered routine. He has the same seven-second commute down a flight of stairs. He sits in the same seat, before the same configuration of lights, cameras and monitors. He keeps the same marathon hours, starting every morning at 8.

Social distancing? He’s been doing that since he went pro, three years ago.

For 11 hours a day, six days a week, he sits alone, hunting and being hunted on games like Call of Duty and Fortnite. With offline spectator sports canceled, he and other well-known gamers currently offer one of the only live contests that meet the standards of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

David Segal (The New York Times)

It’s hard to argue with my son these days when he says he wants to be a ‘pro gamer’.

(a quick tip for those who want to avoid ‘free registration’ and some paywalls — use a service like Pocket to save the article and read it there)


Capitalists or Cronyists?

To be clear, socialism may be a better way to go, as evidenced by the study showing 4 of the 5 happiest nations are socialist democracies. However, unless we’re going to provide universal healthcare and universal pre-K, let’s not embrace The Hunger Games for the working class on the way up, and the Hallmark Channel for the shareholder class on the way down. The current administration, the wealthy, and the media have embraced policies that bless the caching of power and wealth, creating a nation of brittle companies and government agencies.

Scott Galloway

A somewhat rambling post, but which explains the difference between a form of capitalism that (theoretically) allows everyone to flourish, and crony capitalism, which doesn’t.


Header image by Stephen Collins at The Guardian

Friday forebodings

I think it’s alright to say that this was a week when my spirits dropped a little. Apologies if that’s not what you wanted to hear right now, and if it’s reflected in what follows.

For there to be good things there must also be bad. For there to be joy there must also be sorrow. And for there to be hope there must be despair. All of this will pass.


We’re Finding Out How Small Our Lives Really Are

But there’s no reason to put too sunny a spin on what’s happening. Research has shown that anticipation can be a linchpin of well-being and that looking ahead produces more intense emotions than retrospection. In a 2012 New York Times article on why people thirst for new experiences, one psychologist told the paper, “Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” and another referred to human beings as a “neophilic species.” Of course, the current blankness in the place of what comes next is supposed to be temporary. Even so, lacking an ability to confidently say “see you later” is going to have its effects. Have you noticed the way in which conversations in this era can quickly become recursive? You talk about the virus. Or you talk about what you did together long ago. The interactions don’t always spark and generate as easily as they once did.

Spencer Kornhaber (The Atlantic)

Part of the problem with all of this is that we don’t know how long it’s going to last, so we can’t really make plans. It’s like an extended limbo where you’re supposed to just get on with it, whatever ‘it’ is…


Career Moats in a Recession

If you’re going after a career moat now, remember that the best skills to go after are the ones that the market will value after the recession ends. You can’t necessarily predict this — the world is complex and the future is uncertain, but you should certainly keep the general idea in mind.

A simpler version of this is to go after complementary skills to your current role. If you’ve been working for a bit, it’s likely that you’ll have a better understanding of your industry than most. So ask yourself: what complementary skills would make you more valuable to the employers in your job market?

Cedric James (Commonplace)

I’m fortunate to have switched from education to edtech at the right time. Elsewhere, James says that “job security is the ability to get your next job, not keep your current one” and that this depends on your network, luck, and having “rare and valuable skills”. Indeed.


Everything Is Innovative When You Ignore the Past

This is hard stuff, and acknowledging it comes with a corollary: We, as a society, are not particularly special. Vinsel, the historian at Virginia Tech, cautioned against “digital exceptionalism,” or the idea that everything is different now that the silicon chip has been harnessed for the controlled movement of electrons.

It’s a difficult thing for people to accept, especially those who have spent their lives building those chips or the software they run. “Just on a psychological level,” Vinsel said, “people want to live in an exciting moment. Students want to believe they’re part of a generation that’s going to change the world through digital technology or whatever.”

Aaron Gordon (VICE)

Everyone thinks they live in ‘unprecedented’ times, especially if they work in tech.


‘We can’t go back to normal’: how will coronavirus change the world?

But disasters and emergencies do not just throw light on the world as it is. They also rip open the fabric of normality. Through the hole that opens up, we glimpse possibilities of other worlds. Some thinkers who study disasters focus more on all that might go wrong. Others are more optimistic, framing crises not just in terms of what is lost but also what might be gained. Every disaster is different, of course, and it’s never just one or the other: loss and gain always coexist. Only in hindsight will the contours of the new world we’re entering become clear.

Peter C Baker (the Guardian)

An interesting read, outlining the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis, but of course what comes next (CLIMATE CHANGE) is even bigger.


The Terrible Impulse To Rally Around Bad Leaders In A Crisis

This tendency to rally around even incompetent leaders makes one despair for humanity. The correct response in all cases is contempt and an attempt, if possible, at removal of the corrupt and venal people in charge. Certainly no one should be approving of the terrible jobs they [Cuomo, Trump, Johnson] have done.

All three have or will use their increased power to do horrible things. The Coronavirus bailout bill passed by Congress and approved by Trump is a huge bailout of the rich, with crumbs for the poor and middle class. So little, in fact, that there may be widespread hunger soon. Cuomo is pushing forward with his cuts, and I’m sure Johnson will live down to expectations.

Ian Welsh

I’m genuinely shocked that the current UK government’s approval ratings are so high. Yes, they’re covering 80% of the salary of those laid-off, but the TUC was pushing for an even higher figure. It’s like we’re congratulating neoliberal idiots for destroying our collectively ability to be able to respond to this crisis effectively.


As Coronavirus Surveillance Escalates, Personal Privacy Plummets

Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later. It is a lesson Americans learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, civil liberties experts say.

Nearly two decades later, law enforcement agencies have access to higher-powered surveillance systems, like fine-grained location tracking and facial recognition — technologies that may be repurposed to further political agendas like anti-immigration policies. Civil liberties experts warn that the public has little recourse to challenge these digital exercises of state power.

Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun (The New York Times)

I’ve seen a lot of suggestions around smarpthone tracking to help with the pandemic response. How, exactly, when it’s trivial to spoof your location? It’s just more surveillance by the back door.


How to Resolve Any Conflict in Your Team

Have you ever noticed that when you argue with someone smart, if you manage to debunk their initial reasoning, they just shift to a new, logical-sounding reason?

Reasons are like a salamander’s legs — if you cut one off, another grows in its place.

When you’re dealing with a salamander, you need to get to the heart. Forget about reasoning and focus on what’s causing the emotions. According to [non-violent communication], every negative emotion is the result of an unmet, universal need.

Dave bailey

Great advice here, especially for those who work in organisations (or who have clients) who lack emotional intelligence.


2026 – the year of the face to face pivot

When the current crisis is over in terms of infection, the social and economic impact will be felt for a long time. One such hangover is likely to be the shift to online for so much of work and interaction. As the cartoon goes “these meetings could’ve been emails all along”. So let’s jump forward then a few years when online is the norm.

Martin Weller (The Ed Techie)

Some of the examples given in this post gave me a much-needed chuckle.


Now’s the time – 15 epic video games for the socially isolated

However, now that many of us are finding we have time on our hands, it could be the opportunity we need to attempt some of the more chronologically demanding narrative video game masterpieces of the last decade.

Keith Stuart (The Guardian)

Well, yes, but what we probably need even more is multiplayer mode. Red Dead Redemption II is on this list, and it’s one of the best games ever made. However, it’s tinged with huge sadness for me as it’s a game I greatly enjoyed playing with the late, great, Dai Barnes.


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Header image by Alex Fu

Friday fluidity

I wasn’t sure whether to share links about the Coronavirus this week, but obviously, like everyone else, I’ve been reading about it.

Next week, my wife and I are heading to Belgium as I’m speaking at an event, and then we’re spending the weekend in Bruges. I think we’ll be OK. But even if we do contract the virus, the chances of us dying, or even being seriously ill, are vanishingly small. It’s all very well being pragmatic, but you can’t live your life in fear.

Anyway, if you’ve heard enough about potential global pandemics, feel free to skip straight onto the second and third sections, where I share some really interesting links about organisations, productivtiy, security, and more!


How I track the coronavirus

I’ve been tracking it carefully for weeks, and have built up an online search strategy. I’d like to share a description of it here, partly in case it’s useful for readers, and also to request additions in case it’s missing anything.

Bryan Alexander

What I like about this post by Bryan is that he’s sharing both his methods and go-to resources, without simultaneously sharing his conclusions. That’s the mark of an open mind, and that’s why I support him on Patreon.


Coronavirus and World After Capital

The danger we are now finding ourselves in can be directly traced to our reliance on the market mechanism for allocating attention. A global pandemic is an example of the kind of tail risk for which prices cannot exist. This is a key theme of my book World After Capital and I have been using pandemics as an alternative example to the climate crisis (another, while we are at it, are asteroid strikes).

Albert Wenger (Continuations)

I really must sit down and read World After Capital. In this short post, the author (a Venture Capitalist) explains why we need to allocate attention to what he calls ‘tail risks’.


You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus

Many countries have responded with containment attempts, despite the dubious efficacy and inherent harms of China’s historically unprecedented crackdown. Certain containment measures will be appropriate, but widely banning travel, closing down cities, and hoarding resources are not realistic solutions for an outbreak that lasts years. All of these measures come with risks of their own. Ultimately some pandemic responses will require opening borders, not closing them. At some point the expectation that any area will escape effects of COVID-19 must be abandoned: The disease must be seen as everyone’s problem.

James Hamblin (The Atlantic)

Will you get a cold at some point in your life? Yes, probably most winters in some form. Will you catch ‘flu at some point in your life. Yes, probably, at some point. Will you get the Coronavirus. Almost certainly, but it’s not going to kill you unless your very young, very old, or very weak.


Image by Ivan Bandura
Photo by Ivan Bandura

Work Operating Systems? No, We Need Work Ecosystems.

The principal limitation of the work OS concept is that companies do not operate independently: they are increasingly connected to other organizations. The model of work OS is too inwardly focused, when the real leverage may come from the interactions across company boundaries, or by lessening the barriers to cross-company cooperation. (In a sense, this is just the fullest expression of the ideal of cross-team and cross-department cooperation: if it’s good at the smallest scale, it is great at the largest scale.)

Stowe Boyd (GigaOM)

This post is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I absolutely agree with the end game that Boyd describes here. Second, our co-op has just started using Monday.com and have found it… fine, and doing what we need, but I can’t wait for some organisation to go beyond the ‘work OS’.


Career Moats 101

A career moat is an individual’s ability to maintain competitive advantages over your competition (say, in the job market) in order to protect your long term prospects, your employability, and your ability to generate sufficient financial returns to support the life you want to live. Just like a medieval castle, the moat serves to protect those inside the fortress and their riches from outsiders.

cedric chin (Commonplace)

I came across links to two different posts on the same blog this week, which made me investigate it further. The central thesis of the blog is that we should aim to build ‘career moats’, which is certainly an interesting way of thinking about things, and this link has some practical advice.


Daily life with the offline laptop

Having access to the Internet is a gift, I can access anything or anyone. But this comes with a few drawbacks. I can waste my time on anything, which is not particularly helpful. There are so many content that I only scratch things, knowing it will still be there when I need it, and jump to something else. The amount of data is impressive, one human can’t absorb that much, we have to deal with it.

Solène Rapenne

I love this idea of having a machine that remains offline and which you use for music and writing. Especially the writing. In fact, I was talking to someone earlier this week about using my old 1080p monitor in portrait mode with a Raspberry Pi to create a ‘writing machine’. I might just do it…


Photo by Lauren McConachie

Spilling over: How working openly with anxiety affects my team

At a fundamental level, I believe work is never done, that there is always another challenge to explore, other ways to have a larger impact. Leaders need to inspire and motivate us to embrace that reality as an exciting opportunity rather than an endless drudge or a source of continual worry.

Sam Knuth (Opensource.com)

This is a great article. As a leader and someone who’s only admitted to myself recently that I am, indeed an ‘anxious person’, I see similarities with my experiences here.


5 tricks to make the internet less distracting, so you can get stuff done

Maybe you want to be more productive at work. Maybe you want to spend more time being creative or learning new skills. Or maybe you just wish you spent more time communicating with the people you love and less time scrolling through websites that bring you brief moments of joy just frequently enough that you’re willing to tolerate the broader feeling of anxiety/jealousy/outrage.

The internet can be an amazing tool for pursuing these goals, but it’s not necessarily designed to push you toward it. You’ve got to work to create the environment for yourself. Here are some ways you can do just that.

Justin Pot (Fast Company)

It’s now over five years since I wrote Curate or Be Curated. The article, and the warning it contains, stands the test of time, I think. The ‘tricks’ shared in this Fast Company article, shared by Ian O’Byrne are a helpful place to start.


How to Dox Yourself on the Internet

To help our Times colleagues think like doxxers, we developed a formal program that consists of a series of repeatable steps that can be taken to clean up an online footprint. Our goal with this program is to empower people to control the information they share, and to provide them with tools and resources to have a better awareness around the information they intentionally and unintentionally share online.
We are now publicly releasing the content of this program for anyone to access. We think it is important for freelancers, activists, other newsrooms or people who want to take control of their own security online.

The NYT Open Team

This is a great idea. ‘Doxxing’ is the digging-up and sharing of personal information (e.g. home addresses) for the purposes of harrassment. This approach, where you try to ‘dox’ yourself so that you can take protective steps, is a great idea.


Header image by Adli Wahid who says “Rest in Peace Posters of Dr Li Wenliang, who warned authorities about the coronovirus outbreak seen at Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Australia. Hosier Lane is known for its street art. “

Friday featherings

Behold! The usual link round-up of interesting things I’ve read in the last week.

Feel free to let me know if anything particularly resonated with you via the comments section below…


Part I – What is a Weird Internet Career?

Weird Internet Careers are the kinds of jobs that are impossible to explain to your parents, people who somehow make a living from the internet, generally involving a changing mix of revenue streams. Weird Internet Career is a term I made up (it had no google results in quotes before I started using it), but once you start noticing them, you’ll see them everywhere. 

Gretchen McCulloch (All Things Linguistic)

I love this phrase, which I came across via Dan Hon’s newsletter. This is the first in a whole series of posts, which I am yet to explore in its entirety. My aim in life is now to make my career progressively more (internet) weird.


Nearly half of Americans didn’t go outside to recreate in 2018. That has the outdoor industry worried.

While the Outdoor Foundation’s 2019 Outdoor Participation Report showed that while a bit more than half of Americans went outside to play at least once in 2018, nearly half did not go outside for recreation at all. Americans went on 1 billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 than they did in 2008. The number of adolescents ages 6 to 12 who recreate outdoors has fallen four years in a row, dropping more than 3% since 2007 

The number of outings for kids has fallen 15% since 2012. The number of moderate outdoor recreation participants declined, and only 18% of Americans played outside at least once a week. 

Jason Blevins (The Colorado Sun)

One of Bruce Willis’ lesser-known films is Surrogates (2009). It’s a short, pretty average film with a really interesting central premise: most people stay at home and send their surrogates out into the world. Over a decade after the film was released, a combination of things (including virulent viruses, screen-focused leisure time, and safety fears) seem to suggest it might be a predictor of our medium-term future.


I’ll Never Go Back to Life Before GDPR

It’s also telling when you think about what lengths companies have had to go through to make the EU versions of their sites different. Complying with GDPR has not been cheap. Any online business could choose to follow GDPR by default across all regions and for all visitors. It would certainly simplify things. They don’t, though. The amount of money in data collection is too big.

Jill Duffy (OneZero)

This is a strangely-titled article, but a decent explainer on what the web looks and feels like to those outside the EU. The author is spot-on when she talks about how GDPR and the recent California Privacy Law could be applied everywhere, but they’re not. Because surveillance capitalism.


You Are Now Remotely Controlled

The belief that privacy is private has left us careening toward a future that we did not choose, because it failed to reckon with the profound distinction between a society that insists upon sovereign individual rights and one that lives by the social relations of the one-way mirror. The lesson is that privacy is public — it is a collective good that is logically and morally inseparable from the values of human autonomy and self-determination upon which privacy depends and without which a democratic society is unimaginable.

Shoshana Zuboff (The New York Times)

I fear that the length of Zuboff’s (excellent) book on surveillance capitalism, her use of terms in this article such as ‘epistemic inequality, and the subtlety of her arguments, may mean that she’s preaching to the choir here.


How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids in the Digital Age

The next time you snap a photo together at the park or a restaurant, try asking your child if it’s all right that you post it to social media. Use the opportunity to talk about who can see that photo and show them your privacy settings. Or if a news story about the algorithms on YouTube comes on television, ask them if they’ve ever been directed to a video they didn’t want to see.

Meghan Herbst (WIRED)

There’s some useful advice in this WIRED article, especially that given by my friend Ian O’Byrne. The difficulty I’ve found is when one of your kids becomes a teenager and companies like Google contact them directly telling them they can have full control of their accounts, should they wish…


Control-F and Building Resilient Information Networks

One reason the best lack conviction, though, is time. They don’t have the time to get to the level of conviction they need, and it’s a knotty problem, because that level of care is precisely what makes their participation in the network beneficial. (In fact, when I ask people who have unintentionally spread misinformation why they did so, the most common answer I hear is that they were either pressed for time, or had a scarcity of attention to give to that moment)

But what if — and hear me out here — what if there was a way for people to quickly check whether linked articles actually supported the points they claimed to? Actually quoted things correctly? Actually provided the context of the original from which they quoted

And what if, by some miracle, that function was shipped with every laptop and tablet, and available in different versions for mobile devices?

This super-feature actually exists already, and it’s called control-f.

Roll the animated GIF!

Mike Caulfield (Hapgood)

I find it incredible, but absolutely believable, that only around 10% of internet users know how to use Ctrl-F to find something within a web page. On mobile, it’s just as easy, as there’s an option within most (all?) browsers to ‘search within page’. I like Mike’s work, as not only is it academic, it’s incredibly practical.


EdX launches for-credit credentials that stack into bachelor’s degrees

The MicroBachelors also mark a continued shift for EdX, which made its name as one of the first MOOC providers, to a wider variety of educational offerings 

In 2018, EdX announced several online master’s degrees with selective universities, including the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Texas at Austin.

Two years prior, it rolled out MicroMasters programs. Students can complete the series of graduate-level courses as a standalone credential or roll them into one of EdX’s master’s degrees.

That stackability was something EdX wanted to carry over into the MicroBachelors programs, Agarwal said. One key difference, however, is that the undergraduate programs will have an advising component, which the master’s programs do not. 

Natalie Schwartz (Education Dive)

This is largely a rewritten press release with a few extra links, but I found it interesting as it’s a concrete example of a couple of things. First, the ongoing shift in Higher Education towards students-as-customers. Second, the viability of microcredentials as a ‘stackable’ way to build a portfolio of skills.

Note that, as a graduate of degrees in the Humanities, I’m not saying this approach can be used for everything, but for those using Higher Education as a means to an end, this is exactly what’s required.


How much longer will we trust Google’s search results?

Today, I still trust Google to not allow business dealings to affect the rankings of its organic results, but how much does that matter if most people can’t visually tell the difference at first glance? And how much does that matter when certain sections of Google, like hotels and flights, do use paid inclusion? And how much does that matter when business dealings very likely do affect the outcome of what you get when you use the next generation of search, the Google Assistant?

Dieter Bohn (The Verge)

I’ve used DuckDuckGo as my go-to search engine for years now. It used to be that I’d have to switch to Google for around 10% of my searches. That’s now down to zero.


Coaching – Ethics

One of the toughest situations for a product manager is when they spot a brewing ethical issue, but they’re not sure how they should handle the situation.  Clearly this is going to be sensitive, and potentially emotional. Our best answer is to discover a solution that does not have these ethical concerns, but in some cases you won’t be able to, or may not have the time.

[…]

I rarely encourage people to leave their company, however, when it comes to those companies that are clearly ignoring the ethical implications of their work, I have and will continue to encourage people to leave.

Marty Cagan (SVPG)

As someone with a sensitive radar for these things, I’ve chosen to work with ethical people and for ethical organisations. As Cagan says in this post, if you’re working for a company that ignores the ethical implications of their work, then you should leave. End of story.


Image via webcomic.name

Friday festoonings

Check out these things I read and found interesting this week. Thanks to some positive feedback, I’ve carved out time for some commentary, and changed the way this link roundup is set out.

Let me know what you think! What did you find most interesting?


Maps Are Biased Against Animals

Critics may say that it is unreasonable to expect maps to reflect the communities or achievements of nonhumans. Maps are made by humans, for humans. When beavers start Googling directions to a neighbor’s dam, then their homes can be represented! For humans who use maps solely to navigate—something that nonhumans do without maps—man-made roads are indeed the only features that are relevant. Following a map that includes other information may inadvertently lead a human onto a trail made by and for deer.

But maps are not just tools to get from points A to B. They also relay new and learned information, document evolutionary changes, and inspire intrepid exploration. We operate on the assumption that our maps accurately reflect what a visitor would find if they traveled to a particular area. Maps have immense potential to illustrate the world around us, identifying all the important features of a given region. By that definition, the current maps that most humans use fall well short of being complete. Our definition of what is “important” is incredibly narrow.

Ryan Huling (WIRED)

Cartography is an incredibly powerful tool. We’ve known for a long time that “the map is not the territory” but perhaps this is another weapon in the fight against climate change and the decline in diversity of species?


Why Actually Principled People Are Difficult (Glenn Greenwald Edition)

Then you get people like Greenwald, Assange, Manning and Snowden. They are polarizing figures. They are loved or hated. They piss people off.

They piss people off precisely because they have principles they consider non-negotiable. They will not do the easy thing when it matters. They will not compromise on anything that really matters.

That’s breaking the actual social contract of “go along to get along”, “obey authority” and “don’t make people uncomfortable.” I recently talked to a senior activist who was uncomfortable even with the idea of yelling at powerful politicians. It struck them as close to violence.

So here’s the thing, people want men and women of principle to be like ordinary people.

They aren’t. They can’t be. If they were, they wouldn’t do what they do. Much of what you may not like about a Greenwald or Assange or Manning or Snowden is why they are what they are. Not just the principle, but the bravery verging on recklessness. The willingness to say exactly what they think, and do exactly what they believe is right even if others don’t.

Ian Welsh

Activists like Greta Thunberg and Edward Snowden are the closest we get to superheroes, to people who stand for the purest possible version of an idea. This is why we need them — and why we’re so disappointed when they turn out to be human after all.


Explicit education

Students’ not comprehending the value of engaging in certain ways is more likely to be a failure in our teaching than their willingness to learn (especially if we create a culture in which success becomes exclusively about marks and credentialization). The question we have to ask is if what we provide as ‘university’ goes beyond the value of what our students can engage with outside of our formal offer. 

Dave White

This is a great post by Dave, who I had the pleasure of collaborating with briefly during my stint at Jisc. I definitely agree that any organisation walks a dangerous path when it becomes overly-fixated on the ‘how’ instead of the ‘what’ and the ‘why’.


What Are Your Rules for Life? These 11 Expressions (from Ancient History) Might Help

The power of an epigram or one of these expressions is that they say a lot with a little. They help guide us through the complexity of life with their unswerving directness. Each person must, as the retired USMC general and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, has said, “Know what you will stand for and, more important, what you won’t stand for.” “State your flat-ass rules and stick to them. They shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.”

Ryan Holiday

Of the 11 expressions here, I have to say that other than memento mori (“remember you will die”) I particularly like semper anticus (“always forward”) which I’m going to print out in a fancy font and stick on the wall of my home office.


Dark Horse Discord

In a hypothetical world, you could get a Discord (or whatever is next) link for your new job tomorrow – you read some wiki and meta info, sort yourself into your role you’d, and then are grouped with the people who you need to collaborate with on a need be basis. All wrapped in one platform. Maybe you have an HR complaint – drop it in #HR where you can’t read the messages but they can, so it’s a blind 1 way conversation. Maybe there is a #help channel, where you ping you write your problems and the bot pings people who have expertise based on keywords. There’s a lot of things you can do with this basic design.

Mule’s Musings

What is described in this post is a bit of a stretch, but I can see it: a world where work is organised a bit like how gamers organisers in chat channels. Something to keep an eye on, as the interplay between what’s ‘normal’ and what’s possible with communications technology changes and evolves.


The Edu-Decade That Was: Unfounded Optimism?

What made the last decade so difficult is how education institutions let corporations control the definitions so that a lot of “study and ethical practice” gets left out of the work. With the promise of ease of use, low-cost, increased student retention (or insert unreasonable-metric-claim here), etc. institutions are willing to buy into technology without regard to accessibility, scalability, equity and inclusion, data privacy or student safety, in hope of solving problem X that will then get to be checked off of an accreditation list. Or worse, with the hope of not having to invest in actual people and local infrastructure.

Geoff Cain (Brainstorm in progress)

It’s nice to see a list of some positives that came out of the last decades, and for microcredentials and badging to be on that list.


When Is a Bird a ‘Birb’? An Extremely Important Guide

First, let’s consider the canonized usages. The subreddit r/birbs defines a birb as any bird that’s “being funny, cute, or silly in some way.” Urban Dictionary has a more varied set of definitions, many of which allude to a generalized smallness. A video on the youtube channel Lucidchart offers its own expansive suggestions: All birds are birbs, a chunky bird is a borb, and a fluffed-up bird is a floof. Yet some tension remains: How can all birds be birbs if smallness or cuteness are in the equation? Clearly some birds get more recognition for an innate birbness.

Asher Elbein (Audubon magazine)

A fun article, but also an interesting one when it comes to ambiguity, affinity groups, and internet culture.


Why So Many Things Cost Exactly Zero

“Now, why would Gmail or Facebook pay us? Because what we’re giving them in return is not money but data. We’re giving them lots of data about where we go, what we eat, what we buy. We let them read the contents of our email and determine that we’re about to go on vacation or we’ve just had a baby or we’re upset with our friend or it’s a difficult time at work. All of these things are in our email that can be read by the platform, and then the platform’s going to use that to sell us stuff.”

Fiona Scott Morton (Yale business school) quoted by Peter coy (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Regular readers of Thought Shrapnel know all about surveillance capitalism, but it’s good to see these explainers making their way to the more mainstream business press.


Your online activity is now effectively a social ‘credit score’

The most famous social credit system in operation is that used by China’s government. It “monitors millions of individuals’ behavior (including social media and online shopping), determines how moral or immoral it is, and raises or lowers their “citizen score” accordingly,” reported Atlantic in 2018.

“Those with a high score are rewarded, while those with a low score are punished.” Now we know the same AI systems are used for predictive policing to round up Muslim Uighurs and other minorities into concentration camps under the guise of preventing extremism.

Violet Blue (Engadget)

Some (more prudish) people will write this article off because it discusses sex workers, porn, and gay rights. But the truth is that all kinds of censorship start with marginalised groups. To my mind, we’re already on a trajectory away from Silicon Valley and towards Chinese technology. Will we be able to separate the tech from the morality?


Panicking About Your Kids’ Phones? New Research Says Don’t

The researchers worry that the focus on keeping children away from screens is making it hard to have more productive conversations about topics like how to make phones more useful for low-income people, who tend to use them more, or how to protect the privacy of teenagers who share their lives online.

“Many of the people who are terrifying kids about screens, they have hit a vein of attention from society and they are going to ride that. But that is super bad for society,” said Andrew Przybylski, the director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, who has published several studies on the topic.

Nathaniel Popper (The New York Times)

Kids and screentime is just the latest (extended) moral panic. Overuse of anything causes problems, smartphones, games consoles, and TV included. What we need to do is to help our children find balance in all of this, which can be difficult for the first generation of parents navigating all of this on the frontline.


Gorgeous header art via the latest Facebook alternative, planetary.social

Friday foggings

I’ve been travelling this week, so I’ve had plenty of time to read and digest a whole range of articles. In fact, because of the luxury of that extra time, I decided to write some comments about each link, as well as the usual quotation.

Let me know what you think about this approach. I may not have the bandwidth to do it every week, but if it’s useful, I’ll try and prioritise it. As ever, particularly interested in hearing from supporters!


Education and Men without Work (National Affairs) — “Unlike the Great Depression, however, today’s work crisis is not an unemployment crisis. Only a tiny fraction of workless American men nowadays are actually looking for employment. Instead we have witnessed a mass exodus of men from the workforce altogether. At this writing, nearly 7 million civilian non-institutionalized men between the ages of 25 and 54 are neither working nor looking for work — over four times as many as are formally unemployed.”

This article argues that the conventional wisdom, that men are out of work because of a lack of education, may be based on false assumptions. In fact, a major driver seems to be the number of men (more than 50% of working-age men, apparently) who live in child-free homes. What do these men end up doing with their time? Many of them are self-medicating with drugs and screens.


Fresh Cambridge Analytica leak ‘shows global manipulation is out of control’ (The Guardian) — “More than 100,000 documents relating to work in 68 countries that will lay bare the global infrastructure of an operation used to manipulate voters on “an industrial scale” are set to be released over the next months.”

Sadly, I think the response to these documents will be one of apathy. Due to the 24-hour news cycle and the stream of ‘news’ on social networks, the voting public grow tired of scandals and news stories that last for months and years.


Funding (Sussex Royals) — “The Sovereign Grant is the annual funding mechanism of the monarchy that covers the work of the Royal Family in support of HM The Queen including expenses to maintain official residences and workspaces. In this exchange, The Queen surrenders the revenue of the Crown Estate and in return, a portion of these public funds are granted to The Sovereign/The Queen for official expenditure.”

I don’t think I need to restate my opinions on the Royal Family, privilege, and hierarchies / coercive power relationships of all shapes and sizes. However, as someone pointed out on Mastodon, this page by ‘Harry and Meghan’ is quietly subversive.


How to sell good ideas (New Statesman) — “It is true that [Malcolm] Gladwell sometimes presses his stories too militantly into the service of an overarching idea, and, at least in his books, can jam together materials too disparate to cohere (Poole referred to his “relentless montage”). The New Yorker essay, which constrains his itinerant curiosity, is where he does his finest work (the best of these are collected in 2009’s What The Dog Saw). For the most part, the work of his many imitators attests to how hard it is to do what he does. You have to be able to write lucid, propulsive prose capable of introducing complex ideas within a magnetic field of narrative. You have to leave your desk and talk to people (he never stopped being a reporter). Above all, you need to acquire an extraordinary eye for the overlooked story, the deceptively trivial incident, the minor genius. Gladwell shares the late Jonathan Miller’s belief that “it is in the negligible that the considerable is to be found”.”

A friend took me to see Gladwell when he was in Newcastle-upon-Tyne touring with ‘What The Dog Saw’. Like the author of this article, I soon realised that Gladwell is selling something quite different to ‘science’ or ‘facts’. And so long as you’re OK with that, you can enjoy (as I do) his podcasts and books.


Just enough Internet: Why public service Internet should be a model of restraint (doteveryone) — “We have not yet done a good job of defining what good digital public service really looks like, of creating digital charters that match up to those of our great institutions, and it is these statements of values and ways of working – rather than any amount of shiny new technology – that will create essential building blocks for the public services of the future.”

While I attended the main MozFest weekend event, I missed the presentation and other events that happened earlier in the week. I definitely agree with the sentiment behind the transcript of this talk by Rachel Coldicutt. I’m just not sure it’s specific enough to be useful in practice.


Places to go in 2020 (Marginal Revolution) — “Here is the mostly dull NYT list. Here is my personal list of recommendations for you, noting I have not been to all of the below, but I am in contact with many travelers and paw through a good deal of information.”

This list by Tyler Cowen is really interesting. I haven’t been to any of the places on this list, but I now really want to visit Eastern Bali and Baku in Azerbaijan.


Reasons not to scoff at ghosts, visions and near-death experiences (Aeon) — “Sure, the dangers of gullibility are evident enough in the tragedies caused by religious fanatics, medical quacks and ruthless politicians. And, granted, spiritual worldviews are not good for everybody. Faith in the ultimate benevolence of the cosmos will strike many as hopelessly irrational. Yet, a century on from James’s pragmatic philosophy and psychology of transformative experiences, it might be time to restore a balanced perspective, to acknowledge the damage that has been caused by stigma, misdiagnoses and mis- or overmedication of individuals reporting ‘weird’ experiences. One can be personally skeptical of the ultimate validity of mystical beliefs and leave properly theological questions strictly aside, yet still investigate the salutary and prophylactic potential of these phenomena.”

I’d happily read a full-length book on this subject, as it’s a fascinating area. The tension between knowing that much/all of the phenomena is reducible to materiality and mechanics may explain what’s going on, but it doesn’t explain it away…


Surveillance Tech Is an Open Secret at CES 2020 (OneZero) — “Lowe offered one explanation for why these companies feel so comfortable marketing surveillance tech: He says that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, so barring federal regulation that bans certain implementations, it’s increasingly likely that some company will fill the surveillance market. In other words, if Google isn’t going to work with the cops, Amazon will. And even if Amazon decides not to, smaller companies out of the spotlight still will.”

I suppose it should come as no surprise that, in this day and age, companies like Cyberlink, previously known for their PowerDVD software, have moved into the very profitable world of surveillance capitalism. What’s going to stop its inexorable rise? I can only think of government regulation (with teeth).


‘Techlash’ Hits College Campuses (New York Times) — “Some recent graduates are taking their technical skills to smaller social impact groups instead of the biggest firms. Ms. Dogru said that some of her peers are pursuing jobs at start-ups focused on health, education and privacy. Ms. Harbour said Berkeley offers a networking event called Tech for Good, where alumni from purpose-driven groups like Code for America and Khan Academy share career opportunities.”

I’m not sure this is currently as big a ‘movement’ as suggested in the article, but I’m glad the wind is blowing in this direction. As with other ethically-dubious industries, companies involved in surveillance capitalism will have to pay people extraordinarily well to put aside their moral scruples.


Tradition is Smarter Than You Are (The Scholar’s Stage) — “To extract resources from a population the state must be able to understand that population. The state needs to make the people and things it rules legible to agents of the government. Legibility means uniformity. States dream up uniform weights and measures, impress national languages and ID numbers on their people, and divvy the country up into land plots and administrative districts, all to make the realm legible to the powers that be. The problem is that not all important things can be made legible. Much of what makes a society successful is knowledge of the tacit sort: rarely articulated, messy, and from the outside looking in, purposeless. These are the first things lost in the quest for legibility. Traditions, small cultural differences, odd and distinctive lifeways… are all swept aside by a rationalizing state that preserves (or in many cases, imposes) only what it can be understood and manipulated from the 2,000 foot view. The result… are many of the greatest catastrophes of human history.”

One of the books that’s been on my ‘to-read’ list for a while is ‘Seeing Like a State’, written by James C. Scott and referenced in this article. I’m no believer in tradition for the sake of it but, I have to say, that a lot of the superstitions of my maternal grandmother, and a lot of the rituals that come with religion are often very practical in nature.


Image by Michael Schlegel (via kottke.org)

I am not fond of expecting catastrophes, but there are cracks in the universe

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.

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