Tag: The Conversation

Friday fathomings

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Opting in and out of algorithms

It’s now over seven years since I submitted my doctoral thesis on digital literacies. Since then, almost the entire time my daughter has been alive, the world has changed a lot.

Writing in The Conversation, Anjana Susarla explains her view that digital literacy goes well beyond functional skills:

In my view, the new digital literacy is not using a computer or being on the internet, but understanding and evaluating the consequences of an always-plugged-in lifestyle. This lifestyle has a meaningful impact on how people interact with others; on their ability to pay attention to new information; and on the complexity of their decision-making processes.

Digital literacies are plural, context-dependent and always evolving. Right now, I think Susarla is absolutely correct to be focusing on algorithms and the way they interact with society. Ben Williamson is definitely someone to follow and read up on in that regard.

Over the past few years I’ve been trying (both directly and indirectly) to educate people about the impact of algorithms on everything from fake news to privacy. It’s one of the reasons I don’t use Facebook, for example, and go out of my way to explain to others why they shouldn’t either:

A study of Facebook usage found that when participants were made aware of Facebook’s algorithm for curating news feeds, about 83% of participants modified their behavior to try to take advantage of the algorithm, while around 10% decreased their usage of Facebook.

[…]

However, a vast majority of platforms do not provide either such flexibility to their end users or the right to choose how the algorithm uses their preferences in curating their news feed or in recommending them content. If there are options, users may not know about them. About 74% of Facebook’s users said in a survey that they were not aware of how the platform characterizes their personal interests.

Although I’m still not going to join Facebook, one reason I’m a little more chilled out about algorithms and privacy these days is because of the GDPR. If it’s regulated effectively (as I think it will be) then it should really keep Big Tech in check:

As part of the recently approved General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union, people have “a right to explanation” of the criteria that algorithms use in their decisions. This legislation treats the process of algorithmic decision-making like a recipe book. The thinking goes that if you understand the recipe, you can understand how the algorithm affects your life.

[…]

But transparency is not a panacea. Even when an algorithm’s overall process is sketched out, the details may still be too complex for users to comprehend. Transparency will help only users who are sophisticated enough to grasp the intricacies of algorithms.

I agree that it’s not enough to just tell people that they’re being tracked without them being able to do something about it. That leads to technological defeatism. We need a balance between simple, easy-to-use tools that enable user privacy and security. These aren’t going to come through tech industry self-regulation, but through regulatory frameworks like GDPR.

Source: The Conversation


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Remembering the past through photos

A few weeks ago, I bought a Google Assistant-powered smart display and put it in our kitchen in place of the DAB radio. It has the added bonus of cycling through all of my Google Photos, which stretch back as far as when my wife and I were married, 15 years ago.

This part of its functionality makes it, of course, just a cloud-powered digital photo frame. But I think it’s possible to underestimate the power that these things have. About an hour before composing this post, for example, my wife took a photo of a photo(!) that appeared on the display showing me on the beach with our two children when they were very small.

An article by Giuliana Mazzoni in The Conversation points out that our ability to whip out a smartphone at any given moment and take a photo changes our relationship to the past:

We use smart phones and new technologies as memory repositories. This is nothing new – humans have always used external devices as an aid when acquiring knowledge and remembering.

[…]

Nowadays we tend to commit very little to memory – we entrust a huge amount to the cloud. Not only is it almost unheard of to recite poems, even the most personal events are generally recorded on our cellphones. Rather than remembering what we ate at someone’s wedding, we scroll back to look at all the images we took of the food.

Mazzoni points out that this can be problematic, as memory is important for learning. However, there may be a “silver lining”:

Even if some studies claim that all this makes us more stupid, what happens is actually shifting skills from purely being able to remember to being able to manage the way we remember more efficiently. This is called metacognition, and it is an overarching skill that is also essential for students – for example when planning what and how to study. There is also substantial and reliable evidence that external memories, selfies included, can help individuals with memory impairments.

But while photos can in some instances help people to remember, the quality of the memories may be limited. We may remember what something looked like more clearly, but this could be at the expense of other types of information. One study showed that while photos could help people remember what they saw during some event, they reduced their memory of what was said.

She goes on to discuss the impact that viewing many photos from your past has on a malleable sense of self:

Research shows that we often create false memories about the past. We do this in order to maintain the identity that we want to have over time – and avoid conflicting narratives about who we are. So if you have always been rather soft and kind – but through some significant life experience decide you are tough – you may dig up memories of being aggressive in the past or even completely make them up.

I’m not so sure that it’s a good thing to tell yourself the wrong story about who you are. For example, although I grew up in, and identified with, a macho ex-mining town environment, I’ve become happier by realising that my identify is separate to that.

I suppose it’s a bit different for me, as most of the photos I’m looking at are of me with my children and/or my wife. However, I still have to tell myself a story of who I am as a husband and a father, so in many ways it’s the same.

All in all, I love the fact that we can take photos anywhere and at any time. We may need to evolve social norms around the most appropriate ways of capturing images in crowded situations, but that’s separate to the very great benefit which I believe they bring us.

Source: The Conversation