Turning humans into robots

John Foreman, himself a data-scientist, writes a (somewhat rambling but) funny and self-aware essay on machine learning:

Data Privacy, Machine Learning, and the Destruction of Mysterious Humanity

I highly recommend you read it. Keep an eye for two coinages: “data-driven probabilistic determinism” and “data-laundered discrimination”. Machine learning is one side of the argument here. For the other side I also recommend the book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think

Here are a few juicy quotes from Foreman’s essay:

Our past data betrays our future actions, and rather than put us in a police state, corporations have realized that if they say just the right thing, we’ll put the chains on ourselves.

The promise of better machine learning is not to bring machines up to the level of humans but to bring humans down to the level of machines.

“A human being is a deciding being,” but if our decisions can be hacked by corporations then we have to admit that perhaps we cease to be human as we’ve known it.

A little bit of Huxley there, and reminiscent of Tim Wu who called us humans “comfort-seeking missiles”:

… for most of us, our technological identities are determined by what companies decide to sell based on what they believe we, as consumers, will pay for. … Comfort-seeking missiles, we spend the most to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. When it comes to technologies, we mainly want to make things easy. Not to be bored. Oh, and maybe to look a bit younger.

The imagery of the WALL-E at the end of Foreman’s essay is an appropriate warning.

Tech and social control — an OKDG After Action

@sundaysociology and @chadkoh deep in discussion.
@sundaysociology and @chadkoh deep in discussion. Photo by @scdaustin

How does technology influence the social and political lives of humans? That was the central topic of discussion during the second half of last night’s OKDG event. I sat down with UBCO Professor of Sociology Christopher Schneider to talk about technology and social control.

My purpose in inviting Dr Schneider was to introduce our community of developers and designers to some of the literature and concepts used in the formal inquiry into technology and society. We talked about the use of technology in formal social control (eg. police using Facebook to identify rioters during the 2011 Vancouver Riots), in informal social control (eg. expectations about timing of social interactions due to “instantaneous” communications channels), and about unlimited tech freedom (cf. Inverse Amish link below).

We as early adopters and practitioners seldom ask ourselves about the impact of what we make on society at large. How do you determine if a new piece of tech actually contributes to “progress”? Many of us are self taught and are never exposed to “ethics” classes (nevermind the ACM’s Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice) like other more established professions. That is why I like having these types of discussions in our community. It is a blind spot that we need to address.

NOTE: If you are looking for a quick and easy primer, I highly recommend Shannon Vallor’s module An Introduction to Software Engineering Ethics.

Anyways, Dr Schneider spoke at length and regaled us with anecdotes and dilemmas to think about. I think everyone had a good time. If you want to continue this discussion, or explore it further together, just let me know. Maybe we can do another event.

Below is a list of resources, concepts and events that was talked about that you can explore. (Thanks to @pondernook for writing all this down in realtime! I have corrected all the drunken spelling mistakes.)


Qualitative Media Analysis by Schneider and Althaide

Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience by Erving Goffman

Media Logic by Althaide and Snow

Digital Dualism

W.I. Thomas: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”

Cass Sunstein and Thaler “Nudging

Routine Activities Theory

Crime and Everyday Life by Marcus Felson

Crime as a social necessity

Toronto Police Service social media accounts
Richard Ericson

Crowd sourced policing

Reddit and the Boston Bombers

1992 LA Riots, media refusing to be a “deputy”

Aaron Doyle

Data Exhaust

Documentary: Terms and Conditions May Apply

Bruce Schneier, Trust and security

Balaji Srinivasan’s idea of the “Inverse Amish“. Also see Exiting Silicon Valley

Peter Thiel (paid kids not to go to college) and building offshore utopias

C Wright Mills

Cognitive Surplus

Neil Postman, technopoly: the cultural state of mind that assumes technology is always positive and of value

Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton

Sugar Hill Gang

The Filthy Fifteen

Adam Buxton sings “Help” the Police by NWA [EDITOR’s NOTE: Too funny!]

The death of the internet — A review of To Save Everything, Click Here

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov

Truthfully, I stayed away from this book. The overwhelming opinion of the popular tech press is that Evgeny Morozov writes like an asshole with an axe to grind. I found his first book The Net Delusion frustrating (but certainly worth it) and thus was unduly influenced by the digerati. If you feel the same way, ignore the pressure: read this book. Morozov’s writing can be “strong”, but imagine it being written with a playful smirk. I thought it rather funny actually.

The fact is that this book is an excellent first attempt (he did say he would return in a tank) at a critical assessment of “The Internet” as a cultural phenomenon. Without using the actual term, Morozov attacks the trend of using the internet as a “machine metaphor” — as a lens for understanding and revolutionizing human society. This is a phenomenon common throughout history: as a new technology begins adoption, it is often used as a metaphor to describe other parts of human understanding. For example, Galen thought of the body as a hydraulic system, reflective of the new technology of the time: plumbing; the brain has been known as a pneumatic device, a calculator, and more recently a computer; companies are vast machines with human cogs as workers, et cetera. With new technologies, come new metaphors, but the thinking is strikingly similar.

This time around it is “the Internet” (those are his purposeful scare quotes) which Morozov points out is a very difficult thing thing to define, and is not a useful category for analysis. It is merely a buzzword that obscures true underlying causes. Furthermore, he thinks it is exclusionary:

Today, “the Internet” is regularly invoked to thwart critical thinking and exclude nongeeks from the discussion.

To Morozov, the concept of a separate and encapsulated “online”, a hard line between “virtual” and “real”, and all the value judgements that entails, is illusory at best, and damaging at worst. The Internet deserves death as a concept for socio-political analysis.

Morozov warns against the temptation to think of technology as a panacea and implores thinkers to consider “deeper” legal and political solutions.

Last time I checked, much of this proverbial “Internet” was built by for-profit companies with the explicit objective of making money, not defending human rights. Why should we be reengineering our political institutions with this model in mind?

He goes even further as in many places he takes the position that when one looks deeper at problems, one may discover that they are not problems at all (sometimes absurdly, but it is a good exercise). He is not adverse to technical solutions, but critical of those that are ahistorical, or are working from a simplistic model. I was particularly sensitive to this since I had recently read Francis Fukuyama’s wonderful The Origins of Political Order, which goes into depth about the importance of institutions as foundations of our society.

The book is basically organized into groups of essays criticizing such topics as:

  • obsession with efficiency
  • obsession with transparency
  • disintermediation of “traditional” media
  • online reviews and the role of criticism
  • predictive algorithms (eg. crime)
  • self-tracking, lifelogging, the quantified self movement and “datasexuals”
  • nutritionism
  • gamification and social coercion
  • market fundamentalism

His criticism of “gamification” is particularly good with great one-liners such as:

“Frappuccino-powered soul-searching”

B. F. Skinner, not Marshall McLuhan, is the real patron saint of “the Internet.”

… feedback loops, badges, and rewards that substitute pleasure for duty.

His personal experience growing up in Belarus (“Soviet planners were also great gamification enthusiasts”) is particularly effective.

Morozov uses a wide swath of resources and tries to base his criticisms on intellectual foundations with lengthy heritages. The volume of footnotes is refreshing for a non-trade book. In fact, most of the snark in the book targets the methodology (or lack thereof) of popular authors in the genre, accusing them of being ignorant of history before the invention of the world wide web. (I wonder what he thinks of Tom Standage’s work?) He certainly shows a bias for historians and takes a few digs at political and social scientists. There is some appreciated bashing of Kevin Kelly, but pretty weak criticism of The Information Diet.

Morozov’s focus on internet-centrism as latter-day scientism could leave him open to criticism as he spends a lot of time preaching about “making good citizens”. Why is that any worthier of a goal? Much like a deconstructionist questions everything he sees, Morozov can see the political in every object. His obsession over the “atomized consumer” — a hyper-individualistic being whose sense of civic duty has been wholly replaced by feel-good market fundamentalism — makes him out to be anti-capitalist, which I don’t think is entirely true. Some of his examples are often exaggerated or implausible scenarios with dystopian “mights” that one could never imagine coming to pass. This weakens what generally is a sound argument: we should not blindly accept new technologies as “progress”, least most the internet.

Okanagan Bitcoin

#LeanCoffeeKL 96 - Cryptocurrencies
Photo by @scdaustin

Yesterday at #LeanCoffeeKL 96 we gathered to discuss cryptocurrencies. The meetup was really successful with a lot of new people coming out early in the morning to discuss and learn about bitcoin and other related topics. The spread of experience was pretty vast with long-time miners and evangelists to people who had only heard of bitcoin “5 days ago”. We also had some (non-tech) finance people around which lended an excellent balance. There were far too many topics to discuss in just an hour, and the discussion spilled out into the lounge area for about another hour. There will be a follow-up, and there is definitely enough interest to spin this off into its own group.

I look forward to seeing a monthly Okanagan bitcoin group. There are so many angles to learn and discuss centered on this topic, for example:

  • how to open a wallet (would make for a great hacknight)
  • securing your wallet
  • paper wallets and ASIC wallets
  • is BTC an asset, currency, money, or all of the above?
  • investment and arbitrage
  • altcoins and their applications
  • the politics of bitcoin
  • the technical aspect of the bitcoin protocol

I hope to see the group tackle each of these topics and more. If you are interested, please come out to #LeanCoffeeKL 97 – Cryptocurrencies Part 2 to register your interest and help shape the group that will grow out of this meeting.