Archive for May, 2014

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Erasing the Trace: The Right to be Forgiven

The European Union says you have the right to be forgotten. The technologists say that by asking to be forgotten you bring more attention on yourself. They call this the Streisand effect. A movie star demanding privacy causes more attention by virtue of the demand. Alec Baldwin is a good example of this negative feedback loop. The more violently he fights for his privacy, the more interest the tabloid press has in the force involved in his effort. What could be better than a photograph of a celebrity trying to stop a paparazzi from taking his photograph?

Journalists, if that's still a thing that exists, believe they have the right to report on any digital trace of what could be perceived as bad behavior. They don't think you should have the right to decide what should be erased from your own record. This right could lead to criminals covering up a history of bad acts. It would also require journalists to leave their keyboards to do research.

Search engine companies and technologist believe that it's too expensive to filter out stuff you don't want as the top hit for your name. They believe the data is what the data is, and that you should just live with it. These are the same people that probably have been shaping and gaming their own search engine results pages for years. Too bad for you if you have something in your past that brands you forever. The new morality dictates that you ought to behave as though your worst moment will represent you to the world for the rest of your life. Google will tell anyone who asks about your most extreme behavior, and it'll be the first entry on the first page of their search engine results. What is it they say about “first impressions?”

But what about “evil” you say, isn't it mostly evil that asks to be forgotten? Isn't forgetting evil and its deeds an evil in and of itself? “Forgetting” allows evil to cloak itself and inflict itself on us in a neutral guise. No doubt this is why we use our Google Glass to check the backgrounds of all the passersby as we walk the streets of the city. The flaneur knows what you did last summer.

The machine would like you to know that it's nothing personal, just like when it reads your email. It's simply trying to make connections and offer the space for advertisers to offer coherent purchasing suggestions to you. When your name is entered into a search engine, it returns a slanderous screed by a troll assassinating your character. It's nothing personal, that's just the entry in the index that scored the highest based on an algorithm. The machine doesn't really understand the result in a human way, it's just the output of a process.

The thing about one piece data is that it's just like any other piece of data. No data needs to be forgotten or forgiven; it's just grist for the algorithm. The fact that humans make this or that of any particular piece of data is simply a factor that feeds into the algorithm's scoring process. The algorithm makes no moral judgements and no assessment of the truth value of its output.

Erasing a trace from a search engine's index would require from the machine a sense of morality and propriety. For all the talk about artificial intelligence, machines seem to be getting smart in a very limited way.


Transparent: Believing is Seeing that Believing is Seeing

“We've almost made ourselves transparent in reaction to the fact that we know we're being watched.”

Annie Clark, St. Vincent

You are what you eat. You are what you wear. You are the music you listen to, the audio and video you consume. You are the investments you make, the work you do, the space you live in. You are the furniture that decorates your living space, especially the knick knacks on your mantle. You are the photos you share, the snarky comments you make on social networks, the political commentators you choose to listen to. You are the software you chose, the operating system, the device, the cloud that holds your stuff. You are the car you drive, the public transportation you take, the footwear you select for any particular walk. You are the cocktails you order, the craft beer you quaff and the espresso you sip.

You are the bill that was left unpaid this month. You are the parking ticket for parking in a handicapped spot. You are the bad report from a dentist. You're the person who doesn't floss enough. You're the person who raised his voice in anger. You are the phone call you forgot to make. You are the person living beyond her means. You are the person working two jobs and collecting food stamps. You are the person whose marriage didn't work out. You're the person who's too tired to read and too tired to sleep. Staring at the ceiling, waiting for the alarm to ring signaling the start of another day. You're the person obsessively checking email, even though there's only ever spam. You're the person who can't afford to eat lunch today. You are the person who forgot the difference between baking soda and baking powder.

You're the person whose essence is never completely captured by a sentence, or even a paragraph. You're the person who is represented by thousands of entries in hundreds of corporate and government databases. But the pieces never seem to add up to a solid picture. You're the person whose potential isn't represented by your test scores. You're the person who can't be summed up analyzing your web search history. You're the person whose taste can't be modeled with an algorithm.

You're the person who's become transparent. You're the person who is watched but unseen. You're the person who is present, but unrecorded. You're the person who leaves a trace that is never fully comprehended. You're the person with wholly unexpected depth. You're the person filled with unknown unknowns.


Apps and Sturgeon’s Law


Despite the fact that the Network has a kind of permanent memory, it’s not very good at remembering certain things. Or maybe it’s just that we aren’t. We see what we want to see.

During the last internet bubble we learned about startups, venture capital and burn rate. There’s a small window for new technology companies to find an exit before they burn up. The more companies in a space, the more difficult the exit.

The last bubble was burst when a list of tech companies was published that compared their cash on hand to their burn rate. Suddenly it was simple to see how much time each company had to make a profit or an exit. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

The unlimited optimism of the time quickly turned into a climate of fear. Investors suddenly wanted to see revenues and profits. It changed everything. Should someone publish such a list today, it would have a similar effect. We’ve simply forgotten that start ups burn cash, and while many things are cheaper, the fuse has just been lengthened a bit.

Another thing we seem to forget is that free communications systems fill up with spam. It’s estimated that 70% of all email is robot-generated spam. Whenever a new social communications hub is created we think that this time it’ll be different. As a social networking system matures it attracts trolls and starts to fill with spam. It’s always worked that way.

If your company is marketing to a free (non-subscription) social network, it’s likely the audience is filled with robots and spam accounts. Free access to a social network lowers barriers to growth, but it also creates a fertile ground for gaming the system.

Recently I read that 80% of mobile apps are used only once. That seems like a high number until you remember Sturgeon’s Law. This law states that 90% of everything is crap. In light of that, 80% is actually an excellent number. The other thing this should tell you is that as the ecosystem of apps matures it will revert to the norm. That means the number of apps used only once is more likely to be headed toward 90% than 70%.

If an app store has 1 million apps, 900,000 of them are crap. That leaves 100,000 that might be useful. That’s actually a pretty big number. Some say that software is going to eat everything. It’s certainly going to try and eat everything. But despite the brilliance of the young engineers writing this ravenous software, 90% of what they produce is going to be crap. It’s easy to forget when everyone’s smiling, optimistic and sure that their new technology is going to fundamentally change the way we do this or that.

It might be more helpful to look at tech start ups as though they were a slot machine programmed to take your money 90% of the time. Some can afford to play games with those odds, most can’t.

Turning Anthropocentrism Up to 11


It's often pointed out that when we say “Save the Earth”, what we mean is “Save the Earth (for humans)”. There has been, and will be, an earth without humans. That earth apparently doesn't require saving. This has lead to a new trope in discourse about global warming and the sixth mass extinction. It's the “if you won't do it for the earth, do it for yourselves” argument. The earth will be fine either way, but humans will face a catastrophe in the biosphere and widespread extinction. When the dust settles, there will still be some form of the planet earth.

In a New York Times Op-Ed, Alan Lightman recently put it this way:

Mother Earth doesn't care about you at all. So save yourselves.

Lightman wants to disabuse us of the notion that nature is a sentient larger whole with which we humans can become one. He prefers this view of nature:

Nature is purposeless. Nature simply is. We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept. We feel such a strong connection to nature. But the relationship between nature and us is one-sided. There is no reciprocity. There is no mind on the other side of the wall.

Lightman is a physicist who teaches humanities at M.I.T., and here he seems to present us with a hard-headed realist position. Nature is an unraveling of mindless patterns and algorithms, it will not save us from our self-made catastrophe. Forget nature, save the humans. If we can't be made to care about the planet, perhaps we can spurred to action with the idea of saving ourselves.

Of course, the wealthy 1% will experience catastrophic climate change, due to global warming, much differently than the other 99%. When we say “humans,” and great deal depends on who is speaking and what groups they refer to when uttering that word.

Lightman's position is the ne plus ultra of nihilist idealism. Nothing exists but the human mind, its constructions and a purposeless chaos. It's an interesting position for a scientist to take. It also points to the reason that scientists could benefit from a dialogue with philosophers. Lightman seems unaware of the philosophical ideas he's enacting.

The physicist (who teaches humanities) sees our position in the universe as a lonely one. It's only us. A simple refutation of Lightman would be to look at anyone who has ever had a dog or a cat as a pet. We co-exist with a dog, and the dog is an other, not a mental construction.

This concept that there are only humans, or what is more commonly called anthropocentrism, is precisely the reason that we face a catastrophe in the biosphere. Lightman thinks we can escape our fate by turning our anthropocentrism from 10 up to 11. I suggest we wake from that nightmare to see the other entities all around us. It's not just us we will destroy.


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