What Facebook doesn’t show you

BLOGGER COMMENT:  Interaction with your FB “friends” is relatively insignificant. So what’s the point of “social media?” Data gathering for corporations. Certainly not socializing…
August 18

When you spend a day with something that knows you in ways you don’t know yourself, you learn that maybe you aren’t quite as interested in the things you think you are.

Here’s what I learned about myself: It seems I don’t much care about my hometown or the people in it, I’m far more interested in feminist blogs than I am in technology or sports, I’m still hung up on New York after moving away last spring, and I’m apparently very interested in the goings on of someone I worked with at Pizza Hut when I was 16.

What was the source of these revelatory, self-image-shifting facts? The same place you probably went when you got to work this morning: Facebook, which we can’t stop feeding, and obsessively tracks our every online movement.

Over the course of five or six hours on July 17, I pored over my News Feed, endlessly scrolling and refreshing until every piece of content that appeared was a repeat. I cataloged each post, totaling 1,417 status updates, photos, links, Likes, event RSVP’s and more, creating an assortment of everything Facebook thinks I care about.

But for all those link shares and wall posts, I still wasn’t sure exactly why I was seeing what I was seeing, or if I was even seeing what I wanted to see. (A Pizza Hut co-worker? Really?) So I went through my whole Facebook network – all of my 403 friends and the 157 Pages I Like – and recorded every single thing they posted on July 17.

Spoiler: My News Feed showed me only a fraction of my network’s total activity, most of what it showed me was old, and what I was shown was often jarringly unexpected.

Facebook says roughly one in seven people on the planet log in at least once a month. And yet, how News Feed works remains bafflingly opaque, like a secret box of technology, algorithms and magic that remains one of tech’s bigger mysteries. An entire consulting industry is built around trying to game it (think SEO for Google), and publishers invest enormous amounts of energy into succeeding on it, but as soon as people start to figure it out Facebook tweaks its secret recipe and everything goes out the window.

What we know is this: The more popular a piece of content posted in your network becomes, the more likely it is to spill into your News Feed; and the friends and Pages you interact most with are the ones you’ll see most frequently, according to Justin Lafferty, editor of InsideFacebook.com.

“Mark Zuckerberg wants News Feed to be like a newspaper,” he said. “The top stories are curated based on relevancy and the user’s connection to that page or friend,” he said, adding that like a printed newspaper or magazine, older stories can still be germane.

But beyond that, not much is known, and the further you dig into what Facebook thinks about you, the more odd things can get.

For example: I lived in Denver until I was 20 and still consider it home. Throughout my day on Facebook, I didn’t see a single story from The Denver Post, despite that Page posting 17 pieces of unique content. The same was true for Westword, a Denver alt-weekly I used to read religiously; a handful of local TV news stations I Like; and high school friends, acquaintances and even people I still consider close friends who live there. Do I not care about my home as much as I thought? Despite letting Facebook track me basically wherever and whenever it wants to, it still doesn’t think I’m interested in Denver or what goes on there?

On the other hand, women-oriented blogs such as Jezebel, Refinery29 and The Cut at times dominated my News Feed, with a whopping 40 posts between them appearing. The Verge, which I thought was among my favorite blogs, barely showed up.

And even as I was doing my experiment, I could see subtle shifts in what appeared, which, in turn, perhaps changes who Facebook thinks I am. Status updates from those same high school friends I hadn’t interacted with in years suddenly started popping up toward the end of the day. The same went for Pages I liked long ago and forgot about, and parties in New York I wasn’t invited to but saw close friends RSVP to.

The day had become an oddly pointed reminder of a past I don’t seem to care about, and a distressing collection of everything I’m missing out on today.

By midnight, after almost six hours of scrolling, refreshing and note-taking throughout the day, I had consumed 1,417 unique events. Posts from July 17 became rare as older posts crept in, and eventually everything I was seeing in my News Feed I had seen before. I had exhausted my well of Facebook content, I thought – a triumph! I had conquered Facebook!

Well, no: I wasn’t even close. After going back to record every single event that happened in my entire network on July 17, I saw that 2,593 pieces of new content had been produced. I saw 738 of them, or about 29%. The other 679 posts that appeared in my News Feed were old news by the time I saw them, sometimes by more than two days.

So that means that after doing everything possible to see all of the activity in my network, I saw less than third of it. Considering the average U.S. user spends around 40 minutes on Facebook per day – or about one-tenth of the time I spent in my News Feed – it’s easy to imagine that percentage dipping far, far below my 29%.

But that might be the point.

Greg Marra, a product manager on News Feed at Facebook, told me that it is fundamentally a reflection of the user and his or her interests.

“News Feed is made by you,” Marra said. “It tries to show the most interesting things possible for you, it’s a very personalized system,” he said, adding, “We try to let users take control.”

Marra said there are countless signals that tell Facebook what to pump into a person’s News Feed, including relationships with other users, the topic of content in a given link, how long a user spends reading a story he or she found though Facebook, if and how many times X user visits Y user’s profile, friends’ activity on a certain post, all of our previous activity and more.

“We learn based on what you’ve done in the past,” Marra said. “And we try to quickly learn about the things that you’re interested in.”

(Remember that Facebook’s learning can sometimes result in disastrous PR.)

So after a full day spent on Facebook, what was I left with? In the end, not much. A heap of work for myself to complete this story; a still-muddled understanding of how News Feed works; and a slightly different view of what I think I care about.

Fittingly enough: The final post I saw on my Endless Day of Facebook was a status update about a flash flood warning that was more than 40 hours old.

It was for Denver.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/08/18/what-facebook-doesnt-show-you/?Post+generic=%3Ftid%3Dsm_twitter_washingtonpost

 

Facebook, email and the neuroscience of always being distracted

I used to be able to read for hours without digital interruption. Now? That’s just funny. I want my focus back!

"War and Peace" tortured me: Facebook, email and the neuroscience of always being distracted
This essay is adapted from “The End of Absence”

I’m enough of a distraction addict that a low-level ambient guilt about not getting my real work done hovers around me for most of the day. And this distractible quality in me pervades every part of my life. The distractions—What am I making for dinner?, Who was that woman in “Fargo”?, or, quite commonly, What else should I be reading?—are invariably things that can wait. What, I wonder, would I be capable of doing if I weren’t constantly worrying about what I ought to be doing?

And who is this frumpy thirty-something man who has tried to read “War and Peace” five times, never making it past the garden gate? I took the tome down from the shelf this morning and frowned again at those sad little dog-ears near the fifty-page mark.

Are the luxuries of time on which deep reading is reliant available to us anymore? Even the attention we deign to give to our distractions, those frissons, is narrowing.

It’s important to note this slippage. As a child, I would read for hours in bed without the possibility of a single digital interruption. Even the phone (which was anchored by wires to the kitchen wall downstairs) was generally mute after dinner. Our two hours of permitted television would come to an end, and I would seek out the solitary refuge of a novel. And deep reading (as opposed to reading a Tumblr feed) was a true refuge. What I liked best about that absorbing act was the fact books became a world unto themselves, one that I (an otherwise powerless kid) had some control over. There was a childish pleasure in holding the mysterious object in my hands; in preparing for the story’s finale by monitoring what Austen called a “tell-tale compression of the pages”; in proceeding through some perfect sequence of plot points that bested by far the awkward happenstance of real life.

The physical book, held, knowable, became a small mental apartment I could have dominion over, something that was alive because of my attention and then lived in me.

But now . . . that thankful retreat, where my child-self could become so lost, seems unavailable to me. Today there is no room in my house, no block in my city, where I am unreachable.

Eventually, if we start giving them a chance, moments of absence reappear, and we can pick them up if we like. One appeared this morning, when my partner flew to Paris. He’ll be gone for two weeks. I’ll miss him, but this is also my big break.



I’ve taken “War and Peace” back down off the shelf. It’s sitting beside my computer as I write these lines—accusatory as some attention-starved pet.

You and me, old friend. You, me, and two weeks. I open the book, I shut the book, and I open the book again. The ink swirls up at me. This is hard. Why is this so hard?

* * *

Dr. Douglas Gentile, a friendly professor at Iowa State University, recently commiserated with me about my pathetic attention span. “It’s me, too, of course,” he said. “When I try to write a paper, I can’t keep from checking my e-mail every five minutes. Even though I know it’s actually making me less productive.” This failing is especially worrying for Gentile because he happens to be one of the world’s leading authorities on the effects of media on the brains of the young. “I know, I know! I know all the research on multitasking. I can tell you absolutely that everyone who thinks they’re good at multitasking is wrong. We know that in fact it’s those who think they’re good at multitasking who are the least productive when they multitask.”

The brain itself is not, whatever we may like to believe, a multitasking device. And that is where our problem begins. Your brain does a certain amount of parallel processing in order to synthesize auditory and visual information into a single understanding of the world around you, but the brain’s attention is itself only a spotlight, capable of shining on one thing at a time. So the very word multitask is a misnomer. There is rapid-shifting minitasking, there is lame-spasms-of-effort-tasking, but there is, alas, no such thing as multitasking. “When we think we’re multitasking,” says Gentile, “we’re actually multiswitching.”

We can hardly blame ourselves for being enraptured by the promise of multitasking, though. Computers—like televisions before them—tap into a very basic brain function called an “orienting response.” Orienting responses served us well in the wilderness of our species’ early years. When the light changes in your peripheral vision, you must look at it because that could be the shadow of something that’s about to eat you. If a twig snaps behind you, ditto. Having evolved in an environment rife with danger and uncertainty, we are hardwired to always default to fast-paced shifts in focus. Orienting responses are the brain’s ever-armed alarm system and cannot be ignored.

Gentile believes it’s time for a renaissance in our understanding of mental health. To begin with, just as we can’t accept our body’s cravings for chocolate cake at face value, neither can we any longer afford to indulge the automatic desires our brains harbor for distraction.

* * *

It’s not merely difficult at first. It’s torture. I slump into the book, reread sentences, entire paragraphs. I get through two pages and then stop to check my e-mail—and down the rabbit hole I go. After all, one does not read “War and Peace” so much as suffer through it. It doesn’t help that the world at large, being so divorced from such pursuits, is often aggressive toward those who drop away into single-subject attention wells. People don’t like it when you read “War and Peace.” It’s too long, too boring, not worth the effort. And you’re elitist for trying.

In order to finish the thing in the two weeks I have allotted myself, I must read one hundred pages each day without fail. If something distracts me from my day’s reading—a friend in the hospital, a magazine assignment, sunshine—I must read two hundred pages on the following day. I’ve read at this pace before, in my university days, but that was years ago and I’ve been steadily down-training my brain ever since.

* * *

Another week has passed—my “War and Peace” struggle continues. I’ve realized now that the subject of my distraction is far more likely to be something I need to look at than something I need to do. There have always been activities—dishes, gardening, sex, shopping—that derail whatever purpose we’ve assigned to ourselves on a given day. What’s different now is the addition of so much content that we passively consume.

Only this morning I watched a boy break down crying on “X Factor,” then regain his courage and belt out a half-decent rendition of  Beyoncé’s “Listen”; next I looked up the original Beyoncé video and played it twice while reading the first few paragraphs of a story about the humanity of child soldiers; then I switched to a Nina Simone playlist prepared for me by Songza, which played while I flipped through a slide show of American soldiers seeing their dogs for the first time in years; and so on, ad nauseam. Until I shook I out of this funk and tried to remember what I’d sat down to work on in the first place.

* * *

If I’m to break from our culture of distraction, I’m going to need practical advice, not just depressing statistics. To that end, I switch gears and decide to stop talking to scientists for a while; I need to talk to someone who deals with attention and productivity in the so-called real world. Someone with a big smile and tailored suits such as organizational guru Peter Bregman. He runs a global consulting firm that gets CEOs to unleash the potential of their workers, and he’s also the author of the acclaimed business book 18 Minutes, which counsels readers to take a minute out of every work hour (plus five minutes at the start and end of the day) to do nothing but set an intention.

Bregman told me he sets his watch to beep every hour as a reminder that it’s time to right his course again. Aside from the intention setting, Bregman counsels no more than three e-mail check-ins a day. This notion of batch processing was anathema to someone like me, used to checking my in-box so constantly, particularly when my work feels stuck. “It’s incredibly inefficient to switch back and forth,” said Bregman, echoing every scientist I’d spoken to on multitasking. “Besides, e-mail is, actually, just about the least efficient mode of conversation you can have. And what we know about multitasking is that, frankly, you can’t. You just derail.”

“I just always feel I’m missing something important,” I said. “And that’s precisely why we lose hours every day, that fear.” Bregman argues that it’s people who can get ahead of that fear who end up excelling in the business world that he spends his own days in. “I think everyone is more distractible today than we used to be. It’s a very hard thing to fix. And as people become more distracted, we know they’re actually doing less, getting less done. Your efforts just leak out. And those who aren’t—aren’t leaking—are going to be the most successful.”

I hate that I leak. But there’s a religious certainty required in order to devote yourself to one thing while cutting off the rest of the world. We don’t know that the inbox is emergency-free, we don’t know that the work we’re doing is the work we ought to be doing. But we can’t move forward in a sane way without having some faith in the moment we’ve committed to. “You need to decide that things don’t matter as much as you might think they matter,” Bregman suggested as I told him about my flitting ways. And that made me think there might be a connection between the responsibility-free days of my youth and that earlier self’s ability to concentrate. My young self had nowhere else to be, no permanent anxiety nagging at his conscience. Could I return to that sense of ease? Could I simply be where I was and not seek out a shifting plurality to fill up my time?

* * *

It happened softly and without my really noticing.

As I wore a deeper groove into the cushions of my sofa, so the book I was holding wore a groove into my (equally soft) mind. Moments of total absence began to take hold more often; I remembered what it was like to be lost entirely in a well-spun narrative. There was the scene where Anna Mikhailovna begs so pitifully for a little money, hoping to send her son to war properly dressed. And there were, increasingly, more like it. More moments where the world around me dropped away and I was properly absorbed. A “causeless springtime feeling of joy” overtakes Prince Andrei; a tearful Pierre sees in a comet his last shimmering hope; Emperor Napoleon takes his troops into the heart of Russia, oblivious to the coming winter that will destroy them all…

It takes a week or so for withdrawal symptoms to work through a heroin addict’s body. While I wouldn’t pretend to compare severity here, doubtless we need patience, too, when we deprive ourselves of the manic digital distractions we’ve grown addicted to.

That’s how it was with my Tolstoy and me. The periods without distraction grew longer, I settled into the sofa and couldn’t hear the phone, couldn’t hear the ghost-buzz of something else to do. I’m teaching myself to slip away from the world again.

* * *

Yesterday I fell asleep on the sofa with a few dozen pages of “War and Peace” to go. I could hear my cell phone buzzing from its perch on top of the piano. I saw the glowing green eye of my Cyclops modem as it broadcast potential distraction all around. But on I went past the turgid military campaigns and past the fretting of Russian princesses, until sleep finally claimed me and my head, exhausted, dreamed of nothing at all. This morning I finished the thing at last. The clean edges of its thirteen hundred pages have been ruffled down into a paper cabbage, the cover is pilled from the time I dropped it in the bath. Holding the thing aloft, trophy style, I notice the book is slightly larger than it was before I read it.

It’s only after the book is laid down, and I’ve quietly showered and shaved, that I realize I haven’t checked my e-mail today. The thought of that duty comes down on me like an anvil.

Instead, I lie back on the sofa and think some more about my favorite reader Milton – about his own anxieties around reading. By the mid-1650s, he had suffered that larger removal from the crowds, he had lost his vision entirely and could not read at all—at least not with his own eyes. From within this new solitude, he worried that he could no longer meet his potential. One sonnet, written shortly after the loss of his vision, begins:

When I consider how my light is spent,

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, and that one Talent

which is death to hide Lodged with me useless . . .

Yet from that position, in the greatest of caves, he began producing his greatest work. The epic “Paradise Lost,” a totemic feat of concentration, was dictated to aides, including his three daughters.

Milton already knew, after all, the great value in removing himself from the rush of the world, so perhaps those anxieties around his blindness never had a hope of dominating his mind. I, on the other hand, and all my peers, must make a constant study of concentration itself. I slot my ragged “War and Peace” back on the shelf. It left its marks on me the same way I left my marks on it (I feel awake as a man dragged across barnacles on the bottom of some ocean). I think: This is where I was most alive, most happy. How did I go from loving that absence to being tortured by it? How can I learn to love that absence again?

This essay is adapted from “The End of Absence” by Michael Harris, published by Current / Penguin Random House.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/17/war_and_peace_tortured_me_facebook_email_and_the_neuroscience_of_always_being_distracted/?source=newsletter

Face Time: Eternal Youth Has Become a Growth Industry in Silicon Valley

Tuesday, Aug 12 2014

The students of Timothy Draper’s University of Heroes shuffle into a conference room, khaki shorts swishing against their knees, flip-flops clacking against the carpeted floor. One by one they take their seats and crack open their laptops, training their eyes on Facebook home pages or psychedelic screen savers. An air conditioner whirs somewhere in the rafters. A man in chinos stands before them.

The man is Steve Westly, former state controller, prominent venture capitalist, 57-year-old baron of Silicon Valley. He smiles at the group with all the sheepishness of a student preparing for show-and-tell. He promises to be brief.

“People your age are changing the world,” Westly tells the students, providing his own list of great historical innovators: Napoleon, Jesus, Zuckerberg, Larry, Sergey. “It’s almost never people my age,” he adds.

Students at Draper University — a private, residential tech boot camp launched by venture capitalist Timothy Draper, in what was formerly San Mateo’s Benjamin Franklin Hotel — have already embraced Westly’s words as a credo. They inhabit a world where success and greatness seem to hover within arm’s reach. A small handful of those who complete the six-week, $9,500 residential program might get a chance to join Draper’s business incubator; an even smaller handful might eventually get desks at an accelerator run by Draper’s son, Adam. It’s a different kind of meritocracy than Westly braved, pursuing an MBA at Stanford in the early ’80s. At Draper University, heroism is merchandised, rather than earned. A 20-year-old with bright eyes and deep pockets (or a parent who can front the tuition) has no reason to think he won’t be the next big thing.

This is the dogma that glues Silicon Valley together. Young employees are plucked out of high school, college-aged interns trade their frat houses and dorm rooms for luxurious corporate housing. Twenty-seven-year-old CEOs inspire their workers with snappy jingles about moving fast and breaking things. Entrepreneurs pitch their business plans in slangy, tech-oriented patois.

Gone are the days of the “company man” who spends 30 years ascending the ranks in a single corporation. Having an Ivy League pedigree and a Brooks Brothers suit is no longer as important.

“Let’s face it: The days of the ‘gold watch’ are over,” 25-year-old writer David Burstein says. “The average millennial is expected to have several jobs by the time he turns 38.”

Yet if constant change is the new normal, then older workers have a much harder time keeping up. The Steve Westlys of the world are fading into management positions. Older engineers are staying on the back-end, working on system administration or architecture, rather than serving as the driving force of a company.

“If you lost your job, it might be hard to find something similar,” a former Google contractor says, noting that an older engineer might have to settle for something with a lower salary, or even switch fields. The contractor says he knows a man who graduated from Western New England University in the 1970s with a degree in the somewhat archaic field of time-motion engineering. That engineer wound up working at Walmart.

Those who do worm their way into the Valley workforce often have a rough adjustment. The former contractor, who is in his 40s, says he was often the oldest person commuting from San Francisco to Mountain View on a Google bus. And he adhered to a different schedule: Wake up at 4:50 a.m., get out the door by 6:20, catch the first coach home at 4:30 p.m. to be home for a family supper. He was one of the few people who didn’t take advantage of the free campus gyms or gourmet cafeteria dinners or on-site showers. He couldn’t hew to a live-at-work lifestyle.

And compared to other middle-aged workers, he had it easy.

In a lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court in July, former Twitter employee Peter H. Taylor claims he was canned because of his age, despite performing his duties in “an exemplary manner.” Taylor, who was 57 at the time of his termination in September of last year, says his supervisor made at least one derogatory remark about his age, and that the company refused to accommodate his disabilities following a bout with kidney stones. He says he was ultimately replaced by several employees in their 20s and 30s. A Twitter spokesman says the lawsuit is without merit and that the company will “vigorously” defend itself.

The case is not without precedent. Computer scientist Brian Reid lobbed a similar complaint against Google in 2004, claiming co-workers called him an “old man” and an “old fuddy-duddy,” and routinely told him he was not a “cultural fit” for the company. Reid was 54 at the time he filed the complaint; he settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that a 57-year-old man was employed at Twitter at all. “Look, Twitter has no 50-year-old employees,” the former Google contractor says, smirking. “By the time these [Silicon Valley] engineers are in their 40s, they’re old — they have houses, boats, stock options, mistresses. They drive to work in Chevy Volts.”

There’s definitely a swath of Valley nouveau riche who reap millions in their 20s and 30s, and who are able to cash out and retire by age 40. But that’s a minority of the population. The reality, for most people, is that most startups fail, most corporations downsize, and most workforces churn. Switching jobs every two or three years might be the norm, but it’s a lot easier to do when you’re 25 than when you’re 39. At that point, you’re essentially a senior citizen, San Francisco botox surgeon Seth Matarasso says.

“I have a friend who lived in Chicago and came back to Silicon Valley at age 38,” Matarasso recalls. “And he said, ‘I feel like a grandfather — in Chicago I just feel my age.”

Retirement isn’t an option for the average middle-aged worker, and even the elites — people like Westly, who were once themselves wunderkinds — find themselves in an awkward position when they hit their 50s, pandering to audiences that may have no sense of what came before. The diehards still work well past their Valley expiration date, but then survival becomes a job unto itself. Sometimes it means taking lower-pay contract work, or answering to a much younger supervisor, or seeking workplace protection in court.

CONTINUED: http://www.sfweekly.com/sanfrancisco/silicon-valley-bottom-age-discrimination/Content?oid=3079530

Tech Industry Believes it Invented San Francisco, Burning Man, and Sex

Posted By on Tue, Aug 12, 2014 at 7:30 AM

Inspired by Bay Area tech industry - FLICKR/CROWCOMBE AL

According to reports, the Silicon Valley-based tech industry has convinced itself that it invented everything it enjoys, including Democracy, rule of law, San Francisco, Burning Man, and sex.

“Techies are really innovative, so it’s only natural that they would hack human sexuality by coming up with a pleasurable use for what was previously just a reproductive process,” Google employee Miles Davidson said. “You’re welcome.”

Brent Sternberg, a Facebook engineer who started attending Mission Control sex parties a year ago, said that blow jobs simply wouldn’t have been possible without social media. “How could you have ever told someone that you like it?” he asked. “It would never work.”

Futurist Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, said he believes that the tech giant is on track to invent S&M by 2025. “It will be incredibly pleasurable,” he said, “unless it hurts too much. Until we develop it, there’s just no way to know.”

Apple vice president of design Louis Harris is especially proud of the tech industry for inventing Burning Man, a 27-year-old annual arts event, in 2008.

“Prior to the tech industry, no one had really considered creating experimental communities, or going camping,” Harris said. “But then thousands of tech workers disrupted the desert and invented DJs.”

Not everything has gone well since then, Harris admitted. “The problem with Burning Man is that since the tech industry invented it, it’s gotten so popular that all these artists are showing up, and they don’t know anything about the culture.”

That’s also a problem with what many see as the tech industry’s crowning achievement: the city of San Francisco.

“We really knocked that one out of the park,” said Twitter Vice President Larry Johnson. “When we got here there wasn’t a single unaffordable building, there were musicians in lofts, and the place was just filled with women. But we’ve really turned that around.”

LinkedIn Senior Data Analyst Rod Suchet agreed. “San Francisco is famous the whole world over as a city of art, and art was originally an App for the iStore. It’s famous for its restaurants, and restaurants were originally developed so that Google’s cafeteria could telecommute. Honestly, was there even a music scene in San Francisco before Pandora digitized it? Did this town even have an economy before we started to displace it?”

As of press time, Suchet had meant to Google the answer but had been distracted by a cat video. Cats, for those not in the know, were invented by YouTube in 2006.

Benjamin Wachs is a literary chameleon. 

http://www.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2014/08/12/tech-industry-believes-it-invented-san-francisco-burning-man-and-sex

Everyone I know is brokenhearted by Josh Ellis

Everyone I know is brokenhearted.

All the genuinely smart, talented, funny people I know seem to be miserable these days. You feel it on Twitter more than Facebook, because Facebook is where you go to do your performance art where you pretend to be a hip, urbane person with the most awesomest friends and the best relationships and the very best lunches ever. Facebook is surface; Twitter is subtext, and judging by what I’ve seen, the subtext is aching sadness.

I’m not immune to this. I don’t remember ever feeling this miserable and depressed in my life, this sense of futility that makes you wish you’d simply go numb and not care anymore. I think a lot about killing myself these days. Don’t worry, I’m not going to do it and this isn’t a cry for help. But I wake up and think: fuck, more of this? Really? How much more? And is it really worth it?

In my case, much of it stems from my divorce and the collapse of the next relationship I had. But that’s not really the cause. I think that those relationships were bulwarks, charms against the dark I’ve felt growing in this world for a long time now. When I was in love, the world outside didn’t matter so much. But without it, there is nothing keeping the wolf from the door.

It didn’t used to be like this when I was a kid. I’m not getting nostalgic here, or pretending that my adolescence and my twenties were some kind of soft-focused Golden Age. Life sucked when I was young. I was unhappy then too. But there was always the sense that it was just a temporary thing, that if I stuck it out eventually the world was going to get better — become awesome, in fact.

But the reality is that the three generations who ended the 20th century, the Boomers, their Generation X children, and Generation Y, have architected a Western civilization that’s kind of a shit show. Being born in 1978, I fall at either the tail end of Gen X or the beginning of Gen Y, depending on how you look at it. I became an adolescent at the time Nirvana was ushering in a decade of “slacker” ideology, as the pundits liked to put it. But the reality is that I didn’t know a whole lot of actual slackers in the 1990s. I did know a lot of people who found themselves disillusioned with the materialism of the 1980s and what we saw as the failed rhetoric of the Sixties generation, who were all about peace and love right until the time they put on suits and ties and figured out how to divide up the world. I knew a lot of people who weren’t very interested in that path.

The joke, of course, is that every generation kills the thing they love. The hippies became yuppies; Gen X talked a lot about the revolution, and then went and got themselves some venture capital and started laying into place the oversaturated, paranoid world we live in now. A lot of them tried to tell themselves they were still punk as fuck, but it’s hard to morally reconcile the thing where you listen to Fugazi on the way to your job where you help find new ways to trick people into giving up their data to advertisers. Most people don’t even bother. They just compartmentalize.

And I’m not blaming them. The world came apart at the end of the 90s, when the World Trade Center did. My buddy Brent and I were talking about this one night last year — about how the end of the 90s looked like revolution. Everybody was talking about Naomi Klein and anti-consumerism and people in Seattle were rioting over the WTO. Hell, a major motion picture company put out Fight Club, which is about as unsubtle an attack on consumer corporate capitalism as you can get. We were poised on the brink of something. You could feel it.

And then the World Trade Center went down. And all of a sudden calling yourself an “anticapitalist terrorist” was no longer a cool posture to psych yourself up for protest. It became something you might go to jail for — or worse, to one of the Black Camps on some shithole island somewhere. Corporate capitalism became conflated somehow with patriotism. And the idea that the things you own end up defining you became quaint, as ridiculous spoken aloud as “tune in, turn on, drop out”. In fact, it became a positive: if you bought the right laptop, the right smartphone, the right backpack, exciting strangers would want to have sex with you!

It’s no wonder that Gen X began seeking the largely mythological stability of their forebearers; to stop fucking around and eating mushrooms at the Rage Against The Machine show, and to try and root yourself. Get a decent car — something you can pass off as utilitarian — and a solid career. Put your babies in Black Flag onesies, but make sure their stroller is more high tech than anything mankind ever took to the Moon, because that wolf is always at the door. And buy yourself a house, because property is always valuable. Even if you don’t have the credit, because there’s this thing called a “subprime mortgage” you can get now!

But the world changed again. And kept changing. So now you’ve got this degree that’s worth fuck-all, a house that’s worth more as scrap lumber than as a substantial investment, and you’re either going to lose your job or have to do the work of two people, because there’s a recession on. Except they keep saying the recession ended, so why are you still working twice as hard for the same amount of money?

We started two wars, only one of them even marginally justifiable, and thousands and thousands of people died. Some of them were Americans, most of them weren’t. The world hated us again. It’s psychically oppressive to realize you’re the bad guy.

Of course, for a lot of the world, America had always been the bad guy…but we didn’t really know that before, because we didn’t have the Internet in our pocket, to be pulled out at every lunch break and before the meal came and when the episode of Scrubs on TV dragged a little, and before bed. We were encouraged to immerse ourselves in the endless flow of information, to become better informed, because knowing more about the world made us better people.

And maybe it did, but it also made us haunted people.

Yesterday morning, when I woke up, I clicked on a video in my Twitter feed that showed mutilated children being dragged from the streets of Gaza. And I started sobbing — just sobbing, sitting there in my bed with the covers around my waist, saying “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” over and over to the empty room. Dead children, torn to bits. And then it was time for…what? Get up, eat my cereal, go about my day? Every day?

So you’re haunted, and you’re outraged, and you go on Twitter and you go on Facebook and you change your avatar or your profile picture to a slogan somebody thoughtfully made for you, so that you can show the world that you’re watching, that you care, that it matters. But if you’re at all observant, you begin to realize after a while that it doesn’t matter; that your opinion matters for very little in the world. You voted for Obama, because Obama was about hope and change; except he seems to be mostly about hope and change for rich people, and not about hope at all for the people who are killed by American drones or who are locked away without trial in American internment camps or who are prosecuted because they stand up and tell the truth about their employers. There does seem to be a lot of hope and change in Fort Meade and Langley, though, where the NSA and CIA are given more and more leeway to spy on everyone in the world, including American citizens, not for what they’ve done but what they might do.

And the rest of the world? They keep making more dead children. They slaughter each other in the streets of Baghdad and Libya and Gaza and Tel Aviv; they slaughter each other in the hills of Syria; and, increasingly, they slaughter each other in American schools and movie theaters and college campuses.

And when you speak up about that — when you write to your Congressperson to say that you believe in, say, stricter control on the purchase of assault weapons, or limiting the rights of corporations to do astonishing environmental damage, or not sending billions of dollars to the kind of people who think it’s funny to launch missiles filled with flechette rounds into the middle of schools where children huddle together — you’re told that, no, you’re the fascist: that people have the right to defend themselves and make money, and that those rights trump your right to not be killed by some fucking lunatic when you’re waiting in line at Chipotle to grab a chicken burrito, and your right to not be able to light your tapwater on fire with a Zippo because of the chemicals in it, or not to end up in a grainy YouTube video while some demented religious fanatic hacks your head off with a rusty bayonet because your country — not you, but who’s counting — is the Great Satan.

And the music sucks. Dear God, the music sucks. Witless, vapid bullshit that makes the worst airheaded wannabe profundities of the grunge era look like the collected works of Thomas Locke. Half the songs on the radio aren’t anything more than a looped 808 beat and some dude grunting and occasionally talking about how he likes to fuck bitches in the ass. The other half are grown-ass adults singing about their stunted, adolescent romantic ideals and playing a goddamn washtub while dressed like extras from The Waltons.

The music sucks. The movies suck — I mean, they didn’t suck the first time they came out, in the 1980s, but the remakes and gritty reboots and decades-past-their-sell-by-date sequels suck. Indiana Jones is awesome, but nobody needs to see a geriatric Harrison Ford, lured out of retirement by the promise of building another mansion onto his mansion, running around with fucking Shia LeBeouf in the jungle. And besides, we’re all media experts now; we can spot the merchandising nods from the trailer all the way to the final credits. There’s no magic left. It’s just another company figuring out a way to suck the very last molecules of profit out of the things we cherish, because that’s what corporations do.

Everything is branded. Even people. People are “personal brands”, despite the fact that, by and large, you can’t figure out what most of them are actually even good for. They just exist to be snarky and post selfies and demand that you buy something, anything, with their picture on it.

You actually know who Kim Kardashian is. In an ideal world, you’d be as unaware of her existence as you are of the names of the Chinese kids who made the futurephone or featherweight laptop you’re almost certainly reading this on. In an ideal world, Kim Kardashian would have spent her life getting sport-fucked anonymously by hip-hop stars in some Bel Air mansion, ran a salon, and either died of a coke overdose or Botox poisoning. There is no reason that her face and her life and her tits and her deathless thoughts needed to be foisted upon the world outside of the 90210 ZIP code. Except that somebody figured out that you could make money off showing people the car accident in slow motion, that people would watch that. Sure they will. People love to watch stupid people do stupid things. It makes them feel less stupid.

And the Internet.

We built this thing — I include myself in that because I started doing HTML in 1994 and was part of the generation who took to the new medium like water and have made the majority of our adult lives creating it, to a greater or lesser degree — because we believed it would make things better for everyone. We believed it would give voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless, bring us all together, help us to understand and empathize and share with one another. We believed it could tear down the walls.

And in a lot of ways it has. But in just as many ways, it has driven us all insane. There’s an old story — I have no idea if it’s true — about monkeys who had the pleasure centers of their brains wired up to a button. Push it, Mr. Monkey, and you have an orgasm. And the monkeys did. They pushed the button and they pushed the button, until they forgot about eating and they forgot about drinking and sleeping and simply fell down and died.

What do you do when you first wake up? What do you do as soon as you get into work? After work? Before bed? Hell, some of us wake up in the night and check our feeds, terrified that we’ve missed out on something.

We do it because we are given that reward, that stimulus that tells us oooh, a new shiny! It’s the fourteenth Guardians Of The Galaxy trailer, with 200% more Rocket Raccoon! Some fucking null node in Portland made a portrait of every single character from Adventure Time out of bacon and Legos! And, maybe most poisonous, maybe most soul-crushing: somebody said something I don’t like that makes me feel frightened and threatened! It’s time to put on my superhero costume and forward unto battle!

Except it doesn’t matter. Because you’re not really changing anybody’s mind. How often does that little skirmish end with anybody changing their mind at all, even a little bit? Or does it just end with one of you invariably either blocking the other or saying something like “You know what, I’m going to stop now, because this is getting out of hand.”

Getting out of hand?

Everything they told you about how to live in the world when you were a kid is a lie. Education doesn’t matter, not even on paper. Being ethical doesn’t matter. Being a good person doesn’t matter. What matters now is that you’re endlessly capable of the hustle, of bringing in that long green, of being entertaining to enough people that somebody will want to give you money or fuck you or fund your startup. We’re all sharks now; if we stop swimming for just a little too long, we die. We lose followers. We’re lame. We’re not worth funding, or fucking. Because all that matters is the endless churn, the endless parade, the endless cycle of buying and trying to sell and being bought and sold by people who tell you that they’re your friends, man, not like those others. Microsoft is evil and Google is not evil, except when they are, but that’s not really important, and if you decide that maybe you’re tired of being reduced to nothing more than a potential lead for a sales pitch, like something out of a fucking David Mamet play, then you’re a hater and irrelevant and a Luddite. And besides, what would you do with yourself if you weren’t checking Facebook or playing Candy Crush Saga or watching some teenage dumbass smash his genitals on the side of a pool on YouTube? What the fuck would you even do, bro?

The comedian Bill Hicks used to do a bit where he invited the advertisers and marketers in his audience to kill themselves. He imagined them turning it into an ad campaign: “Oh, the righteous indignation dollar, that’s a good dollar, Bill’s smart to do that.” He laid out the futility of trying to escape: “I’m just caught in a fucking web,” he’d say.

And that’s where we are. You, me, we’re trapped, between being nothing more than consumers, every aspect of our lives quantified and turned into demographic data, or being fucking Amish cavemen drifting into increasing irrelevancy. Because it really does feel like there’s no middle ground anymore, doesn’t it? There’s no way to stay an active, informed citizen of the world without some motherfucker figuring out a way to squirm into your life to try and get a dollar out of you. Only fools expect something for free, and only bigger fools believe they’re anything other than a consumable or a consumer.

We didn’t get the William Gibson future where you can live like a stainless steel rat in the walls between the corporate enclaves, tearing at the system from within with your anarchy and your superior knowledge of Unix command lines. Now it’s just pissed off teenagers who blame you because their lives are going to suck a cock and billionaire thugs trying to sell you headphones and handbags, all to a soundtrack of some waterhead muttering “Bubble butt, bubble bubble bubble butt” over and over while a shite beat thumps in the background.

I know a lot of people who privately long for an apocalypse of some kind, a breakdown of the ancient Western code, because then they’d either be dead or free. How fucking horrifying is that?

But nobody pulls that trigger, because now we’ve all seen what apocalypses look like. We saw Manhattan in 2001 and New Orleans in 2005 and Thailand in 2004 and the Middle East pretty much any given day. Nobody wants to hate, because we’re pummeled with hate every day, by people who are too fucking stupid to understand that the world has passed them by as much as it’s passed by the dude in the Soundgarden t-shirt who still drives around singing along to “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” on his way to his dead-end job. The best lack all conviction, and the people who are full of passionate intensity? Fuck them. We’re all sick of their shit anyway.

And that’s where we are, and is it any goddamn wonder at all that the most profitable drugs sold in America for like a decade running have been antipsychotics? The world seems psychotic.

I feel like I need to figure this out, like figuring all of this out and finding new ways to live has become the most important thing I could possibly do, not just for myself and the people I love but for the entire human race. I don’t mean me alone — I’m far too self-loathing to have a messiah complex — but I feel like, for me, this is the best use of my time. Because the world is making me crazy and sad and wanting to just put a gun in my mouth, and it’s doing the same thing to a lot of people who shouldn’t have to feel this way.

I don’t believe anymore that the answer lies in more or better tech, or even awareness. I think the only thing that can save us is us. I think we need to find ways to tribe up again, to find each other and put our arms around each other and make that charm against the dark. I don’t mean in any hateful or exclusionary way, of course. But I think like minds need to pull together and pool our resources and rage against the dying of the light. And I do think rage is a component that’s necessary here: a final fundamental fed-up-ness with the bullshit and an unwillingness to give any more ground to the things that are doing us in. To stop being reasonable. To stop being well-behaved. Not to hate those who are hurting us with their greed and psychopathic self-interest, but to simply stop letting them do it. The best way to defeat an enemy is not to destroy them, but to make them irrelevant.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t know some truth that I can reveal to everyone. All I can do is hurt, and try to stop hurting, and try to help other people stop hurting. Maybe that’s all any of us can do. But isn’t that something worth devoting yourself to, more than building another retarded app that just puts more nonsense and bullshit into the world? Just finding people to love, and healing each other? I think it is.

Until I know more, I’ll just keep holding on. I won’t put the gun in my mouth. Because all of this sadness is worth it if there’s still hope. And I want to still have hope so badly. I still want to believe, in myself, and in you.

- See more at: http://zenarchery.com/2014/08/everyone-i-know-is-brokenhearted/#sthash.B4z9ObVE.D6JRWHho.dpuf

The rise of data and the death of politics

Tech pioneers in the US are advocating a new data-based approach to governance – ‘algorithmic regulation’. But if technology provides the answers to society’s problems, what happens to governments?

US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

Government by social network? US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On 24 August 1965 Gloria Placente, a 34-year-old resident of Queens, New York, was driving to Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Clad in shorts and sunglasses, the housewife was looking forward to quiet time at the beach. But the moment she crossed the Willis Avenue bridge in her Chevrolet Corvair, Placente was surrounded by a dozen patrolmen. There were also 125 reporters, eager to witness the launch of New York police department’s Operation Corral – an acronym for Computer Oriented Retrieval of Auto Larcenists.

Fifteen months earlier, Placente had driven through a red light and neglected to answer the summons, an offence that Corral was going to punish with a heavy dose of techno-Kafkaesque. It worked as follows: a police car stationed at one end of the bridge radioed the licence plates of oncoming cars to a teletypist miles away, who fed them to a Univac 490 computer, an expensive $500,000 toy ($3.5m in today’s dollars) on loan from the Sperry Rand Corporation. The computer checked the numbers against a database of 110,000 cars that were either stolen or belonged to known offenders. In case of a match the teletypist would alert a second patrol car at the bridge’s other exit. It took, on average, just seven seconds.

Compared with the impressive police gear of today – automatic number plate recognition, CCTV cameras, GPS trackers – Operation Corral looks quaint. And the possibilities for control will only expand. European officials have considered requiring all cars entering the European market to feature a built-in mechanism that allows the police to stop vehicles remotely. Speaking earlier this year, Jim Farley, a senior Ford executive, acknowledged that “we know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.” That last bit didn’t sound very reassuring and Farley retracted his remarks.

As both cars and roads get “smart,” they promise nearly perfect, real-time law enforcement. Instead of waiting for drivers to break the law, authorities can simply prevent the crime. Thus, a 50-mile stretch of the A14 between Felixstowe and Rugby is to be equipped with numerous sensors that would monitor traffic by sending signals to and from mobile phones in moving vehicles. The telecoms watchdog Ofcom envisions that such smart roads connected to a centrally controlled traffic system could automatically impose variable speed limits to smooth the flow of traffic but also direct the cars “along diverted routes to avoid the congestion and even [manage] their speed”.

Other gadgets – from smartphones to smart glasses – promise even more security and safety. In April, Apple patented technology that deploys sensors inside the smartphone to analyse if the car is moving and if the person using the phone is driving; if both conditions are met, it simply blocks the phone’s texting feature. Intel and Ford are working on Project Mobil – a face recognition system that, should it fail to recognise the face of the driver, would not only prevent the car being started but also send the picture to the car’s owner (bad news for teenagers).

The car is emblematic of transformations in many other domains, from smart environments for “ambient assisted living” where carpets and walls detect that someone has fallen, to various masterplans for the smart city, where municipal services dispatch resources only to those areas that need them. Thanks to sensors and internet connectivity, the most banal everyday objects have acquired tremendous power to regulate behaviour. Even public toilets are ripe for sensor-based optimisation: the Safeguard Germ Alarm, a smart soap dispenser developed by Procter & Gamble and used in some public WCs in the Philippines, has sensors monitoring the doors of each stall. Once you leave the stall, the alarm starts ringing – and can only be stopped by a push of the soap-dispensing button.

In this context, Google’s latest plan to push its Android operating system on to smart watches, smart cars, smart thermostats and, one suspects, smart everything, looks rather ominous. In the near future, Google will be the middleman standing between you and your fridge, you and your car, you and your rubbish bin, allowing the National Security Agency to satisfy its data addiction in bulk and via a single window.

This “smartification” of everyday life follows a familiar pattern: there’s primary data – a list of what’s in your smart fridge and your bin – and metadata – a log of how often you open either of these things or when they communicate with one another. Both produce interesting insights: cue smart mattresses – one recent model promises to track respiration and heart rates and how much you move during the night – and smart utensils that provide nutritional advice.

In addition to making our lives more efficient, this smart world also presents us with an exciting political choice. If so much of our everyday behaviour is already captured, analysed and nudged, why stick with unempirical approaches to regulation? Why rely on laws when one has sensors and feedback mechanisms? If policy interventions are to be – to use the buzzwords of the day – “evidence-based” and “results-oriented,” technology is here to help.

This new type of governance has a name: algorithmic regulation. In as much as Silicon Valley has a political programme, this is it. Tim O’Reilly, an influential technology publisher, venture capitalist and ideas man (he is to blame for popularising the term “web 2.0″) has been its most enthusiastic promoter. In a recent essay that lays out his reasoning, O’Reilly makes an intriguing case for the virtues of algorithmic regulation – a case that deserves close scrutiny both for what it promises policymakers and the simplistic assumptions it makes about politics, democracy and power.

To see algorithmic regulation at work, look no further than the spam filter in your email. Instead of confining itself to a narrow definition of spam, the email filter has its users teach it. Even Google can’t write rules to cover all the ingenious innovations of professional spammers. What it can do, though, is teach the system what makes a good rule and spot when it’s time to find another rule for finding a good rule – and so on. An algorithm can do this, but it’s the constant real-time feedback from its users that allows the system to counter threats never envisioned by its designers. And it’s not just spam: your bank uses similar methods to spot credit-card fraud.

In his essay, O’Reilly draws broader philosophical lessons from such technologies, arguing that they work because they rely on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome” (spam is bad!) and periodically check if the algorithms are actually working as expected (are too many legitimate emails ending up marked as spam?).

O’Reilly presents such technologies as novel and unique – we are living through a digital revolution after all – but the principle behind “algorithmic regulation” would be familiar to the founders of cybernetics – a discipline that, even in its name (it means “the science of governance”) hints at its great regulatory ambitions. This principle, which allows the system to maintain its stability by constantly learning and adapting itself to the changing circumstances, is what the British psychiatrist Ross Ashby, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, called “ultrastability”.

To illustrate it, Ashby designed the homeostat. This clever device consisted of four interconnected RAF bomb control units – mysterious looking black boxes with lots of knobs and switches – that were sensitive to voltage fluctuations. If one unit stopped working properly – say, because of an unexpected external disturbance – the other three would rewire and regroup themselves, compensating for its malfunction and keeping the system’s overall output stable.

Ashby’s homeostat achieved “ultrastability” by always monitoring its internal state and cleverly redeploying its spare resources.

Like the spam filter, it didn’t have to specify all the possible disturbances – only the conditions for how and when it must be updated and redesigned. This is no trivial departure from how the usual technical systems, with their rigid, if-then rules, operate: suddenly, there’s no need to develop procedures for governing every contingency, for – or so one hopes – algorithms and real-time, immediate feedback can do a better job than inflexible rules out of touch with reality.

Algorithmic regulation could certainly make the administration of existing laws more efficient. If it can fight credit-card fraud, why not tax fraud? Italian bureaucrats have experimented with the redditometro, or income meter, a tool for comparing people’s spending patterns – recorded thanks to an arcane Italian law – with their declared income, so that authorities know when you spend more than you earn. Spain has expressed interest in a similar tool.

Such systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.

With his belief that algorithmic regulation is based on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome”, O’Reilly cunningly disconnects the means of doing politics from its ends. But the how of politics is as important as the what of politics – in fact, the former often shapes the latter. Everybody agrees that education, health, and security are all “desired outcomes”, but how do we achieve them? In the past, when we faced the stark political choice of delivering them through the market or the state, the lines of the ideological debate were clear. Today, when the presumed choice is between the digital and the analog or between the dynamic feedback and the static law, that ideological clarity is gone – as if the very choice of how to achieve those “desired outcomes” was apolitical and didn’t force us to choose between different and often incompatible visions of communal living.

By assuming that the utopian world of infinite feedback loops is so efficient that it transcends politics, the proponents of algorithmic regulation fall into the same trap as the technocrats of the past. Yes, these systems are terrifyingly efficient – in the same way that Singapore is terrifyingly efficient (O’Reilly, unsurprisingly, praises Singapore for its embrace of algorithmic regulation). And while Singapore’s leaders might believe that they, too, have transcended politics, it doesn’t mean that their regime cannot be assessed outside the linguistic swamp of efficiency and innovation – by using political, not economic benchmarks.

As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened. Silicon Valley’s default answer to the how of politics is what I call solutionism: problems are to be dealt with via apps, sensors, and feedback loops – all provided by startups. Earlier this year Google’s Eric Schmidt even promised that startups would provide the solution to the problem of economic inequality: the latter, it seems, can also be “disrupted”. And where the innovators and the disruptors lead, the bureaucrats follow.

The intelligence services embraced solutionism before other government agencies. Thus, they reduced the topic of terrorism from a subject that had some connection to history and foreign policy to an informational problem of identifying emerging terrorist threats via constant surveillance. They urged citizens to accept that instability is part of the game, that its root causes are neither traceable nor reparable, that the threat can only be pre-empted by out-innovating and out-surveilling the enemy with better communications.

Speaking in Athens last November, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discussed an epochal transformation in the idea of government, “whereby the traditional hierarchical relation between causes and effects is inverted, so that, instead of governing the causes – a difficult and expensive undertaking – governments simply try to govern the effects”.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman

Governments’ current favourite pyschologist, Daniel Kahneman. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
For Agamben, this shift is emblematic of modernity. It also explains why the liberalisation of the economy can co-exist with the growing proliferation of control – by means of soap dispensers and remotely managed cars – into everyday life. “If government aims for the effects and not the causes, it will be obliged to extend and multiply control. Causes demand to be known, while effects can only be checked and controlled.” Algorithmic regulation is an enactment of this political programme in technological form.The true politics of algorithmic regulation become visible once its logic is applied to the social nets of the welfare state. There are no calls to dismantle them, but citizens are nonetheless encouraged to take responsibility for their own health. Consider how Fred Wilson, an influential US venture capitalist, frames the subject. “Health… is the opposite side of healthcare,” he said at a conference in Paris last December. “It’s what keeps you out of the healthcare system in the first place.” Thus, we are invited to start using self-tracking apps and data-sharing platforms and monitor our vital indicators, symptoms and discrepancies on our own.This goes nicely with recent policy proposals to save troubled public services by encouraging healthier lifestyles. Consider a 2013 report by Westminster council and the Local Government Information Unit, a thinktank, calling for the linking of housing and council benefits to claimants’ visits to the gym – with the help of smartcards. They might not be needed: many smartphones are already tracking how many steps we take every day (Google Now, the company’s virtual assistant, keeps score of such data automatically and periodically presents it to users, nudging them to walk more).

The numerous possibilities that tracking devices offer to health and insurance industries are not lost on O’Reilly. “You know the way that advertising turned out to be the native business model for the internet?” he wondered at a recent conference. “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.” Things do seem to be heading that way: in June, Microsoft struck a deal with American Family Insurance, the eighth-largest home insurer in the US, in which both companies will fund startups that want to put sensors into smart homes and smart cars for the purposes of “proactive protection”.

An insurance company would gladly subsidise the costs of installing yet another sensor in your house – as long as it can automatically alert the fire department or make front porch lights flash in case your smoke detector goes off. For now, accepting such tracking systems is framed as an extra benefit that can save us some money. But when do we reach a point where not using them is seen as a deviation – or, worse, an act of concealment – that ought to be punished with higher premiums?

Or consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. “We propose ‘payment by results’, a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus,” they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what’s expected.

The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It’s certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one’s poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn’t wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.

In shifting the focus of regulation from reining in institutional and corporate malfeasance to perpetual electronic guidance of individuals, algorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.

However, a politics without politics does not mean a politics without control or administration. As O’Reilly writes in his essay: “New technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes.” Thus, it’s a mistake to think that Silicon Valley wants to rid us of government institutions. Its dream state is not the small government of libertarians – a small state, after all, needs neither fancy gadgets nor massive servers to process the data – but the data-obsessed and data-obese state of behavioural economists.

The nudging state is enamoured of feedback technology, for its key founding principle is that while we behave irrationally, our irrationality can be corrected – if only the environment acts upon us, nudging us towards the right option. Unsurprisingly, one of the three lonely references at the end of O’Reilly’s essay is to a 2012 speech entitled “Regulation: Looking Backward, Looking Forward” by Cass Sunstein, the prominent American legal scholar who is the chief theorist of the nudging state.

And while the nudgers have already captured the state by making behavioural psychology the favourite idiom of government bureaucracy –Daniel Kahneman is in, Machiavelli is out – the algorithmic regulation lobby advances in more clandestine ways. They create innocuous non-profit organisations like Code for America which then co-opt the state – under the guise of encouraging talented hackers to tackle civic problems.

Airbnb's homepage.

Airbnb: part of the reputation-driven economy.
Such initiatives aim to reprogramme the state and make it feedback-friendly, crowding out other means of doing politics. For all those tracking apps, algorithms and sensors to work, databases need interoperability – which is what such pseudo-humanitarian organisations, with their ardent belief in open data, demand. And when the government is too slow to move at Silicon Valley’s speed, they simply move inside the government. Thus, Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and a protege of O’Reilly, became the deputy chief technology officer of the US government – while pursuing a one-year “innovation fellowship” from the White House.Cash-strapped governments welcome such colonisation by technologists – especially if it helps to identify and clean up datasets that can be profitably sold to companies who need such data for advertising purposes. Recent clashes over the sale of student and health data in the UK are just a precursor of battles to come: after all state assets have been privatised, data is the next target. For O’Reilly, open data is “a key enabler of the measurement revolution”.This “measurement revolution” seeks to quantify the efficiency of various social programmes, as if the rationale behind the social nets that some of them provide was to achieve perfection of delivery. The actual rationale, of course, was to enable a fulfilling life by suppressing certain anxieties, so that citizens can pursue their life projects relatively undisturbed. This vision did spawn a vast bureaucratic apparatus and the critics of the welfare state from the left – most prominently Michel Foucault – were right to question its disciplining inclinations. Nonetheless, neither perfection nor efficiency were the “desired outcome” of this system. Thus, to compare the welfare state with the algorithmic state on those grounds is misleading.

But we can compare their respective visions for human fulfilment – and the role they assign to markets and the state. Silicon Valley’s offer is clear: thanks to ubiquitous feedback loops, we can all become entrepreneurs and take care of our own affairs! As Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, told the Atlantic last year, “What happens when everybody is a brand? When everybody has a reputation? Every person can become an entrepreneur.”

Under this vision, we will all code (for America!) in the morning, drive Uber cars in the afternoon, and rent out our kitchens as restaurants – courtesy of Airbnb – in the evening. As O’Reilly writes of Uber and similar companies, “these services ask every passenger to rate their driver (and drivers to rate their passenger). Drivers who provide poor service are eliminated. Reputation does a better job of ensuring a superb customer experience than any amount of government regulation.”

The state behind the “sharing economy” does not wither away; it might be needed to ensure that the reputation accumulated on Uber, Airbnb and other platforms of the “sharing economy” is fully liquid and transferable, creating a world where our every social interaction is recorded and assessed, erasing whatever differences exist between social domains. Someone, somewhere will eventually rate you as a passenger, a house guest, a student, a patient, a customer. Whether this ranking infrastructure will be decentralised, provided by a giant like Google or rest with the state is not yet clear but the overarching objective is: to make reputation into a feedback-friendly social net that could protect the truly responsible citizens from the vicissitudes of deregulation.

Admiring the reputation models of Uber and Airbnb, O’Reilly wants governments to be “adopting them where there are no demonstrable ill effects”. But what counts as an “ill effect” and how to demonstrate it is a key question that belongs to the how of politics that algorithmic regulation wants to suppress. It’s easy to demonstrate “ill effects” if the goal of regulation is efficiency but what if it is something else? Surely, there are some benefits – fewer visits to the psychoanalyst, perhaps – in not having your every social interaction ranked?

The imperative to evaluate and demonstrate “results” and “effects” already presupposes that the goal of policy is the optimisation of efficiency. However, as long as democracy is irreducible to a formula, its composite values will always lose this battle: they are much harder to quantify.

For Silicon Valley, though, the reputation-obsessed algorithmic state of the sharing economy is the new welfare state. If you are honest and hardworking, your online reputation would reflect this, producing a highly personalised social net. It is “ultrastable” in Ashby’s sense: while the welfare state assumes the existence of specific social evils it tries to fight, the algorithmic state makes no such assumptions. The future threats can remain fully unknowable and fully addressable – on the individual level.

Silicon Valley, of course, is not alone in touting such ultrastable individual solutions. Nassim Taleb, in his best-selling 2012 book Antifragile, makes a similar, if more philosophical, plea for maximising our individual resourcefulness and resilience: don’t get one job but many, don’t take on debt, count on your own expertise. It’s all about resilience, risk-taking and, as Taleb puts it, “having skin in the game”. As Julian Reid and Brad Evans write in their new book, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, this growing cult of resilience masks a tacit acknowledgement that no collective project could even aspire to tame the proliferating threats to human existence – we can only hope to equip ourselves to tackle them individually. “When policy-makers engage in the discourse of resilience,” write Reid and Evans, “they do so in terms which aim explicitly at preventing humans from conceiving of danger as a phenomenon from which they might seek freedom and even, in contrast, as that to which they must now expose themselves.”

What, then, is the progressive alternative? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” doesn’t work here: just because Silicon Valley is attacking the welfare state doesn’t mean that progressives should defend it to the very last bullet (or tweet). First, even leftist governments have limited space for fiscal manoeuvres, as the kind of discretionary spending required to modernise the welfare state would never be approved by the global financial markets. And it’s the ratings agencies and bond markets – not the voters – who are in charge today.

Second, the leftist critique of the welfare state has become only more relevant today when the exact borderlines between welfare and security are so blurry. When Google’s Android powers so much of our everyday life, the government’s temptation to govern us through remotely controlled cars and alarm-operated soap dispensers will be all too great. This will expand government’s hold over areas of life previously free from regulation.

With so much data, the government’s favourite argument in fighting terror – if only the citizens knew as much as we do, they too would impose all these legal exceptions – easily extends to other domains, from health to climate change. Consider a recent academic paper that used Google search data to study obesity patterns in the US, finding significant correlation between search keywords and body mass index levels. “Results suggest great promise of the idea of obesity monitoring through real-time Google Trends data”, note the authors, which would be “particularly attractive for government health institutions and private businesses such as insurance companies.”

If Google senses a flu epidemic somewhere, it’s hard to challenge its hunch – we simply lack the infrastructure to process so much data at this scale. Google can be proven wrong after the fact – as has recently been the case with its flu trends data, which was shown to overestimate the number of infections, possibly because of its failure to account for the intense media coverage of flu – but so is the case with most terrorist alerts. It’s the immediate, real-time nature of computer systems that makes them perfect allies of an infinitely expanding and pre-emption‑obsessed state.

Perhaps, the case of Gloria Placente and her failed trip to the beach was not just a historical oddity but an early omen of how real-time computing, combined with ubiquitous communication technologies, would transform the state. One of the few people to have heeded that omen was a little-known American advertising executive called Robert MacBride, who pushed the logic behind Operation Corral to its ultimate conclusions in his unjustly neglected 1967 book, The Automated State.

At the time, America was debating the merits of establishing a national data centre to aggregate various national statistics and make it available to government agencies. MacBride attacked his contemporaries’ inability to see how the state would exploit the metadata accrued as everything was being computerised. Instead of “a large scale, up-to-date Austro-Hungarian empire”, modern computer systems would produce “a bureaucracy of almost celestial capacity” that can “discern and define relationships in a manner which no human bureaucracy could ever hope to do”.

“Whether one bowls on a Sunday or visits a library instead is [of] no consequence since no one checks those things,” he wrote. Not so when computer systems can aggregate data from different domains and spot correlations. “Our individual behaviour in buying and selling an automobile, a house, or a security, in paying our debts and acquiring new ones, and in earning money and being paid, will be noted meticulously and studied exhaustively,” warned MacBride. Thus, a citizen will soon discover that “his choice of magazine subscriptions… can be found to indicate accurately the probability of his maintaining his property or his interest in the education of his children.” This sounds eerily similar to the recent case of a hapless father who found that his daughter was pregnant from a coupon that Target, a retailer, sent to their house. Target’s hunch was based on its analysis of products – for example, unscented lotion – usually bought by other pregnant women.

For MacBride the conclusion was obvious. “Political rights won’t be violated but will resemble those of a small stockholder in a giant enterprise,” he wrote. “The mark of sophistication and savoir-faire in this future will be the grace and flexibility with which one accepts one’s role and makes the most of what it offers.” In other words, since we are all entrepreneurs first – and citizens second, we might as well make the most of it.

What, then, is to be done? Technophobia is no solution. Progressives need technologies that would stick with the spirit, if not the institutional form, of the welfare state, preserving its commitment to creating ideal conditions for human flourishing. Even some ultrastability is welcome. Stability was a laudable goal of the welfare state before it had encountered a trap: in specifying the exact protections that the state was to offer against the excesses of capitalism, it could not easily deflect new, previously unspecified forms of exploitation.

How do we build welfarism that is both decentralised and ultrastable? A form of guaranteed basic income – whereby some welfare services are replaced by direct cash transfers to citizens – fits the two criteria.

Creating the right conditions for the emergence of political communities around causes and issues they deem relevant would be another good step. Full compliance with the principle of ultrastability dictates that such issues cannot be anticipated or dictated from above – by political parties or trade unions – and must be left unspecified.

What can be specified is the kind of communications infrastructure needed to abet this cause: it should be free to use, hard to track, and open to new, subversive uses. Silicon Valley’s existing infrastructure is great for fulfilling the needs of the state, not of self-organising citizens. It can, of course, be redeployed for activist causes – and it often is – but there’s no reason to accept the status quo as either ideal or inevitable.

Why, after all, appropriate what should belong to the people in the first place? While many of the creators of the internet bemoan how low their creature has fallen, their anger is misdirected. The fault is not with that amorphous entity but, first of all, with the absence of robust technology policy on the left – a policy that can counter the pro-innovation, pro-disruption, pro-privatisation agenda of Silicon Valley. In its absence, all these emerging political communities will operate with their wings clipped. Whether the next Occupy Wall Street would be able to occupy anything in a truly smart city remains to be seen: most likely, they would be out-censored and out-droned.

To his credit, MacBride understood all of this in 1967. “Given the resources of modern technology and planning techniques,” he warned, “it is really no great trick to transform even a country like ours into a smoothly running corporation where every detail of life is a mechanical function to be taken care of.” MacBride’s fear is O’Reilly’s master plan: the government, he writes, ought to be modelled on the “lean startup” approach of Silicon Valley, which is “using data to constantly revise and tune its approach to the market”. It’s this very approach that Facebook has recently deployed to maximise user engagement on the site: if showing users more happy stories does the trick, so be it.

Algorithmic regulation, whatever its immediate benefits, will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots. The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, in a pointed critique of cybernetics published, as it happens, roughly at the same time as The Automated State, put it best: “Society cannot give up the burden of having to decide about its own fate by sacrificing this freedom for the sake of the cybernetic regulator.”

 

Could you “free” yourself of Facebook?

A 99-day challenge offers a new kind of social media experiment

Could you "free" yourself of Facebook?
(Credit: LoloStock via Shutterstock)

Let’s try a new experiment now, Facebook. And this time, you’re the subject.

Remember just last month, when the monolithic social network revealed that it had been messing with its users’ minds as part of an experiment? Writing in PNAS, Facebook researchers disclosed the results of a study that showed it had tinkered with the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users, highlighting either more positive or more negative content, to learn if “emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people.” What they found was that “When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.” More significantly, after the news of the study broke, they discovered that people get pretty creeped out when they feel like their personal online space is being screwed with, and that their reading and posting activity is being silently monitored and collected – even when the terms of service they agreed to grant permission to do just that. And they learned that lawmakers in the U.S. and around the world question the ethics of Facebook’s intrusion.

Now, a new campaign out of Europe is aiming to do another experiment involving Facebook, its users and their feelings. But this time Facebook users aren’t unwitting participants but willing volunteers. And the first step involves quitting Facebook. The 99 Days of Freedom campaign started as an office joke at Just, a creative agency in the Netherlands. But the company’s art director Merijn Straathof says it quickly evolved into a bona fide cause. “As we discussed it internally, we noted an interesting tendency: Everyone had at least a ‘complicated’ relationship with Facebook. Whether it was being tagged in unflattering photos, getting into arguments with other users or simply regretting time lost through excessive use, there was a surprising degree of negative sentiment.” When the staff learned that Facebook’s 1.2 billion users “spend an average of 17 minutes per day on the site, reading updates, following links or browsing photos,” they began to wonder what that time might be differently applied to – and whether users would find it “more emotionally fulfilling.”



The challenge – one that close to 9,000 people have already taken – is simple. Change your FB avatar to the “99 Days of Freedom” one to let friends know you’re not checking in for the next few months. Create a countdown. Opt in, if you wish, to be contacted after 33, 66 and 99 days to report on your satisfaction with life without Facebook. Straathof says everyone at Just is also participating, to “test that one firsthand.”

Straathof and company say the goal isn’t to knock Facebook, but to show users the “obvious emotional benefits to moderation.” And, he adds, “Our prediction is that the experiment will yield a lot of positive personal experiences and, 99 days from now, we’ll know whether that theory has legs.” The anecdotal data certainly seems to support it. Seductive as FB, with its constant flow of news and pet photos, may be, you’d be hard-pressed to find a story about quitting it that doesn’t make getting away from it sound pretty great. It’s true that grand experiments, especially of a permanent nature, have never gotten off the ground. Four years ago, a group of disgruntled users tried to gather momentum for a Quit Facebook Day that quietly went nowhere. But individual tales certainly make a compelling case for, if not going cold turkey, at least scaling back. Elizabeth Lopatto recently wrote in Forbes of spending the past eight years Facebook free and learning that “If you really are interested in catching up with your friends, catch up with your friends. You don’t need Facebook to do it.” And writing on EliteDaily this past winter, Rudolpho Sanchez questioned why “We allow our successes to be measured in little blue thumbs” and declared, “I won’t relapse; I’ve been liberated. It’s nice not knowing what my fake friends are up to.” Writing a few weeks later in Business Insider, Dylan Love, who’d been on FB since he was an incoming college student 10 years ago, gave it up and reported his life, if not improved, remarkably unchanged, “except I’m no longer devoting mental energy to reading about acquaintances from high school getting married or scrolling through lots of pictures of friends’ vacation meals.” And if you want a truly persuasive argument, try this: My teenager has not only never joined Facebook, she dismissively asserts that she doesn’t want to because “It’s for old people.”

Facebook, of course, doesn’t want you to consider that you might be able to maintain your relationships or your sense of delight in the world without it. When my mate and I went away for a full week recently, we didn’t check in on social media once the whole time. Every day, with increasing urgency, we received emails from Facebook alerting us to activity in our feeds that we surely wanted to check. And since I recently gutted my friend list, I’ve been receiving a bevy of suggested people I might know. Why so few friends, lonely lady? Why so few check-ins? Don’t you want more, more, more?

I don’t know if I need to abandon Facebook entirely – I like seeing what people I know personally and care about are up to, especially those I don’t get to see in the real world that often. That connection has often been valuable, especially through our shared adventures in love, illness and grief, and I will always be glad for it. But a few months ago I deleted the FB app, which makes avoiding Facebook when I’m not at my desk a no-brainer. No more stealth checking my feed from the ladies’ room. No more spending time expressing my “like” of someone’s recent baking success when I’m walking down the street. No more “one more status update before bed” time sucks. And definitely no more exasperation when FB insistently twiddles with my news feed to show “top stories” when I prefer “most recent.” It was never a huge part of my life, but it’s an even smaller part of it now, and yeah, it does feel good. I recommend it. Take Just’s 99-day challenge or just a tech Sabbath or just scale back a little. Consider it an experiment. One in which the user, this time, is the winner.

Mary Elizabeth Williams Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of “Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.” Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/11/could_you_free_yourself_of_facebook/?source=newsletter

Facebook Is Studying You

 …Your Mom, Your Makeout Buddy, and Your 9/11 Conspiracy Theories

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 6:00 AM ED

Facebook users and privacy advocates erupted in anger recently after New Scientist drew attention to a 2012 study in which Facebook researchers had attempted to manipulate users’ moods. “The company purposefully messed with people’s minds,” one privacy group complained to the Federal Trade Commission.

But the mood study is far from the only example of Facebook scrutinizing its users—the company has been doing that for years, examining users’ ethnicities, political views, romantic partners, and even how they talk to their children. (Unlike the mood study, the Facebook studies listed below are observational; they don’t attempt to change users’ behavior.) Although it’s unlikely Facebook users have heard about most of these studies, they’ve consented to them; the social network’s Data Use Policy states: “We may use the information we receive about you…for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

Below are five things Facebook researchers have been studying about Facebook users in recent years. (Note that in each of these studies, data was analyzed in aggregate and steps were taken to hide personally identifiable information.)

1. Your significant others (and whether the relationship will last): In October 2013, Facebook published a study in which researchers tried to guess who users were in a relationship with by looking at the users’ Facebook friends. For the study, Facebook researchers randomly chose 1.3 million users who had between 50 and 2,000 friends, were older than 20, and described themselves as married, engaged, or in a relationship. To guess whom these users were dating, the researchers analyzed which of the users’ friends knew each other—and which ones didn’t. You might share a ton of college friends with your old college roommate on Facebook, for example. But your boyfriend might be Facebook friends with your college friends, your coworkers, and your mom—people who definitely don’t know each other. Hence, he’s special.

Using this method, researchers were able to determine a person’s romantic partner with “high accuracy”—they were able to guess married users’ spouses 60 percent of the time by just looking at users’ friend networks. The researchers also looked at a subset of same-sex couples, to see whether that changed the results. (It didn’t.)

Facebook then decided to see whether it could use this method to predict whether a relationship is likely to last. For this part of the experiment, researchers looked at about 400,000 users who said that they were “in a relationship” and watched to see whether those users said they were single 60 days later. The researchers concluded that relationships in which Facebook’s model correctly identified the partner were less likely to break up, noting that the results were especially accurate when the two people had been together less than a year. (So basically, if you’re only introducing your boyfriend to your friends, and not your mom, your relationship might be less likely to last.)

2. How your mom talks to you: For this study, Facebook looked at how parents and their kids talk to each other Facebook. (Fun fact: On average, parent-child pairs wait 371 days after joining Facebook before becoming “friends.” Tell your little sister to stop ignoring your mom’s friend request.) The researchers examined three months of communication data pulled from September 2012. This data included comments, posts, and links shared on other users’ timelines, but not chat messages. According to the researchers, that wasn’t a privacy decision—chats are simply “too short and noisy for substantive language analysis.” Here are some of the top phrases that researchers noticed parents using in messages to their young children:

And here’s what parents are writing to their adult children, after they’ve developed filthy minds and drinking problems:

Facebook also noted that “what parents say when they’re not talking to their children is just as revealing; they use higher levels of ideology (agree but, obama, our government, policies, people need to, ethics), swearing and slang (ctfu, lmao, fucker, idk), and alcohol and sex terms (tequila, glass of wine, that ass, sexy). Ew.

3. Your ethnicity: In this older study, from 2010, researchers wrote that “the ethnicity of a user base is an important demographic indicator that can be used for marketing, compliance, and analytics as well as a scientific tool for understanding social behavior,” but lamented that “unfortunately, ethnic information is often unavailable for practical, legal, or political reasons.” So researchers came up with a solution: They determined the ethnic breakdown of US Facebook users by using people’s names and data provided by the Census. Tested on Facebook, the researchers’ proposed model “learned” that Latoya is more likely to be a black name and Barb is more likely to be white name. “Using both first and last names further improves estimates, largely by making better distinctions between White and Black,” the researchers wrote.

Once researchers had that data set, they started doing other studies. For example, the researchers examined pairs of people in romantic relationships on Facebook, as broken down by ethnicity. They also noted that their research suggested that “individuals’ ethnicity can be predicted through their social ties” and tried to predict users’ ethnicity based on the average ethnicity of their friends. (You should definitely not play this game at your next dinner party.) The researchers also compared users’ self-identified political views with their ethnicities, noting that “whites are more frequent in the Libertarian, Conservative, and Very Conservative categories.” The researchers did note that their research method comes with a caveat, “While ethnicity is an important factor in understanding user behavior, it is often only a proxy for other variables, such as socioeconomic status, or education. A complete analysis should control for all such factors.”

4. How you respond to conspiracy theories: In the spring of 2014, Facebook published a study on how rumors spread on the social network. The researchers looked at rumors identified by the rumor-debunking website Snopes.com that fall into a number of different categories, including politics, medicine, horror, “glurge” (i.e., sentimental stories that usually aren’t true), and 9/11. Then, the researchers found rumors posted on Facebook as photos, and gathered 249,035 comments in which people commented on the rumor with a valid link to Snopes.Ultimately, the researchers found reshared posts that received a comment that linked to Snopes were more likely to be deleted. So, feel free to keep telling your friends that the Russian sleep experiment story is BS.

5. If you’re deleting posts before you publish them: For this 2013 study, Facebook looked at how often users start typing a post or comment, and then at the last minute, decide not to publish it, which they called “self-censorship.” The researchers collected data from 3.9 million users over 17 days. They noted when someone started typing more than five characters in status update or comment box. The researchers recorded only whether text was entered, not the keystrokes or content. (This is the same way Gmail automatically saves drafts of your email, except that Facebook logs the presence of text, not actual content.) If the user didn’t share the post within 10 minutes, it was marked as self-censored. Researchers found that 71 percent of all users censored content at least once. The researchers also noted that women were less likely to self-censor, as were people with a more politically diverse set of friends.

Let’s nationalize Amazon and Google

Publicly funded technology built Big Tech

They’re huge and ruthless and define our lives. They’re close to monopolies. Let’s make them public utilities

Let's nationalize Amazon and Google: Publicly funded technology built Big Tech
Jeff Bezos (Credit: AP/Reed Saxon/Pakhnyushcha via Shutterstock/Salon)

They’re huge, they’re ruthless, and they touch every aspect of our daily lives. Corporations like Amazon and Google keep expanding their reach and their power. Despite a history of abuses, so far the Justice Department has declined to take antitrust actions against them. But there’s another solution.

Is it time to manage and regulate these companies as public utilities?

That argument’s already been made about broadband access. In her book “Captive Justice,” law professor Susan Crawford argues that “high-speed wired Internet access is as basic to innovation, economic growth, social communication, and the country’s competitiveness as electricity was a century ago.”

Broadband as a public utility? If not for corporate corruption of our political process, that would seem like an obvious solution. Instead, our nation’s wireless access is the slowest and costliest in the world.

But why stop there? Policymakers have traditionally considered three elements when evaluating the need for a public utility: production, transmission, and distribution. Broadband is transmission. What about production and distribution?

The Big Tech mega-corporations have developed what Al Gore calls the “Stalker Economy,” manipulating and monitoring as they go. But consider: They were created with publicly funded technologies, and prospered as the result of indulgent policies and lax oversight. They’ve achieved monopoly or near-monopoly status, are spying on us to an extent that’s unprecedented in human history, and have the potential to alter each and every one of our economic, political, social and cultural transactions.

In fact, they’re already doing it.

Public utilities? It’s a thought experiment worth conducting.

Big Tech was created with publicly developed technology.

No matter how they spin it, these corporations were not created in garages or by inventive entrepreneurs. The core technology behind them is the Internet, a publicly funded platform for which they pay no users’ fee. In fact, they do everything they can to avoid paying their taxes.



Big Tech’s use of public technology means that it operates in a technological “commons,” which they are using solely for its own gain, without regard for the public interest. Meanwhile the United States government devotes considerable taxpayer resource to protecting them – from patent infringement, cyberterrorism and other external threats.

Big Tech’s services have become a necessity in modern society.

Businesses would be unable to participate in modern society without access to the services companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook provide. These services have become public marketplaces.

For individuals, these entities have become the public square where social interactions take place, as well as the marketplace where they purchase goods.

They’re at or near monopoly status – and moving fast.

Google has 80 percent of the search market in the United States, and an even larger share of key overseas markets. Google’s browsers have now surpassed Microsoft’s in usage across all devices. It has monopoly-like influence over online news, as William Baker noted in the Nation. Its YouTube subsidiary dominates the U.S. online-video market, with nearly double the views of its closest competitor. (Roughly 83 percent of the Americans who watched a video online in April went to YouTube.)

Even Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer argued that Google is a “monopoly” whose activities were “worthy of discussion with competition authority.” He should know.

As a social platform, Facebook has no real competitors. Amazon’s book business dominates the market. E-books are now 30 percent of the total book market, and its Kindle e-books account for 65 percent of e-book sales.  Nearly one book in five is an Amazon product – and that’s not counting Amazon’s sales of physical books. It has become such a behemoth that it is able to command discounts of more than 50 percent from major publishers like Random House.

They abuse their power.

The bluntness with which Big Tech firms abuse their monopoly power is striking. Google has said that it will soon begin blocking YouTube videos from popular artists like Radiohead and Adele unless independent record labels sign deals with its upcoming music streaming service (at what are presumably disadvantageous rates).   Amazon’s war on publishers like Hachette is another sign of Big Tech arrogance.

But what is equally striking about these moves is the corporations’ disregard for basic customer service. Because YouTube’s dominance of the video market is so large, Google is confident that even frustrated music fans have nowhere to go. Amazon is so confident of its dominance that it retaliated against Hachette by removing order buttons when a Hachette book came up (which users must find maddening) and lied about the availability of Hachette books when a customer attempts to order one. It also altered its search process for recommendations to freeze out Hachette books and direct users to non-Hachette authors.

Amazon even suggested its customers use other vendors if they’re unhappy, a move that my Salon colleague Andrew Leonard described as “nothing short of amazing – and troubling.”

David Stratfield of the New York Times asked, “When does discouragement become misrepresentation?” One logical answer: When you tell customers a product isn’t available, even though it is, or rig your sales mechanism to prevent customers from choosing the item they want.

And now Amazon’s using some of the same tactics against Warner Home Video.

They got there with our help.

As we’ve already noted, Internet companies are using taxpayer-funded technology to make billions of dollars from the taxpayers – without paying a licensing fee. As we reported earlier, Amazon was the beneficiary of tax exemptions that allowed it to reach its current monopolistic size.

Google and the other technology companies have also benefited from tax policies and other forms of government indulgence. Contrary to popular misconception, Big Tech corporations aren’t solely the products of ingenuity and grit. Each has received, and continues to receive, a lot of government largess.

The real “commodity” is us.

Most of Big Tech’s revenues come from the use of our personal information in its advertising business. Social media entries, Web-surfing patterns, purchases, even our private and personal communications add value to these corporations. They don’t make money by selling us a product. We are the product, and we are sold to third parties for profit.

Public utilities are often created when the resource being consumed isn’t a “commodity” in the traditional sense. “We” aren’t an ordinary resource. Like air and water, the value of our information is something that should be publicly shared – or, at a minimum, publicly managed.

Our privacy is dying … or already dead.

“We know where you are,” says Google CEO Eric Schmidt. “We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

Facebook tracks your visits to the website of any corporate Facebook “partner,” stores that information, and uses it to track and manipulate the ads you see. Its mobile app also has a new, “creepy” feature that turns on your phone’s microphone, analyzes what you’re listening to or watching, and is capable of posting updates to your status like “Listening to Albert King” or “Watching ‘Orphan Black.’

Google tracks your search activity, an activity with a number of disturbing implications. (A competing browser that does not track searches called DuckDuckGo offers an illustrated guide to its competitors’ practices.)  If you use its Chrome browser, Google tracks your website visits too (unless you’re in “private” mode.)

Yasha Levine, who is tracking corporate data spying in his “Surveillance Valley” series, notes that “True end-to-end encryption would make our data inaccessible to Google, and grind its intel extraction apparatus to a screeching halt.” As the ACLU’s Christopher Soghoian points out: “It’s very, very difficult to deploy privacy protective policies with the current business model of ad supported services.”

As Levine notes, the widely publicized revelation that Big Data companies track rape victims was just the tip of the iceberg. They also track “anorexia, substance abuse, AIDS and HIV … Bedwetting (Enuresis), Binge Eating Disorder, Depression, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Genital Herpes, Genital Warts, Gonorrhea, Homelessness, Infertility, Syphilis … the list goes on and on and on and on.”

Given its recent hardball tactics, here’s a little-known development that should concern more people: Amazon also hosts 37 percent of the nation’s cloud computing services, which means it has access to the inner workings of the software that runs all sorts of businesses – including ones that handle your personal data.

For all its protestations, Microsoft is no different when it comes to privacy. The camera and microphone on its Xbox One devices were initially designed to be left on at all times, and it refused to change that policy until purchasers protested.

Privacy, like water or energy, is a public resource. As the Snowden revelations have taught us, all such resources are at constant risk of government abuse.  The Supreme Court just banned warrantless searches of smartphones – by law enforcement. Will we be granted similar protections from Big Tech corporations?

Freedom of information is at risk.

Google tracks your activity and customizes search results, a process that can filter or distort your perception of the world around you.  What’s more, this “personalized search results” feature leads you back to information sources you’ve used before, which potentially narrows our ability to discover new perspectives or resources.  Over time this creates an increasingly narrow view of the world.

What’s more, Google’s shopping tools have begun using “paid inclusion,” a pay-for-play search feature it once condemned as “evil.” Its response is to say it prefers not to call this practice “paid inclusion,” even though its practices appear to meet the Federal Trade Commission’s definition of the term.

As for Amazon, it has even manipulated its recommendation searches in order to retaliate against other businesses, as we’ll see in the next section.

The free market could become even less free.

Could Big Tech and its data be used to set user-specific pricing, based on what is known about an individual’s willingness to pay more for the same product? Benjamin Schiller of Brandeis University wrote a working paper last year that showed how Netflix could do exactly that. Grocery stores and other retailers are already implementing technology that offers different pricing to different shoppers based on their data profile.

For its part, Amazon is introducing a phone that will also tag the items around you, as well as the music and programs you hear, for you to purchase – from Amazon, of course. Who will be purchasing the data those phones collect about you?

They could hijack the future.

The power and knowledge they have accumulated is frightening. But the Big Tech corporations are just getting started. Google has photographically mapped the entire world. It intends to put the world’s books into a privately owned online library. It’s launching balloons around the globe that will bring Internet access to remote areas – on its terms. It’s attempting to create artificial intelligence and extend the human lifespan.

Amazon hopes to deliver its products by drone within the next few years, an idea that would seem preposterous if not for its undeniable lobbying clout. Each of these Big Tech corporations has the ability to filter – and alter – our very perceptions of the world around us. And each of them has already shown a willingness to abuse it for their own ends.

These aren’t just the portraits of futuristic corporations that have become drunk on unchecked power. It’s a sign that things are likely to get worse – perhaps a lot worse – unless something is done. The solution may lie with an old concept. It may be time to declare Big Tech a public utility.

 

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a writer and policy analyst. He is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and is host and managing editor of The Zero Hour on We Act Radio.

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/08/lets_nationalize_amazon_and_google_publicly_funded_technology_built_big_tech/?source=newsletter

Facebook: The company is mostly white and male

Facebook releases diversity figures: They look a lot like Google’s and Yahoo’s

 

Facebook releases diversity figures: They look a lot like Google's and Yahoo's
Mark Zuckerberg (Credit: Reuters/Robert Galbraith)

For the first time ever, Facebook released its workplace diversity figures. The numbers were made public yesterday, in a blog post written by Global Head of Diversity Maxine Williams. The company is mostly male, white and Asian.

This public disclosure, of both gender and diversity statistics, follows the trend of other large tech companies, spurred by a late May release from Google. Since Google made its numbers public Chegg, LinkedIn and Yahoo have also released their workforce breakdown.

Sadly, Facebook’s numbers look a lot like the other four. I’ll let the figures speak for themselves:

Globally the company is 69 percent male, 31 percent female. In terms of ethnicity the company is 57 percent white, 34 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic, 3 percent two or more races, 3 percent black and 0 percent other.

Scrutinized further, in the tech force of Facebook, 85 percent are male and 15 percent are female. In terms of ethnicity in the tech division 53 percent are white, 41 percent are Asian, 3 percent are Hispanic, 2 percent are two or more races, 1 percent is black and 0 percent is other.

Globally, leadership is 77 percent male, and 23 percent female. Facebook’s leadership in the U.S. is also mostly white — 74 percent. Leadership at the company is 19 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic, 2 percent black and 1 percent two or more races.

The non-tech workforce is 53 percent male, 47 percent female, 63 percent white, 24 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic, 4 percent two or more races, 2 percent black and 1 percent other.

“As these numbers show, we have more work to do – a lot more,” Williams wrote. Yep, that’s for sure.

Williams also stated that the company was working toward building a more diverse workforce. These efforts include partnering with organizations like the Anita Borg Institute, Girls Who Code, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and Yes We Code.



Releasing the figures and working with these groups are both important strides to becoming a more inclusive diverse workforce. Previously Facebook had been reluctant to release its figures. The New York Times reported that Facebook COO and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg, had originally stated that the company would rather share the numbers internally.

Diversity in companies is critical to not just fostering a positive, creative, inclusive workplace. Diversity is important in terms of representation, role models and mentorship. Sapna Cheryan, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington, explains.

“There’s a really strong image of what a computer scientist is — male, skinny, no social life, eats junk food, plays video games, likes science fiction,” Cheryan told the New York Times. “It makes it hard for people who don’t fit that image to think of it as an option for them.”

http://www.salon.com/2014/06/26/facebook_releases_diversity_figures_they_look_a_lot_like_googles_and_yahoos/?source=newsletter

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