Sunday Seven: data, surveillance and compulsion

As of next week, I’m going to go back to publishing the round-up on Friday, with a digital art piece on Sunday. Why? Because I miss it. And I think a shorter round up (Friday Five instead of Sunday Seven) will be easier to digest. It will be harder to choose only five items to share, but you’ve probably noticed that I’ve never been a stickler for keeping to the numbers anyway, so… you know, who’s counting?

Anyway, here you have some of the most interesting articles found this week:

If you are reading this, we might be in the same news bubble – by CJ Adams and Izzie Zahorian of Jigsaw, via Medium

unfiltered

And now for a totally amazing twist on the power that algorithms and filters, even the self-imposed ones, have on the information and ideas that we see.

“Search engines, social media and news aggregators are great at surfacing information close to our interests, but they are limited by the set of topics and people we choose to follow. Even if we read multiple news sources every day, what we discover is defined by the languages we are able to read, and the topics that our sources decide to cover. Ultimately, these limitations create a “news bubble” that shapes our perspective and awareness of the world. We often miss out on the chance to connect and empathize with ideas beyond these boundaries.” “It’s a common lament: Though the Internet provides us access to a nearly unlimited number of sources for news, most of us rarely venture beyond the same few sources or topics. And as news consumption shifts to our phones, people are using even fewer sources”

Launched by Jigsaw, the tech incubator formerly known as Google Ideas, Unfiltered shows what topics are popular in certain regions of the world, and which ones are being under-reported. A very cool bubble interactive graphic (visual pun noted) shows what is being covered in different parts of the world, and what is being covered elsewhere but not in your region. Furthermore, you can click on any subject displayed to find out more about the type of coverage that it is receiving. You can also see how coverage of a topic has changed over time.

“Even with the power of the internet, it can be surprisingly difficult to explore the diversity of global perspectives. Technology has made it easier for everyone share information, but it hasn’t made us better at finding viewpoints that are distant from our own.”

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The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism – by Shoshanna Zuboff, for Frankfurter Allgemeine

This isn’t from the past week, but I’m breaking the rules here because 1) I only came across it last week, and 2) it’s such a gob-smacker of an article that it deserves to be shared, whenever. Shoshanna Zuboff of Harvard Business School writes in Frankfurter Allgemeine about the new type of capitalism brought on by our active online lives. We’ve heard the term “info-capitalism” before, but she calls it “surveillance capitalism”, a much more unsettling name. The effect is no doubt intentional.

“Some attribute the assault to an inevitable “age of big data,” as if it were possible to conceive of data born pure and blameless, data suspended in some celestial place where facts sublimate into truth… I’ve come to a different conclusion:  The assault we face is driven in large measure by the exceptional appetites of a wholly new genus of capitalism, a systemic coherent new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism.”

Our activity online creates data. Even Google, back in the early days, discarded this data, not realising that it would become the backbone of its lucrative business. The generated information, or “behavioural surplus”, is the basis of surveillance capitalism, and raises all sorts of thorny issues such as privacy, independence and free will.

“We’ve entered virgin territory here. The assault on behavioral data is so sweeping that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests.  This is a different kind of challenge now, one that threatens the existential and political canon of the modern liberal order defined by principles of self-determination that have been centuries, even millennia, in the making.”

The “efficiencies” of online business create new mechanisms of distribution and profit generation which, data protection laws aside, are largely unregulated. And why regulate something that people in general aren’t even aware is happening? Without regulation, it will be difficult to develop an antidote, or to at least channel them towards humanity-enhancing freedoms.

“Mass production was interdependent with its populations who were its consumers and employees. In contrast, surveillance capitalism preys on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and are largely ignorant of its procedures.”

Ms. Zuboff likens surveillance capitalism to a coup, “an overthrow of people’s sovereignty”, which challenges our principle of self-determination. And it’s happening without our realising. We don’t realise what we are consenting to.

“It’s happened quickly and without our understanding or agreement. This is because the regime’s most poignant harms, now and later, have been difficult to grasp or theorize, blurred by extreme velocity and camouflaged by expensive and illegible machine operations, secretive corporate practices, masterful rhetorical misdirection, and purposeful cultural misappropriation.”

The conclusion is powerful, eye-opening and beautifully put. The emphasis is mine, and calls into question what exactly is this utopia we are striving to achieve?

“The bare facts of surveillance capitalism necessarily arouse my indignation because they demean human dignity. The future of this narrative will depend upon the indignant scholars and journalists drawn to this frontier project, indignant elected officials and policy makers who understand that their authority originates in the foundational values of democratic communities, and indignant citizens who act in the knowledge that effectiveness without autonomy is not effective, dependency-induced compliance is no social contract, and freedom from uncertainty is no freedom.”

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Your Data Footprint Is Affecting Your Life In Ways You Can’t Even Imagine – by Jessica Leber, for FastCoExist

Not quite as gut-punching as the previous article, this one continues on the riff of the burning question: how much control over our lives have we given up, without even realising?

“Predictions about you (and millions of other strangers) are starting to deeply shape your life. Your career, your love life, major decisions about your health and well-being, and even if you end up in jail, are now being governed in no small part by the digital bread crumbs you’ve left behind—many of which you don’t even know you’ve dropped in the first place.”

Behind-the-scenes algorithms of dating sites, commerce, civic interaction and crime prevention are ostensibly there to help us, to improve our quality of life, to prevent bad things from happening. But how much is cause, and how much is effect? To what extent are the predictions self-fulfilling, further entrenching future assumptions?

“When you rely too much on data—if the data is flawed or incomplete, as could be the case in predictive policing—you risk further validating bad decisions or existing biases.”

Are prediction algorithms enablers, freeing up valuable time and producing end results that we’re happy with? Or are they taking our way our agency and our free will? Would you have bought that vase if your feed hadn’t shown it to you? Would you have gone on a date with that person if an algorithm hadn’t decided for you that he or she was a good fit?

“Even major life decisions like college admissions and hiring are being affected. You might think that a college is considering you on your merits, and while that’s mostly true, it’s not entirely. Pressured to improve their rankings, colleges are very interested in increasing their graduation rates and the percentage of admitted students who enroll. They have now have developed statistical programs to pick students who will do well on these measures.”

Personal finance, college admissions, hiring decisions are all becoming increasingly based on predictive assumptions, tweaked to emphasize factors that optimize outcomes. This sounds efficient. But is it fair?

“What happens when a computer says you’re likely to commit a crime before you do it, and, worse, what if the data underlying that prediction is wrong and you can’t do anything about it? What happens when a dating program is slowly pushing us to a more segregated society because it shows us the people it thinks we want to see? Or when personalized medicine can save lives, but because it is based mainly around genomes sequenced from white people of European descent, it’s only saving some lives?”

And yet, the possibilities are huge, and important. Information leads to insight which leads to fixing problems or improving outcomes.

“On the other hand, big data does have the potential to vastly expand our understanding of who we are and why we do what we do. A decade ago, serious scientists would have laughed someone out of the room who proposed a study of “the human condition.” It is a topic so broad and lacking in measurability. But perhaps the most important manifestation of big data in people’s lives could come from the ability for scientists to study huge, unwieldy questions they couldn’t before.”

So the issue revolves around the quality of the data, and its end use. Life has always been based on assumptions, so we can´t ban those. Predicting is a human trait that goes back to pre-history. And the collection of data isn’t going anywhere, it is becoming an increasingly significant factor in daily interactions and that trend will be very difficult to stop. But, we can at least start to ask the questions about the potential negative outcomes, rather than gleefully rush into the imagined utopias of all-seeing, all-knowing code that makes our lives more pleasant, but at the same time, less free and less human.

“And while it’s true that analytics can already make smarter guesses than humans in many situations, people are more than their data. A world where people struggle to rise above what is expected of them—say a college won’t admit them because they don’t seem like someone with a good chance of graduating—is a sad world. “There’s this danger we lose our identity as people and we become categories,” says Dhar.”

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The Value of Using Podcasts in Class – by Michael Godsey, for The Atlantic

I don’t want to become known as “The Podcast Girl” (although I can think of worse titles), but I do find them fascinating as a medium and as a content generator. They “reach the parts that other media don’t reach”, to paraphrase an iconic Carlsberg ad. But I confess that I haven’t yet given much thought to their usefulness in the classroom. I had thought that podcasts were for personal time, and classroom interaction was teacher-student.

But, why not? Group listening brings out the social aspect of podcasts, making them the most communal of media. I would argue that they are even more “social” than video, since with visual you are both listening and watching. With audio you’re just listening, and can interact with your fellow listeners with your eyes and your voice.

“Earlier this week, I asked each of my own students to write down what they’d honestly like to do for the rest of the semester: read a good book together, listen to another podcast, or listen to a podcast with the words on the screen. Sixty-two voted for the latter, while just two voted for podcasts alone, and one for reading alone.”

I did think it strange that reading books is being pushed aside in favour of reading transcripts. And this would definitely validate Nicholas Carr’s theory that the internet makes us “dumber” by eroding our ability to deep read. But, as the author points out, some reading is better than no reading. And the juxtaposition of transcripts and podcasts, of audio and text, is going to create new synapses, new learning experiences and perhaps even new media. It would be premature to dismiss it as less “meaningful”, until we try it out, and see what effect this combination has on learning.

“The reasons were as varied as they were compelling. Many of them said that reading along with the audio helped with their focus and kept them from “spacing out” while listening. Others, paradoxically, wrote that they were able to multi-task—they could take notes or write on their worksheets and could keep up with the story even with their eyes off the screen. Some explicitly recognized that they could look back and re-read something they didn’t understand when they first heard it; others said they read slightly ahead and then could write down a quote while they listened to it. A student with eyesight problems said he appreciates the ability to take reading breaks without stopping his enjoyment of the story. A few students learning English as a second language wrote that they like how they can read the words and—as one student put it—promptly “hear how they’re supposed to sound.””

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Things Organized Neatly: A New Book of Compulsively Organized Things by Austin Radcliffe – via Colossal

image via Colossal

image via Colossal

I’m a bit concerned about how much I love this: OCD turned into art. Does that mean I might have compulsive tendencies? No, you should see my office. But the photo of the cars and containers stacked up? That was my recurring nightmare when I was a little girl – I couldn’t get my toy cars to stack up. So, maybe… Whatever, these photos are amazing.

image via Colossal

image via Colossal

image via Colossal

image via Colossal

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What Happens When We Become A Cashless Society? – by Charlie Sorrell, for FastCoExist

Is cash becoming obsolete? This article cites the growing encroachment of electronic commerce on our daily lives to argue that yes, we don’t need it any more.

“The promise is that banning cash would end black markets, but for honest citizens, the end of paper cash brings many unsettling downsides. Credit card transactions are already trackable, and electronic cash could bring that lack of anonymity to every single transaction you make.”

As a society, are we comfortable with that level of scrutiny? Governments around the world are trying to curtail the use of cash, to reduce fraud, money laundering and to lower the costs of producing and handling the stuff. Could part of their motivation be to reduce the anonymity that cash gives us?

“While anonymous digital cash is technically possible, governments are unlikely to pass up the chance to have all currencies tracked as they move through the system (like with credit card transactions), or with new digital currency that carries a record of its own history along with it. Once this information exists, it will become a target of government agencies such as the police and intelligence services and trafficked to insurance companies, tax collectors, fraud squads, and even marketers.”

And if you look around, you can see that it’s already happening.

“The end of cash may seem like fancy thinking, but look at how money has changed since credit and debit cards started to usurp cash. We already route money around with bank transfers enacted from our tablets, we pay for Uber cars with the convenience of a phone app, and we travel abroad without even thinking about buying foreign currency before we go. And PayPal, the original cashless payment system, turned 18 years old this year. Cash is already on its way out.”

Technologically, it’s both disconcerting and very interesting. Would better data give governments stronger control over the economy? Could money be programmed to only be spent in certain sectors? And with more payment-like data flying around the ether, security will become even more of an issue than it already is. While cash is not exactly secure, at least we know when we have it.

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Things I enjoyed this week:

· You’ve Got Mail: Just the sweetest film, with an excellent, retro soundtrack, and nostalgic dial-up interfaces.

youve-got-mail-movie-poster

· A new MOOC on cryptography by Stanford University. Dense, and hard work, but exciting.

coursera cryptography

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