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Someone’s Been Messing with My Feed

It was an experiment in “happier” and “sadder”. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Facebook collaborated with some researchers on a psychological experiment on 700,000 of its users. It went something like this: add 20% more happiness and see what happens; add 20% more sadness and see what happens. The subjects of the study appeared to go with the flow, creating happy posts when fed happiness, and sad ones when fed an extra helping of sadness.

The internet explodes in outrage. How could Facebook abuse its position and add extra emotional shading to the newsfeeds of unsuspecting users? All of the big data merchants have this power. All of them assure us that they would never do such a thing. They are completely neutral, simply a transparent medium. Think of them as the Switzerlands of big-time data technology. (And as long as you don't know too much about the history of Switzerland, that'll seem just fine.)

The newsfeed is an interesting animal. It's the personalized stream of items that has been theorized over for a long time. If only we could give people what they want at the exact moment they need it, it wouldn't be perceived as advertising. Each person's newsfeed is unique, made of of selected interests, social graph and radiating out to a couple degrees of separation. Because of the personal nature of the selections that make up the newsfeed, it has the feel of an internal stream of consciousness. Your stream is unlike the stream of any other person. There are common elements, and there are moments where the streams cross, but each one is unique. As “individuals”, we identify strongly with our own feed; it's like no other.

The violation Facebook is charged with is similar to one we encountered in the 1970s — with subliminal advertising. Someone is airbrushing sex and death images into the ice cubes of liquor ads in magazines. Advertisers are intentionally targeting our unconscious minds, and there's no defense. We become like sleepwalkers, buying products without conscious intent. In our pragmatic, utilitarian society what could be more sinful?

We feel violated, some big corporation is messing with our insides — that feed is ours. It “is” us. All the while we walk through shopping malls filled with positive images designed to flatter and make us feel good. We watch television dramas that reinforce our moral values. We read magazines filled with an extra helping of happiness. The world as a feed that enters our ears and eyes is chock full of extra happiness. We already live inside a world that conditions our desires and provides positive reinforcement when we purchase the correct brands.

Facebook's error was to believe that it was an external feed like all the rest. In Bradley Kaye's book on Zen and Critical Theory called “The Boundless Open Sea” he describes the relationship between the internal newsfeed and the self.

Most Buddhists believe that actions are a direct result of a thought behind the action. Unethical actions are a direct result of untrained and messy thoughts. For the vast majority of people on this planet, thoughts pop up and appear as if they were completely natural. The vast majority of people never reflect on these thoughts. They come into the mind, make a cameo appearance and then leave without ever fully grounding themselves in anything solid or real. These untrained thoughts appear so natural they often unreflectively burst out as a set of spoken words. Habits and conditioning supersede the pathway to enlightenment and there is a way that people identify themselves with these untrained immature thoughts. There is no detachment from the thought process going on in these minds. The mind-images, or the mind-movies that are playing continue on as if they are an unstoppable force.

The streams of thought that Facebook appears to be contaminating with its extra helpings of happiness or sadness are already contaminated. Or rather, they are comprised largely of external memes and entities that make up the flow of thoughts rushing though our minds. The word “contamination” implies that there could be a pure state of cleanliness — as though we could take few squirts of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer and somehow massage our brains to remove the alien thoughts.

Bradley Kaye goes on to discuss how one might separate one's self from the flow of noise. The method does not involve prohibiting Facebook from adding or subtracting emotional shading to our newsfeeds.

The first step to liberating the mind is having an awareness that you are not your thoughts. To be aware that there is a voice in the mind and that this is the ego, not the true self. By sitting quietly, reflecting, and listening to the stammering voices that exist in the mind you diminish the Clamor of Being and can become completely detached from this white noise. It never completely stops because in modern society we are completely saturated with noise.


Driving the Map, Not the Territory

It's classic slight of hand. What's breathtaking is that it caught the entire country in its misdirection. Google demos its driverless car, the tiny one with no steering wheel and no brakes. The media shows us the pictures and then asks Detroit why this car is coming from the Silicon Valley and not the car manufacturers. Clearly another sign that U.S. manufacturers are hopelessly behind the times.

A few weeks ago Alexis Madrigal wrote an article for The Atlantic called “The Trick That Makes Google Self-Driving Cars Work.” In his piece, Alexis explains how the trick is done. Self-driving cars have very little to do with the machinery of the car itself. In case you hadn't noticed Google has an extremely robust mapping application. The self-driving car can only drive itself through a territory with a sufficiently fine-grained 3-D map. That's because the car isn't really driving on the streets, it's driving on the map. This is a story about virtual reality for cars. And it's not about who builds the cars, it's about who owns the virtual streets.


Robots of Taste

The whole reason the feudal stacks of the Network have been tracking everything that you do is to pigeonhole your taste. If the machine knows your taste it can create a virtual simulation of your taste and then quickly scan everything available for purchase and pre-stock your shopping cart with the kind of things a person like you would like.

Things were going along swimmingly with this business model until the personal data stacks learned an uncomfortable fact. Lots of people who have money don't actually have any taste. They're not sure what they like. If you take all the personal data they've spewed across the Network it doesn't add up to any kind of coherent taste. Turns out in many cases the consumer needs to be sold on a kind of taste before they can be sold an end product. The tastelessness of the masses results in a lower return on investment.

As a nation of individuals, we are bred to believe that an array of products can be tailored to match our unique taste. The products that gather beneath our freak flag will much different than someone else's. All we require is the capital to cause the presents to materialize beneath the tree. With the millions of products circling round us, we need a refined sense of taste such that as many consumables as possible can be packed on to our taste buds.

If we can't develop a taste on our own, we'll need to purchase a few from a pre-packaged selection. Tastes accessorized with shelves up to the moon with a spot for everything and every thing needing a spot. Taste, you see, must be optimized. Simple tastes are fine for the unsophisticated, but they leave one at such a disadvantage in the age of technology.

Once you've purchased your taste the whole world comes into focus. Faced with a shelf full of soft drinks in the supermarket, you have clarity on whether Coke or Pepsi is the real thing. It's helpful if you've got your Google Glass affixed to your face so you can receive real-time updates on the state of your taste.

For the most part there's no need to keep the fruit of your taste on physical media cluttering up your house. That's what the cloud is for, your stuff is just a click away. Your taste is already conveniently stored in the cloud–think of it as a custom set of shelves made to fit your stuff perfectly. As long as you can afford to keep the engines stoked, the hunger pangs of your taste can be satiated. And you can rest assured you've invested in the optimal configuration for consumption.

As you watch the wheel of your desire spin faster and faster, it's natural to feel a little superfluous. You wonder if you stepped away would things continue whirring away. The desiring machine only requires fuel, with sufficient capital you could keep any number of plates in the air. Flipping channels from this set of pre-packaged tastes to the next.

Your Network profile shows off the set of tastes you've acquired. It tells the world that you're the kind of person who likes this stuff and not that stuff. You've optimized the filters to let in the good tasting stuff and spit out the disgusting stuff. In the higher realms of your taste you travel via negativa, here you simply separate yourself and point a finger at things that represent bad taste.

The Network stacks have a stake in binding your profile to the “real” you. If they can get it to stick, then they've got you. The binding agent is made stronger by the number of ties across a diverse set of relations. If they can erase the trace of the glue then it's a short distance to the idea that there's no outside. As in “there's no outside of Google.”

But there's always a gap. You look at the set of digitally encoded tastes you've posted to represent your world view and you can't help but notice it's not you. When people admire the profile, you identify with it. When they revile it, you distance yourself, talk about its inaccuracy. If you were to walk away today, you could create a whole new profile that might look like an entirely different person.


Ten Observations Around 2013


These observations are in no particular order and are obviously incomplete.

Big Data, Big Error and Certainty

The more we use big data to justify decisions, more certain we become. This is despite the fact that big data findings are expressed as probabilities. The more certain we become the more we open ourselves to big errors. The size of these errors and the size of our certainty will be roughly equivalent.

Networked Social Streams are just Television

What looked like a new medium turns out to be an evolution of television. The large social and search hubs have taken the place of the Networks. The business model of sponsored commercial messages in the stream remains roughly the same.  The major innovation is that now when you talk back to the television, more people have the potential to hear you.

Recommenders: Rough propriety vs. Optimization

The robot that can find you the stuff you’ll like isn’t doing a very good job. The algorithm “if you like this tea, you’ll also like this weak tea” is flawed except for people who happen to be drinking weak tea. More precision isn’t what’s called for. The trick will be in finding what’s roughly appropriate rather than the perfect match. In this melody it’s the wrong notes that will prove most important.

Real time is Dead

Real time media (with the exception of financial data for the purpose of trading) is the equivalent of turning on the television to see what’s on. There’s always something on, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to watch it. The flood of real-time personal digital information will be consumed and digested by equally large robots who will determine that nothing important is going on. It will turn out to be sound and fury signifying nothing. Now we can be certain that nothing’s happening. This will free up a lot of time.

The Technical Age is Inside of the Ecological Age

Humankind is constitutive of the biosphere, meaning that it is a part of a larger thing. While global warming is down to human activity within the biosphere, the biosphere isn’t something to which we can apply our human will and mold like a piece of plastic. The technical in us has the fantasy that we can “fix” the problem of the warming earth through optimizing our technical approaches. This is the faith of the scientist and the capitalist.

Plausible Deniability and the “You” who is Recorded

The poor will be recorded and prosecuted based on those recordings. The rich will purchase plausible deniability with regard to their recordings and nullify their value in courtrooms.

Silicon Valley has Over-Served the Consumer

With few exceptions, all new technology products and services will be considered superfluous. This will be the case for the next 15 to 20 years. Google Glass will prove to be indigestible. It will find a place in warfare and professional technical work situations. Pundits will keep looking for, and demanding, the next big innovation when we haven’t fully digested the last one. We barely understand the telephone and television yet.

The Enterprise was Already Social

There are many experts who will say that the Enterprise isn’t social until they say it is. Corporate enterprises are social by their nature, some new communications tools are added to the toolbox every year. This has always been true. Social in the enterprise will end up looking more like UseNet and Listservs. Real-time streams are for coffee breaks.

The Singularity and the Fear of Being Left Out

The singularity is the most important and telling fantasy of the technical age. Its practical possibility is unimportant. Those who desire and worship the singularity feel they will be included in this grand reunion of all things. They see themselves helping to build a paradise to replace the one we lost. Those who see it as dystopian exercise recognize that a machine-driven singularity may well exclude humans as too inefficient. The fallen human will have no place in the next level of evolution in which self-aware machines will dominate.

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