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

Influential relations: Always take the stairs

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I hate crowds of strangers enough that I decided – on the worst day possible – to give up public transportation in favor of my own two feet. Gothenburg is a completely walkable city, so even though I generally stay somewhere in the city center and work outside of it, it’s not a big deal to walk – even though the mounds of uncleared snow seemed insurmountable this morning. It felt slightly reminiscent of the training montage (minus the grunting!) in Rocky IV when Rocky has to work out in the snow, sawing and carrying logs, running through icy rivers and helping a man with a horse and carriage stuck in snow (?) and stuff. It being the Soviet era, a bunch of the scenes of Dolph Lundgren as machine-like nemesis Ivan Drago are all red, as if he works out in a bright Soviet-red room. Then again, it was the 80s – that’s how it always looked. And it was the 80s, so everyone looks a bit coked out. (Thanks again, Grace Jones, for delivering Dolph Lundgren to the world. Just realizing that I have written about Dolph and Rocky IV too many times already.)

I am not sure why it took me until now to decide this (walking, not comparing my life to scenes from Rocky IV) was a good course of action – a few too many times getting slapped in the arm by overzealous tram riders gesticulating wildly while talking on the phone, a few too many broken-down trams, a few too many long waits (I am a wee bit impatient), a few too many scenes I just don’t want to be party to or relive. And I love walking. And I love the cold. Why not choose the one day of the year that snow falls and really stays to start? Walk!

Walking after midnight – Patsy Cline for SD, my beautiful firewall.

Walking everywhere – and then realizing that I never take elevators anymore if I can avoid them – makes me think of how influential people in our lives can be in the most imperceptible ways. Little things that change how we do things. One ex-boyfriend always walked and never took the elevator, and eventually that shifted my take on how I get around and … how I ascend (haha) in buildings. (It didn’t help my confidence in elevators that the one in our building was always breaking down.) Another ex-boyfriend insisted that I add color to my wardrobe – I resisted, but long after we split up – right up until today (and that split was, what… 15 years ago?) – I still wear colors and never returned to the all-black wardrobe I donned back then.

It’s funny recounting relationships how we are more prone to cite the landmark things – like how someone’s influence changed your whole feeling about love, made you want to be a better version of yourself, turned you against marriage, made you want to have children or even something like suddenly made you realize the merits of living in a big city versus the suburbs. But in reality the impact in day to day life is evident but almost unacknowledged – whether subtly adopting a word or phrase that that person used frequently, or always taking the stairs.

“Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs” – The Cramps: An apt tune. Always take the stairs, even if you’re a clumsy one like me, likely to fall down. Naked or not. (Check the awesome picture from when I fell flat on my face on one of Stockholm‘s main streets!)

The Cramps – Naked Girl Falling Down The Stairs

Yes, I fell and fell hard! Bruised and cut-up chin

Yes, I fell and fell hard! Bruised and cut-up chin