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.

 

Annette Peacock: Solving for the Unknown Known

If you've lived long enough and you look back on the trends and history of recorded music, you sense that something's missing. In that era of the late 60's when music was undergoing so many changes and revolutions, there's a space where there should be a groundbreaking female avant-garde musician. Perhaps someone who tripped with Leary, performed as a hologram in a Salvador Dali installation and a pioneered the use of the Moog Synthesizer in treating vocals. A person who changed the politics of avant-garde jazz improvisation by creating the “free form song.”

Annette Peacock was thinking about gender and the politics of jazz improvisation while most of us were having our minds blown by what appeared to be a free jazz improvisational structure. Free jazz was so new and such a different way of making music that we didn't know how to think about it, how to critique it. We barely knew how to appreciate it. Here's Peacock on how it was:

I came back to New York at the time I started my career – if you can call it that – in the world of avant-garde jazz, everything had broken loose. Everyone was blowing, improvising together simultaneously in the lofts. It was totally free. It was an aggressively masculine texture assaulting you. I’m not male and I wasn’t involved in it so I could see it from an objective perspective. And it seemed like I had to carve space out… to slow things down. So I started writing ballads, with two notes basically, just intervals. No chords. Very minimal. Musicians had no idea what to play on it. Drummers had no idea what to play on it. I felt at the time my responsibility was to create environments that improvising musicians could perpetuate; to create an architecture basically. ECM, the record label, built a very successful label on the concept of those ballads that I wrote.

Peacock's first recording, “Revenge” wasn't released by the record label. And that's why there's a hole in the history of recorded music. “Revenge” was an incredibly influential record that never made it on to the turntable. Peacock explains the choice she was forced to make:

Oh yeah, they didn’t release it. There was a problem with going over budget. Paul (Bley) had recorded some music in Boston with his trio but they weren’t interested in releasing it. So they gave me a choice: release the record and the musicians won’t get paid or pay the musicians and the record won’t get released. So I said pay the musicians because that’s the kind of guy I am! But it was devastating. It was agony. It broke my heart.

Annette Peacock has recently released a remastered version of what she calls “the right album, in the wrong century.” The new title is “I belong to a world that's destroying itself.” The white hot radicalism of the recording is still there, but from this distance we can begin to hear it. We can connect the dots and understand the missing sound that influenced so many threads of music. More importantly, the music still challenges us. We haven't progressed as much as we'd like to think. The ecology she sang about, is the ecology we've yet to sing about. All her recordings are worth listening to, but in this first one Peacock is still out ahead of us all these years later. Still avant-garde. Still a visitor from the future.

Yeah, she's the one.

Word is that there's a new record coming soon. And the great Anil Prasad of Innerviews says he's been in contact with Ms. Peacock about an in-depth interview when her new recording is completed. Happy days are here again. You can buy some of Annette Peacock's records artist direct. You should do that.

 

 

Dr. Dre versus the Big Bad Algorithm

We're seeing some new shapes among the feudal technology stacks. Apple has made a couple of moves that puts them on the human side of the ledger. Yahoo seems to be following in that direction. Google and Facebook remain fully automated, and they've placed their bet on male software engineers, big data and algorithms.

A few years ago, as the stacks were establishing their hold on networked computing, Nicholas Carr asked “Does IT Matter?” The question occupied the spot between home-grown corporate technical systems and the eventual outsourcing to professional cloud-based services. In most cases utility computing in central networked data centers turned out to be a better investment than a local IT team cobbling together a custom application. If the technology in question wasn't a company's core business, it didn't matter. Outsource everything possible to a vendor who counted that service as a core competency.

The networked computing platforms that have battled so fiercely to be among the few left standing have learned a bittersweet lesson. The platform is just a blank sheet of paper, a surface ready to be inscribed. Its worth is minimal, in fact, Apple has begun giving away its newest operating systems. There's no value in an individual installation of the platform, it's only the platform as a whole that has value.

When the technical press looked at Apple's acquisition of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre they didn't understand. The music service didn't have enough subscribers, the head phones weren't even among the best, nothing matched up with the dollar figures that were being thrown around. Non-engineers aren't acqui-hired, non-engineers are replaceable worker parts that merit commodity pricing. Sure these guys have “taste”, but that's not really worth anything. An algorithm can be built to easily reproduce something like their taste. In a reversal of Nicholas Carr's thought, the algorithmists asked “Do Human Factors Matter?”

Jimmy Iovine's response to the machine was that something was missing from the algorithmic output. Here's how Iovine put it:

“The sequencing of an album was very important. Music is made in bite-sized pieces, but you need an hour's worth of music for certain activities. The other guys have an algorithm. For some reason, these young people aren't understanding why they aren't getting the feel they're supposed to get. We said no, no, you're supposed to have the right sequence.”

What's the value of being able to create “that feel” across a networked computing platform? There doesn't seem to be an acknowledged economic value that can be applied to in creative people working at the platform level. The technologist and the financial analysts ask “where's the game-changing technology?” That's what Apple did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Where's the iWatch? Where's that next big thing? No one creates a game changing technology. Steve Jobs said it best and very simply many years ago.

“Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.”

You choose the wave. You don't invent the wave. In this new era of feudal technology stacks, the technology should intrude less and less. The technology, if it's well designed, should start to recede into the background. If you're noticing it, generally that's because it's broken. Finding the feel, creating the feel of, and within, the platform, that's the thing a machine can't come up with on its own. Or at least that's what we're about to find out. Will creative people who can operate at the level of a large platform (Dre, Iovine, Ahrendts, Deneve) be more successful than an algorithm that crowd sources, sorts and filters?

 

Graeber and DiDonato: Imagine Technology for Nothing

David Graeber’s recent interview on Salon.com puts a spotlight on an uncomfortable fact about the economics of our working world. The more you care about something, the less you will be paid for it. Art is for art’s sake, and therefore monetary compensation is subsidized by the worker’s own care. The more you care, the lower the monetary reward required to get you to take on certain kinds of work. If you are truly passionate about something, you should expect no financial reward at all. This is especially true if you care about directly helping and educating other people. We’ve set up the incentives so that it’s almost impossible to care for another person without extreme sacrifice.

In her recent commencement speech for the 2014 graduating class of Juilliard, the great American diva Joyce DiDonato delivered a similar message. “You aren’t going to make ‘it’” and that’s because there is no “it”. The lives of these students of art, drama, dance and music will be dedicated to service within their respective arts. There’s no point in thinking about the financial rewards beyond what it takes to keep body and soul together. It’s as though DiDonato is talking to a room filled with religious martyrs about begin their journeys. Given the state of our culture, DiDonato is dispensing very practical advice.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the wealthy technology giants are learning the meaning of noblesse oblige. In an era of vast income inequality, these technologists have to learn how to care about the neediest among us. Of course, they learned long ago that there’s no percentage in “caring”. The people who “cared” ended up burned out and barely scraping by. It’s only by extreme focus on technologies that will “help all of humanity” (but no person in particular), that they’ve amassed these large fortunes. Only a loser would focus their energies directly on helping the people around them. To avoid the label of vampire squids of the West coast, the technology and venture capital giants must become less focused, must use their excess capacity on something completely outside of their corporate mission statement — helping the people sleeping on their doorstep.

In some alternate universe I imagine DiDonato giving this talk to a class of computer science students. Telling these young technologists to focus on, not monetary rewards or groundbreaking technological achievement, but on the ability to meaningfully touch the lives of people in need. No doubt they will face hardship and days when they’ll ask themselves if it’s really worthwhile. Only their passion for making a difference in people’s lives will carry them through.

For DiDonato it’s crucial to focus on the moments of joy along the way. That’s how a passion for the work can be sustained. For some reason that brought to mind a video of opera singers Rene Barbera and Wayne Tigges backstage in a dressing room singing “More than Words” by Extreme. In the mirror you can see Joyce DiDonato lip syncing and dancing to their impromptu performance. Sometimes those moments of joy aren’t under the lights of the main stage in front of a full house. Other times, they are.

 

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