admonishment to vigilance

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“‘Drive,’ she said when she sat down next to Sami. ‘Where to?’

She thought for a moment. Without looking at him, she said, ‘To where the country ends.’

‘For me it ended a long time ago,’ he hissed.” –To the End of the Land, David Grossman

Each day, the least democratic thing we could imagine (or even couldn’t imagine) happening happens. And then the next day, something even less democratic happens. This is true in the political realm, and it’s increasingly apparent in technology (now that we have algorithms deciding for us what we can/will see).

“‘I went,’ he told her, ‘because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.’” –The Plot against America, Philip Roth

How much of what we think and see is influenced by what we are fed pre-emptively? How can we think for ourselves and discover new things when there are limits on what we see (thanks to algorithms and our blindly, blithely feeding all of our own data into massive data crunching/manipulating machines)? I have been thinking about this for some time. Most of the jobs I’ve had were directly within or at least adjacent to/dependent on the collection, analysis and use of data about users and their behaviors and habits. Many companies exist solely because of their access and ability to harvest data – it has created entirely new business models and applications. But it’s never been mysterious what was going on (even if most average people don’t consider the implications). I don’t know why people are now, suddenly surprised.

Just as I was trying to figure out how to discuss this, an article appeared on HBR.org:

“The ability for an elite to instantly alter the thoughts and behavior of billions of people is unprecedented.

This is all possible because of algorithms. The personalized, curated news, information and learning feeds we consume several times a day have all been through a process of collaborative filtering. This is the principle that if I like X, and you and I are similar in some algorithmically determined sense, then you’ll probably like X too. Everyone gets their own, mass-personalized feed, rationed by the machines.

The consequences are serious and wide-ranging. Fake news and misinformation are pervasive. Young kids are being subjected to algorithmically generated, algorithmically optimized pernicious content. Perhaps the least concerning implication is that there is systemic bias in our information feeds, that we operate in and are informed by tiny echo chambers. It’s a grotesque irony that our experiences of the world wide web today are actually pretty local, despite warnings from the likes of Eli Pariser back in 2011.”

My own words – base oversimplifications – are totally inadequate to deconstruct and intelligently discuss the complexity of these issues. But almost every book I read contains a warning. Almost none are direct cautionary tales in the vein of 1984, but almost all advise us to consider what we have and how easy, without vigilance, it is to lose:

“Because civilization isn’t a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, re-created daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible. And if he wishes to live, he must do what he can to prevent the world he wants to live in from fading away. As long as there’s war, life is a preventative measure.” –The Cellist of Sarajevo, Stephen Galloway

But then, we also need to consider that the erosions and explosions of “civilization” also come about because not everyone agrees about what constitutes civilization – this fundamental disagreement poses its own dangerous fragmentation.

Photo by paul morris on Unsplash

Internet of things = Big Data – Big Brother?

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This summer, George Orwell, the frighteningly prescient author of the classic novel 1984, would have turned 110 years old. In honor of the big day, a Dutch art collective, FRONT404, decorated Utrecht’s ubiquitous security surveillance cameras with party hats in an attempt to remind us that these devices are there, always on. The artists state: “By making these inconspicuous cameras that we ignore in our daily lives catch the eye again we also create awareness of how many cameras really watch us nowadays. And [how] the surveillance state described by Orwell is getting closer and closer to reality.”

But the real surveillance state, if we want to call it that, is not necessarily as blatant as the camera on every street corner (although the cameras play their own big part). The real “surveillance” is in the data collected about you every day in your online dealings.

And contributing to the acceleration of this trend is the much-discussed “internet of things” (IoT) concept. A spate of articles about the popular IoT idea has churned through the media, mostly painting the rosy picture of convenience and ease enabled by connecting everything (did we learn nothing from the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica about the dangers of networks?), but also covering topics, such as the challenges of keeping the “things” secure and the potential lines crossed in terms of personal privacy. But if we stop to consider a few of the basic applications of IoT, such as rental cars with “black boxes” attached to monitor renters’ driving – or insurance-company customers and their driving, there are implications. What is the line between the collection of beneficial data and the violation of privacy?

A recent TechCrunch article framed the “monitored driving” angle as though it’s mostly a positive, but does – and we should all be vigilant here – sound the alarm on the caution we need to take in weighing the implications. In this article it is presented as letting you take risk into your own hands and gain from a prevention-based versus reactive insurance claim model, but what do you give up for that? The insurance industry and its relationship with drivers/consumers is highlighted as a potential source of positive change through IoT and the application of data. Insurance companies want to use data to personalize your policies, which will supposedly make coverage and claims more reflective of your personal use. “The idea of ‘connected coverage’ means that insurance companies will encourage you to take risk management into your own hands by leveraging IoT. Ultimately, that could mean saving a big chunk of cash.”

Saving cash = good news! Right? Probably, yes. But the new “You + IoT + Provider = A New Dialogue” equation demands a greater vigilance than most consumers are willing to exert. Many compare the changes and conveniences enabled by IoT and Big Data to finally living in a “Jetsons” era. But the flipside is living under the watchful eye of Big Brother. We accept it because of its potential bonuses and benefits, but I ask again: where does insight end and intrusion begin? The pool of data available to entities in all industries will continue to proliferate – how can this be managed – treating you, based on the individualized data collected about you, as a unique customer, without penalizing you for the same body of behavioral data?

A Backchannel/Medium piece by Angus Hervey perfectly expressed the ambivalence I feel and the questions we should all be asking:

“A world where our entire physical environment has the ability to exchange data with the internet and other connected objects. A world that’s more convenient, more streamlined, and more responsive to our needs. It’s also a terrifying prospect. A world of ubiquitous surveillance, a world where privacy is no longer a guaranteed right but instead a privilege you must fight for. The possibility of data breaches, backdoors into home systems, vehicles being hacked by shadowy forces, are very real.

Start thinking differently about the IoT. Make sure you place it within its larger technological context, and join the vanguard that’s establishing new design practices and principles for how we’re going to manage it. It’s not more of the same. It’s something new. And once we get past that stupid name, it’s going to change the world.”

Lunchtable TV Talk: Person of Interest

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I love how technology in a show from a year ago, five years ago or ten years ago looks hilariously outdated (if any of the tech they showed ever became possible or real at all). Things like Quantum Leap always showed an iridescent future (loads of “future” shows in the 80s and 90s did the same). And that is just about all you could say about them: iridescent and full of laser beams. Watching something like Person of Interest and all its surveillance does not look futuristic, even if it does not always feel totally realistic – it just looks like more 1984/Brave New World in origin. We’re being surveilled all the time, so why not make use of all that data? In Person of Interest, it’s in the interest of helping people. But in the real world it’s more likely to be companies building dubious business models around the use of so-called Big Data.

I really only just started watching a couple of episodes of Person of Interest. It’s a filler, not something I have ever had a burning desire to watch. I just need some noise in the background while I write white papers. I have nothing to say about it except that it prompted these thoughts about technology on TV.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Black Mirror

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It was not that long ago that I finally got wrapped up in the existing episodes of the genius, twisty, unsettling Black Mirror. And then it was announced that it would be back as a Netflix production. I won’t ramble about what made Black Mirror genius – it entertained at the same time as being terrifying, thinking about how we’re probably only a step away from the kinds of invasive technology that disrupted, destroyed and in many case ruined the characters’ lives in the effectively standalone vignettes presented in the few episodes that exist. All the “conveniences” that we embrace without thinking how they expose us and monitor us 24/7, not at all unlike the cautionary tale of all cautionary tales that is 1984. But in a world where people volunteer to put every minute detail of their lives on (reality) TV in the name of some kind of misguided fame, can I be surprised?

The other thing that surprised me was learning that Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator/writer, also co-wrote the Sky1 police-drama spoof, A Touch of Cloth, starring the dazzlingly clear-spoken Scot John Hannah, actor and would-be proprietor of the John Hannah School of English. Who would have guessed?

Reading the Riot Act … in poetry time

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“Great minds have sought you — lacking someone else.
You have been second always. Tragical?
No. You preferred it to the usual thing:
One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
One average mind —   with one thought less, each year.”
-Ezra Pound, “Portrait d’Une Femme

I recently used the expression “reading the Riot Act” and then felt compelled to think about it and where this expression came from. How many expressions are we using every day without really having a clear answer as to where they came from? Many months ago, I referred to “Big Brother” watching us, and, if I remember correctly, the colleague to whom I was speaking replied with something about reality TV shows. (I made sure to inform her that Big Brother comes from the must-read book, Orwell‘s 1984, and months later supplied her with a copy, which she devoured and loved.) Actually the same woman and I had a talk the other day in which she described the stereotypical (and yes, it’s totally derogatory) “Shylock”, so I mentioned “Shylock” – and again got to explain the origins of this reference (as well as the reference to the oft-cited demanding one’s pound of flesh). Oh, how much of this language and its complex web of references is attributable to Shakespeare? Okay, not Big Brother, but … the English language is practically sewn together with Shakespearean expressions and imagery.

I never consider myself that literary. I am not the kind of person, in my imagination, who makes literary references (neither the highbrow kind that only certain people will “get” nor the everyday “everyone should know this” kind – lately it seems that the only reference anyone makes that anyone gets is from pop culture rubbish “lit”). Despite this self-evaluation, I tend to find a poem or line from a poem (or at least a song) that fits to every situation. And so much of it ties into memories.

I was thinking for example of a former classmate, Frank. Someone I genuinely liked and respected, but one among several of the high school era people I knew who just decided to go away and live a life disconnected from the past. I gave a lot of thought today to how much he despised being forced to read and analyze poetry in our senior lit class. Symbolism seemed the most ludicrous thing ever. He was profoundly … almost disgusted by William Carlos Williams and the reverence our teachers afforded this guy and his red wheelbarrow and white chickens (not to be confused with the chicken that my current company dubiously had in some of its ads).

We had an assignment in which we were assigned a poet to research, and Frank was given Ezra Pound. (He could have chosen another poet but probably would not have wanted to invest the time to select one.) I distinctly recall Frank claiming that there was a reference in one of Pound’s poems that read: “the monkey screams”. Where did he get this? Perhaps from Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” (“The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.”)

One year in high school we also had to analyze Pound’s “Portrait d’Une Femme” as a part of our (nerd festival, in which I participated willingly and gleefully) academic decathlon competition. At the time the poem held very little meaning for me, but over the years has assumed a bittersweet kind of importance, as I recognize in it bits of myself. Poetry and music both have a way of reaching me (and probably all people) in different ways at different times. This poem seemed so remote when I was young and had no life experience, and then suddenly, these references to being second always and yet preferring it – or the final lines: “In the slow float of differing light and deep,/No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,/Nothing that’s quite your own/Yet this is you.”

It simply cuts – and cuts the right way, however painful the realizations that come with it. I don’t know another way to put it. I know many people find poetry completely unrelatable, but for me, it is alive and takes on new lives each time I read it. Much like these expressions we adopt into our vernacular … and forget how they got there and maybe what they originally meant.