Tag: The New Yorker (page 1 of 4)

Algorithmic Anxiety

I listened to a great episode of CBC’s Spark podcast with the excellent Nora Young on what ownership will look like in 2050. One of the contributors talked about what it might look like to be “on the wrong side of the API”. In other words, the person responding to the request, rather than giving it.

We’re already heading towards a dystopia when people are having their behaviour influenced by black box algorithms that we don’t understand. This article talks about shopping on Instagram and listing property on Airbnb, but the point (and the anxiety) is universal.

Only in the middle of the past decade, though, did recommender systems become a pervasive part of life online. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all shifted away from chronological feeds—showing messages in the order in which they were posted—toward more algorithmically sequenced ones, displaying what the platforms determined would be most engaging to the user. Spotify and Netflix introduced personalized interfaces that sought to cater to each user’s tastes. (Top Picks for Kyle!) Such changes made platforms feel less predictable and less transparent. What you saw was never quite the same as what anyone else was seeing. You couldn’t count on a feed to work the same way from one month to the next. Just last week, Facebook implemented a new default Home tab on its app that prioritizes recommended content in the vein of TikTok, its main competitor.

Almost every other major Internet platform makes use of some form of algorithmic recommendation. Google Maps calculates driving routes using unspecified variables, including predicted traffic patterns and fuel efficiency, rerouting us mid-journey in ways that may be more convenient or may lead us astray. The food-delivery app Seamless front-loads menu items that it predicts you might like based on your recent ordering habits, the time of day, and what is “popular near you.” E-mail and text-message systems supply predictions for what you’re about to type. (“Got it!”) It can feel as though every app is trying to guess what you want before your brain has time to come up with its own answer, like an obnoxious party guest who finishes your sentences as you speak them. We are constantly negotiating with the pesky figure of the algorithm, unsure how we would have behaved if we’d been left to our own devices. No wonder we are made anxious. In a recent essay for Pitchfork, Jeremy D. Larson described a nagging feeling that Spotify’s algorithmic recommendations and automated playlists were draining the joy from listening to music by short-circuiting the process of organic discovery: “Even though it has all the music I’ve ever wanted, none of it feels necessarily rewarding, emotional, or personal.”

[…]

“Algorithmic anxiety,” however, is the most apt phrase I’ve found for describing the unsettling experience of navigating today’s online platforms. Shagun Jhaver, a scholar of social computing, helped define the phrase while conducting research and interviews in collaboration with Airbnb in 2018. Of fifteen hosts he spoke to, most worried about where their listings were appearing in users’ search results. They felt “uncertainty about how Airbnb algorithms work and a perceived lack of control,” Jhaver reported in a paper co-written with two Airbnb employees. One host told Jhaver, “Lots of listings that are worse than mine are in higher positions.” On top of trying to boost their rankings by repainting walls, replacing furniture, or taking more flattering photos, the hosts also developed what Jhaver called “folk theories” about how the algorithm worked. They would log on to Airbnb repeatedly throughout the day or constantly update their unit’s availability, suspecting that doing so would help get them noticed by the algorithm. Some inaccurately marked their listings as “child safe,” in the belief that it would give them a bump. (According to Jhaver, Airbnb couldn’t confirm that it had any effect.) Jhaver came to see the Airbnb hosts as workers being overseen by a computer overlord instead of human managers. In order to make a living, they had to guess what their capricious boss wanted, and the anxious guesswork may have made the system less efficient over all.

Source: The Age of Algorithmic Anxiety | The New Yorker

Assume that your devices are compromised

I was in Catalonia in 2017 during the independence referendum. The way that people were treated when trying to exercise democratic power I still believe to be shameful.

These days, I run the most secure version of an open operating system on my mobile device that I can. And yet I still need to assume it’s been compromised.

In Catalonia, more than sixty phones—owned by Catalan politicians, lawyers, and activists in Spain and across Europe—have been targeted using Pegasus. This is the largest forensically documented cluster of such attacks and infections on record. Among the victims are three members of the European Parliament, including Solé. Catalan politicians believe that the likely perpetrators of the hacking campaign are Spanish officials, and the Citizen Lab’s analysis suggests that the Spanish government has used Pegasus. A former NSO employee confirmed that the company has an account in Spain. (Government agencies did not respond to requests for comment.) The results of the Citizen Lab’s investigation are being disclosed for the first time in this article. I spoke with more than forty of the targeted individuals, and the conversations revealed an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust. Solé said, “That kind of surveillance in democratic countries and democratic states—I mean, it’s unbelievable.”

[…]

[T]here is evidence that Pegasus is being used in at least forty-five countries, and it and similar tools have been purchased by law-enforcement agencies in the United States and across Europe. Cristin Flynn Goodwin, a Microsoft executive who has led the company’s efforts to fight spyware, told me, “The big, dirty secret is that governments are buying this stuff—not just authoritarian governments but all types of governments.”

[…]

The Citizen Lab’s researchers concluded that, on July 7, 2020, Pegasus was used to infect a device connected to the network at 10 Downing Street, the office of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. A government official confirmed to me that the network was compromised, without specifying the spyware used. “When we found the No. 10 case, my jaw dropped,” John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab, recalled. “We suspect this included the exfiltration of data,” Bill Marczak, another senior researcher there, added. The official told me that the National Cyber Security Centre, a branch of British intelligence, tested several phones at Downing Street, including Johnson’s. It was difficult to conduct a thorough search of phones—“It’s a bloody hard job,” the official said—and the agency was unable to locate the infected device. The nature of any data that may have been taken was never determined.

Source: How Democracies Spy On Their Citizens | The New Yorker

Should teenagers be using social media? We probably already know the answer

While I’m not a fan of Nicholas Carr’s approach to technology (“is Google making us stupid?”) I do have sympathy with Cal Newport’s more nuanced and considered approach.

Writing in The New Yorker, Newport considers whether we should be allowing teenagers to use social media at all. By this, he doesn’t mean the ‘social internet’, which I explore further in this post.

Our son turns 15 soon and while we’ve grudgingly allowed him to use WhatsApp (I don’t use any Facebook Meta products) he isn’t allowed an Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok account. Digital parenting is a thing.

I’m not sure, however, that we should be so quick to give up on interrogating the necessity of these technologies in our lives, especially when they impact the well-being of our children. In an attempt to keep this part of the conversation alive, I reached out to four academic experts—selected from both sides of the ongoing debate about the harm caused by these platforms—and asked them, with little preamble or instruction, the question missing from so much of the recent coverage of the Facebook revelations: Should teen-agers use social media? I wasn’t expecting a consensus response, but I thought it was important, at the very least, to define the boundaries of the current landscape of expert opinion on this critical issue.

[…]

For a particularly dispiriting case study of how long it sometimes takes to establish definitive causation between behaviors and negative outcomes, consider the effort involved in connecting smoking to lung cancer. The first major study showing a statistical correlation between cigarettes and cancer, authored by Herbert Lombard and Carl Doering of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Harvard School of Public Health, was published in 1928. I recently came across an article in the archives of The Atlantic from 1956—nearly thirty years later—in which the author was still trying to convince skeptics who were unhappy with the types of confounding factors that are unavoidable in scientific studies. “If it has not been proved that tobacco is guilty of causing cancer of the lung,” the article pleads, “it has certainly been shown to have been on the scene of the crime.”

[…]

What is obvious, however, is that regardless of what answers we end up with, we need to keep debating these fundamental questions. As Zuckerberg emphasized in his defensive post, he wants us to concede that his products are inevitable, and that we have no choice but to move on to discussing their features and safeguards. We might think we’re really sticking it to these social-media giants when we skewer their leaders in congressional hearings, or write scathing commentary pieces about the shortcomings of their moderation policies, but, in some sense, this response provides a reprieve because it sidesteps the conversation that these companies are trying hardest to avoid: the conversation about whether, in the end, the buzzy, digital baubles they offer are really worth all the trouble they’re creating.

Source: The Question We’ve Stopped Asking About Teen-Agers and Social Media | The New Yorker