⚒️ That which is unique, breaks — “The more finished goods become commodities, the fewer opportunities an individual has to generate new creation. The ability to mass-produce removes the opportunity for the great many to learn to produce at all. From such a thought, a future full of consumption-only hobbies might come as no surprise.”
🎭 The ‘Batman Effect’: How having an alter ego empowers you — “Self-distancing seems to enable people to reap these positive effects by leading them to focus on the bigger picture – it’s possible to see events as part of a broader plan rather than getting bogged down in immediate feelings. And this has led some researchers to wonder whether it could also improve elements of self-control like determination, by making sure that we keep focused on our goals even in the face of distraction.”
🦇 New lessons for stealth technology — “Optical metamaterials that refract and scatter light in adaptive ways are already familiar in the living world, for example in the photonic crystals found on strongly coloured, microstructured insect cuticles or butterfly wings. Now it appears that acoustic stealth technology too was discovered first by natural selection. Neil et al. report evidence that the intricate array of scales on some moth wings acts as an acoustic metamaterial to reduce echoes from ultrasound6. This, they say, is probably an adaptive property that reduces the visibility of moths to the sonar searches of their predators, bats.
🥱 Misinformation fatigue sets in — “It turns out maybe people don’t actually care about being lied to. And little is likely to change in 2021 unless and until platforms take actual responsibility for the way people gather and organize on them — admitting that their algorithms already guide what we see, who we speak to, what we buy, and what we believe, and working with outside experts to instead curate an experience that undoes a bit of the pollution that they’ve made.”
Quotation-as-title from Baltasar Gracián. Image from top-linked post.
People often ask me about my stance on Facebook products. They can understand that I don’t use Facebook itself, but what about Instagram? And surely I use WhatsApp? Nope.
Given that I don’t usually have a single place to point people who want to read about the problems with WhatsApp, I thought I’d create one.
WhatsApp is a messaging app that was acquired by Facebook for the eye-watering amount of $19 billion in 2014. Interestingly, a BuzzFeed News article from 2018 cites documents confidential documents from the time leading up to the acquisition that were acquired by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. They show the threat WhatsApp posed to Facebook at the time.
As you can see from the above chart, Facebook executives were shown in 2013 that WhatsApp (8.6% reach) was growing rapidly and posed a huge threat to Facebook Messenger (13.7% reach).
So Facebook bought WhatsApp. But what did they buy? If, as we’re led to believe, WhatsApp is ‘end-to-end encrypted’ then Facebook don’t have access to the messages of users. So what’s so valuable?
Brian Acton, one of the founders of WhatsApp (and a man who got very rich through its sale) has gone on record saying that he feels like he sold his users’ privacy to Facebook.
Facebook, Acton says, had decided to pursue two ways of making money from WhatsApp. First, by showing targeted ads in WhatsApp’s new Status feature, which Acton felt broke a social compact with its users. “Targeted advertising is what makes me unhappy,” he says. His motto at WhatsApp had been “No ads, no games, no gimmicks”—a direct contrast with a parent company that derived 98% of its revenue from advertising. Another motto had been “Take the time to get it right,” a stark contrast to “Move fast and break things.”
Facebook also wanted to sell businesses tools to chat with WhatsApp users. Once businesses were on board, Facebook hoped to sell them analytics tools, too. The challenge was WhatsApp’s watertight end-to-end encryption, which stopped both WhatsApp and Facebook from reading messages. While Facebook didn’t plan to break the encryption, Acton says, its managers did question and “probe” ways to offer businesses analytical insights on WhatsApp users in an encrypted environment.
Parmy Olson (Forbes)
The other way Facebook wanted to make money was to sell tools to businesses allowing them to chat with WhatsApp users. These tools would also give “analytical insights” on how users interacted with WhatsApp.
Facebook was allowed to acquire WhatsApp (and Instagram) despite fears around monopolistic practices. This was because they made a promise not to combine data from various platforms. But, guess what happened next?
In 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19b, and promised users that it wouldn’t harvest their data and mix it with the surveillance troves it got from Facebook and Instagram. It lied. Years later, Facebook mixes data from all of its properties, mining it for data that ultimately helps advertisers, political campaigns and fraudsters find prospects for whatever they’re peddling. Today, Facebook is in the process of acquiring Giphy, and while Giphy currently doesn’t track users when they embed GIFs in messages, Facebook could start doing that anytime.
All of this creates a profile. So yes, because of end-ot-end encryption, Facebook might not know the exact details of your messages. But they know that you’ve started messaging a particular user account around midnight every night. They know that you’ve started interacting with a bunch of stuff around anxiety. They know how the people you message most tend to vote.
Do I have to connect the dots here? This is a company that sells targeted adverts, the kind of adverts that can influence the outcome of elections. Of course, Facebook will never admit that its platforms are the problem, it’s always the responsibility of the user to be ‘vigilant’.
So you might think that you’re just messaging your friend or colleague on a platform that ‘everyone’ uses. But your decision to go with the flow has consequences. It has implications for democracy. It has implications on creating a de facto monopoly for our digital information. And it has implications around the dissemination of false information.
The features that would later allow WhatsApp to become a conduit for conspiracy theory and political conflict were ones never integral to SMS, and have more in common with email: the creation of groups and the ability to forward messages. The ability to forward messages from one group to another – recently limited in response to Covid-19-related misinformation – makes for a potent informational weapon. Groups were initially limited in size to 100 people, but this was later increased to 256. That’s small enough to feel exclusive, but if 256 people forward a message on to another 256 people, 65,536 will have received it.
A communication medium that connects groups of up to 256 people, without any public visibility, operating via the phones in their pockets, is by its very nature, well-suited to supporting secrecy. Obviously not every group chat counts as a “conspiracy”. But it makes the question of how society coheres, who is associated with whom, into a matter of speculation – something that involves a trace of conspiracy theory. In that sense, WhatsApp is not just a channel for the circulation of conspiracy theories, but offers content for them as well. The medium is the message.
William Davies (The Guardian)
I cannot control the decisions others make, nor have I forced my opinions on my two children, who (despite my warnings) both use WhatsApp to message their friends. But, for me, the risk to myself and society of using WhatsApp is not one I’m happy with taking.
I don’t know… I think I’d like to say only that [young people] should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as possible by themselves. I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.
This article in Open Culture quotes the film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky. Having just finished my first set of therapy sessions, I have to say that the metaphor of “puting on your own oxygen mask before helping others” would be a good takeaway from it. That sounds selfish, but as Tarkovsky points out here, other approaches can lead to the destruction of self-esteem.
[T]here are two sources of feeling like a noob: being stupid, and doing something novel. Our dislike of feeling like a noob is our brain telling us “Come on, come on, figure this out.” Which was the right thing to be thinking for most of human history. The life of hunter-gatherers was complex, but it didn’t change as much as life does now. They didn’t suddenly have to figure out what to do about cryptocurrency. So it made sense to be biased toward competence at existing problems over the discovery of new ones. It made sense for humans to dislike the feeling of being a noob, just as, in a world where food was scarce, it made sense for them to dislike the feeling of being hungry.
I’m not sure about the evolutionary framing, but there’s definitely something in this about having the confidence (and humility) to be a ‘noob’ and learn things as a beginner.
Imagine you were to take two identical twins and give them the same starter job, same manager, same skills, and the same personality. One competently does all of their work behind a veil of silence, not sharing good news, opportunities, or challenges, but just plugs away until asked for a status update. The other does the same level of work but communicates effectively, keeping their manager and stakeholders proactively informed. Which one is going to get the next opportunity for growth?
I absolutely love this post. As a Product Manager, I’ve been talking repeatedly recently about making our open-source project ‘legible’. As remote workers, that means over-communicating and, as pointed out in this post, being proactive in that communication. Highly recommended.
Consider packing a suitcase for a trip. It contains many different items – clothes, toiletries, books, electrical items, maybe food and drink or gifts. Some of these items bear a relationship to others, for example underwear, and others are seemingly unrelated, for example a hair dryer. Each brings their own function, which has a separate existence and relates to other items outside of the case, but within the case, they form a new category, that of “items I need for my trip.” In this sense the suitcase resembles the ed tech field, or at least a gathering of ed tech individuals, for example at a conference
If you attend a chemistry conference and have lunch with strangers, it is highly likely they will nearly all have chemistry degrees and PhDs. This is not the case at an ed tech conference, where the lunch table might contain people with expertise in computer science, philosophy, psychology, art, history and engineering. This is a strength of the field. The chemistry conference suitcase then contains just socks (but of different types), but the ed tech suitcase contains many different items. In this perspective then the aim is not to make the items of the suitcase the same, but to find means by which they meet the overall aim of usefulness for your trip, and are not random items that won’t be needed. This suggests a different way of approaching ed tech beyond making it a discipline.
At the start of this year, it became (briefly) fashionable among ageing (mainly North American) men to state that they had “never been an edtech guy”. Follwed by something something pedagogy or something something people. In this post, Martin Weller uses a handy metaphor to explain that edtech may not be a discipline, but it’s a useful field (or area of focus) nonetheless.
Backdoors are usually camouflaged as “accidental” security flaws. In the last year alone, 12 such flaws have been found in WhatsApp. Seven of them were critical – like the one that got Jeff Bezos. Some might tell you WhatsApp is still “very secure” despite having 7 backdoors exposed in the last 12 months, but that’s just statistically improbable.
Don’t let yourself be fooled by the tech equivalent of circus magicians who’d like to focus your attention on one isolated aspect all while performing their tricks elsewhere. They want you to think about end-to-end encryption as the only thing you have to look at for privacy. The reality is much more complicated.
Facebook products are bad for you, for society, and for the planet. Choose alternatives and encourage others to do likewise.
The current social-media model isn’t quite right for family sharing. Different generations tend to congregate in different places: Facebook is Boomer paradise, Instagram appeals to Millennials, TikTok is GenZ central. (WhatsApp has helped bridge the generational divide, but its focus on messaging is limiting.)
Updating family about a vacation across platforms—via Instagram stories or on Facebook, for example—might not always be appropriate. Do you really want your cubicle pal, your acquaintance from book club, and your high school frenemy to be looped in as well?
Some apps are just before their time. Take Path, for example, which my family used for almost the entire eight years it was around, from 2010 to 2018. The interface was great, the experience cosy, and the knowledge that you weren’t sharing with everyone outside of a close circle? Priceless.
While one data broker might only be able to tie my shopping behavior to something like my IP address, and another broker might only be able to tie it to my rough geolocation, that’s ultimately not much of an issue. What is an issue is what happens when those “anonymized” data points inevitably bleed out of the marketing ecosystem and someone even more nefarious uses it for, well, whatever—use your imagination. In other words, when one data broker springs a leak, it’s bad enough—but when dozens spring leaks over time, someone can piece that data together in a way that’s not only identifiable but chillingly accurate.
This idea of cumulative harm is a particularly difficult one to explain (and prove) not only in the world of data, but in every area of life.
Google recently invented a third way to track who you are and what you view on the web.
Each and every install of Chrome, since version 54, have generated a unique ID. Depending upon which settings you configure, the unique ID may be longer or shorter.
So every time you visit a Google web page or use a third party site which uses some Google resource, this ID is sent to Google and can be used to track which website or individual page you are viewing. As Google’s services such as scripts, captchas and fonts are used extensively on the most popular web sites, it’s likely that Google tracks most web pages you visit.
In the last year I have seen more and more researchers like danah boyd suggesting that digital literacies are not enough. Given that some on the Internet have weaponized these tools, I believe she is right. Moving beyond digital literacies means thinking about the epistemology behind digital literacies and helping to “build the capacity to truly hear and embrace someone else’s perspective and teaching people to understand another’s view while also holding their view firm” (boyd, March 9, 2018). We can still rely on social media for our news but we really owe it to ourselves to do better in further developing digital literacies, and knowing that just because we have discussions through screens that we should not be so narcissistic to believe that we MUST be right or that the other person is simply an idiot.
I’d argue, as I did recently in this talk, that what Young and boyd are talking about here is actually a central tenet of digital literacies.
We tend to use words to denote something right up to the time that term becomes untenable. Someone has to invent a better one. Take mobile phones, for example. They’re literally named after the least-used app on there, so we’re crying out for a different way to refer to them. Perhaps a better name would be ‘trackers’.
These days, most people use mobile devices for social networking. These are available free at the point of access, funded by what we’re currently calling ‘advertising’. However, as this author notes, it’s nothing of the sort:
What we have today is not advertising. The amount of personally identifiable information companies have about their customers is absolutely perverse. Some of the world’s largestcompanies are in the business of selling your personal information for use in advertising. This might sound innocuous but the tracking efforts of these companies are so accurate that many people believe that Facebook listens to their conversations to serve them relevant ads. Even if it’s true that the microphone is not used, the sum of all other data collected is still enough to show creepily relevant advertising.
Unfortunately, the author doesn’t seem to have come to the conclusion yet that it’s the logic of capitalism that go us here. Instead, he just points out that people’s privacy is being abused.
[P]eople now get most of their information from social networks yet these networks dictate the order in which content is served to the user. Google makes the worlds most popular mobile operating system and it’s purpose is drive the company’s bottom line (ad blocking is forbidden). “Smart” devices are everywhere and companies are jumping over each other to put more shit in your house so they can record your movements and sell the information to advertisers. This is all a blatant abuse of privacy that is completely toxic to society.
Agreed, and it’s easy to feel a little helpless against this onslaught. While it’s great to have a list of things that users can do, if those things are difficult to implement and/or hard to understand, then it’s an uphill battle.
That being said, the three suggestions he makes are use
To combat this trend, I have taken the following steps and I think others should join the movement:
Aggressively block all online advertisements
Don’t succumb to the “curated” feeds
Not every device needs to be “smart”
I feel I’m already way ahead of the author in this regard:
In all, the team identified 2,121 trackers — 233 of which were previously unknown to popular advertising and tracking blacklists. These trackers collected personal data like Android IDs, phone numbers, device fingerprints, and MAC addresses.
The link to the full report is linked to in the quotation above, but the high-level findings were:
»Most trackers are owned by just a few parent organizations. The authors report that sixteen of the 20 most pervasive trackers are owned by Alphabet. Other parent organizations include Facebook and Verizon. “There is a clear oligopoly happening in the ecosystem,” Nithyanand says.
» Mobile games and educational apps are the two categories with the highest number of trackers. Users of news and entertainment apps are also exposed to a wide range of trackers. In a separate paper co-authored by Vallina-Rodriguez, he explores the intersection of mobile tracking and apps for youngsters: “Is Our Children’s Apps Learning?”
» Cross-device tracking is widespread. The vast majority of mobile trackers are also active on the desktop web, allowing companies to link together personal data produced in both ecosystems. “Cross-platform tracking is already happening everywhere,” Nithyanand says. “Fifteen of the top 20 organizations active in the mobile advertising space also have a presence in the web advertising space.”
We’re finally getting the stage where a large portion of the population can’t really ignore the fact that they’re using free services in return for pervasive and always-on surveillance.