Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: Social media (page 1 of 6)

It’s ALMOST like the problem isn’t just technical: Contractors target homeless people and BET awards in quest for more non-white faces

As anyone following the state of facial recognition and other automated identification systems knows, these systems suffer from bias problems: some have trouble recognizing facial features or detecting motion if a user has darker skin. The answer, we’re told, is obvious: make the databases bigger. Yet this amazing New York Daily News article by Ginger Adams Otis and Nancy Dillon describes a near-cartoonish level of deception that occurs when a company tries to deal with the problem.

When building the facial recognition system for its new Pixel 4, Google wanted to improve its facial recognition system, so it hired a contractor whose “teams were dispatched to target homeless people in Atlanta, unsuspecting students on college campuses around the U.S. and attendees of the BET Awards festivities in Los Angeles, among other places.”

“It was a lot of basically sensory overloading the person into getting it done as quickly as possible and distracting them as much as possible so they didn’t even really have time to realize what was going on,” he said.

“Basically distract them and say anything. ‘Just go ahead and hit the next button. Don’t even worry about that.’ That kind of stuff. Really just move it along. ‘Let’s go. Hit all the next buttons,’” the former temp said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.

It’s almost… almost as if the problem isn’t just with the technology, but somehow runs deeper.

“he failed to do [his job] because he was distracted by tweeting”

Hollywood, California Adventure

So the next time you think you can handle checking your email while driving, think back to the 2016 Oscars when La La Land was incorrectly announced as best picture instead of Moonlight. As the Hollywood Reporter explains in their new “Oral History of Oscar’s Epic Best Picture Fiasco,” it all came down to digital distraction. Continue reading

“Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building”

Writer and artist James Bridle has a long, but rather amazing and disturbing, piece arguing that “Something is wrong on the internet.” Specifically he’s talking about how kids’ videos on YouTube have turned super-strange and -dark, thanks to the weird profitability of kids’ videos, their low production standards, efforts to hit the right SEO and keyword notes, etc.. The result, he says, is that

Automated reward systems like YouTube algorithms necessitate exploitation in the same way that capitalism necessitates exploitation, and if you’re someone who bristles at the second half of that equation then maybe this should be what convinces you of its truth. Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building, making it harder to see, harder to think and explain, harder to counter and defend against. Not in a future of AI overlords and robots in the factories, but right here, now, on your screen, in your living room and in your pocket.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the future of automation and work, and whether it’s possible to avoid the kinds of race-to-the-bottom, exterminate-the-worker imperatives that seem to be implicit in so many automation projects today, so this is a bracing argument.

It goes on, after walking through a number of examples of videos that are literally nightmarish:

To expose children to this content is abuse. We’re not talking about the debatable but undoubtedly real effects of film or videogame violence on teenagers, or the effects of pornography or extreme images on young minds, which were alluded to in my opening description of my own teenage internet use. Those are important debates, but they’re not what is being discussed here. What we’re talking about is very young children, effectively from birth, being deliberately targeted with content which will traumatise and disturb them, via networks which are extremely vulnerable to exactly this form of abuse. It’s not about trolls, but about a kind of violence inherent in the combination of digital systems and capitalist incentives. It’s down to that level of the metal.

This, I think, is my point: The system is complicit in the abuse.

And right now, right here, YouTube and Google are complicit in that system. The architecture they have built to extract the maximum revenue from online video is being hacked by persons unknown to abuse children, perhaps not even deliberately, but at a massive scale. I believe they have an absolute responsibility to deal with this, just as they have a responsibility to deal with the radicalisation of (mostly) young (mostly) men via extremist videos — of any political persuasion. They have so far showed absolutely no inclination to do this, which is in itself despicable. However, a huge part of my troubled response to this issue is that I have no idea how they can respond without shutting down the service itself, and most systems which resemble it. We have built a world which operates at scale, where human oversight is simply impossible, and no manner of inhuman oversight will counter most of the examples I’ve used in this essay.

I spent a little time looking at some of these videos, and they are beyond weird. They combine Second Life-level clunky animation; the kinds of repetition that adults find irritating and toddlers love; that distinctive kids’ music; and extremely strange cuts and changes of scene. About four minutes into one of the videos, the scene shifted from a totally anodyne house to a graveyard in which familiar toys sing a song about how sugar is bad, only they have flayed zombie heads; it was exactly the kind of thing that your mind would cook up as a nightmare.

On the growth of zombie departments


When I was an undergraduate at Penn, one of the graduate students I met was an historian of American technology named Deborah Fitzgerald. Later, when I taught American technology I enjoyed walking students through one of her articles, on the history of hybrid corn and the deskilling of farmers (this was especially resonant when I was teaching at UC Davis, which had deep ties to California agriculture). Continue reading

Was digital distraction responsible for the Oscar gaffe?

Sounds like it could have been, according to Variety:

Brian Cullinan, one of the two PriceWaterhouseCoopers partners who handled the Oscar envelopes on Sunday night, was tweeting photos from backstage minutes before he handed Warren Beatty the wrong Best Picture envelope.
Continue reading

16 hours a month on Facebook is the new normal

A new study by Comscore of Americans’ social media network use in 2015 reveals that people over 35 spend an average of 22 hours a month on social media, and Millenials spend 36 hours a month, according to Quartz:

Monthly time on Facebook alone amounts to 15 hours (for 35+) and 17 hours (for 18-34), or an average of 16 hours a month between the two groups (which I know are not the same size, so that average is not statistically meaningful, but still). That’s a pretty substantial chunk of time, but if you spend 30 minutes a day on Facebook, that gets you to 900 minutes per month without breaking a sweat. Little pieces of time really add up.

Interview with ABC Sunshine Coast on technology and distraction

A couple days ago I was interviewed on ABC Sunshine Coast's morning show about technology and distraction. You can now listen to the interview on Soundcloud:

For a short interview it covers a fair amount of ground. The interviewer asked good questions.

You can’t get away: Twitter creates “While You Were Away” feature

So much for taking a digital sabbath and getting away from your timeline. Tech Crunch reports:

Back in November, Twitter announced plans to implement a number of new initiatives to boost user engagement, and one of those features — a ‘While you were away’ recap of tweets you may have missed — appears to be rolling out to significant numbers of users.

As ReadWrite explains, “the feature operates similarly to the Facebook timeline, highlighting the “best” tweets that occurred while you were off Twitter.”

How smartphones are (and are not) like knives

Perhaps an odd question to ask in an age of Grindr and Tinder, but still: this morning's KQED Forum took it on. Presumably the audio will be online in a while (it's not yet), but one thing struck me about the conversation.

One of the guests, and a couple of the callers, made the argument that smartphones are simply tools, or media like books, and thus pose no special challenge that we haven't already seen before. The argument that technologies are merely tools that are neither good nor bad perhaps was once true, and continues to be true for some technologies. But I think it's not not the case for the technologies discussed here.

One of the speakers drew a parallel between smartphones and sharp knives, and argued that both can be useful or dangerous. I'd argue that smartphones are like knives that have end-user license agreements that say that we agree to share information about our use with KnifeCo, and sensors that monitor how we’re using the knives and what we're cooking, and then shares that information with supermarkets and kitchen supply stores so they can send us targeted advertisement– or perhaps shares the data with insurance companies, who can adjust our premiums depending on how we use the knife.

Further, if they're knives, smartphones are more like badly-balanced, dull knives– that is, they're designed to make it easy for you to cut yourself.

Years ago Langdon Winner wrote an article "Do Artifacts Have Politics," that was a reply to the "technologies are merely tools" claim. He argued that artifacts could reflect the politics and social assumptions of their creators. Networked devices not only reflect those politics, but have the ability to enact and update those politics in a way that more inert technologies did not.


How “5 Signs You Should Take a Break From Social Media” shows there’s no such thing as a small media request

Almost exactly a month ago, a nice writer emailed me about an article she was writing on taking a break from social media, and asking if I could answer some questions for it. I get these kinds of requests regularly, and ever since The Distraction Addiction appeared and I started doing press for it, my attitude is shaped by the old city politician’s saying: I’ll appear at the opening of an envelope.

So a couple days later I got some questions, sent back my answers, and didn’t think much about it. Then, just before Thanksgiving, the article came out in Health Magazine, complete with an excellent illustration.

A few days later, it got translated into Dutch… then Turkish… then appeared on a Web sites in Nigeria and Australia and Malaysia… and Huffington Post… and yesterday, Time picked it up. [Update 1: Now ABC News has it in slide show form. Update 2: Spanish, Croatian, Indonesian, and I think Hungarian. ]

It may seen like a case of “Hey, I’m world famous!” but watching this piece spread in places I’ve never heard of, with no involvement on my own part, undermines that feeling. It’s a textual Roomba bouncing around the Internet’s kitchen. I’m just the cat dressed as a shark.

This also illustrates the most important thing I’ve learned about dealing with media requests: There’s no such thing as a small media request.

You never know which pieces are going to blow up (or at least get republished a lot), and which ones will land with no impact whatsoever.

Some outlets turn out to have insanely good syndication. I had no idea until now, but it seems that Health has a terrifyingly wide range of syndication deals, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the article ends up read by Mongolian herders, the crews of Russian icebreakers, and dolphins.

You also don’t know if the person who has a few questions and Thursday deadline has a YouTube channel with a million followers, or is South Africa’s biggest advice columnist, or is having coffee with a New York Times assignments editor and could build a piece around your work, or is a struggling freelancer who could use a break. It’s just too big a world for you to have heard of everyone who’s widely-read, or whose words have influence. So be nice to everybody.

Finally, if you’re going to be funny and notable, don’t let it be at the expense of your advice. You don’t want a memorable bad quote. Just as you need to be nice to everybody, you need to take all requests equally seriously. You might think the questions are poorly-phrased, or rehashes of questions you’ve been asked a thousand times before, or barely better than the questions Ali G would ask. You know what? Take it seriously anyway. I’m not exactly Samuel Johnson when I’m on deadline, and you should assume that what you say will be quoted.

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