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It takes a Virtual Village

In "We are hopelessly hooked" (New York Review of Books, February 25), political historian Jacob Weisberg canvasses the social impact of digital technology. He describes mobile and social media as “self-depleting and antisocial” but I would prefer different-social not merely for the vernacular but because the new media's sadder side is a lot like what's gone before.

In reviewing four recent contributions to the field - from Sherry Turkle, Joseph Reagle and Nir Eyal - Weisberg dwells in various ways on the twee dichotomy of experience online and off. For many of us, the distinction between digital and "IRL" (the sardonic abbreviation of "in real life") is becoming entirely arbitrary, which I like to show through an anecdote.

I was a mid-career technology researcher and management consultant when I joined Twitter in 2009. It quickly supplanted all my traditional newsfeeds and bulletin boards, by connecting me to individuals who I came to trust to pass on what really mattered. More slowly, I curated my circles, built up a following, and came to enjoy the recognition that would ordinarily come from regular contact, if the travel was affordable from far flung Australia. By 2013 I had made it as a member of the “identerati” – a loose international community of digital identity specialists. Thus, on my first trip to the US in many years, I scored a cherished invitation to a private pre-conference party with 50 or so of these leaders.

On the night, as I made my way through unfamiliar San Francisco streets, I had butterflies. I had met just one of my virtual colleagues face-to-face. How would I be received “IRL”? The answer turned out to be: effortlessly. Not one person asked the obvious question – Steve, tell us about yourself! – for everyone knew me already. And this surprising ease wasn’t just about skipping formalities; I found we had genuine intimacy from years of sharing and caring, all on Twitter.

Weisberg quotes Joseph Reagle in "Reading the Comments..." looking for “intimate serendipity” in successful online communities. It seems both authors are overlooking how serendipity catalyses all human relationships. It’s always something random that turns acquaintances into friends. And happy accidents may be more frequent online, not in spite of all the noise but because of it. We all live for chance happenings, and the much-derided Fear Of Missing Out is not specific to kids nor the Internet. Down the generations, FOMO has always kept teenagers up past their bed time; but it’s also why we grown-ups outstay our welcome at dinner parties and hang out at dreary corporate banquets.

Weisberg considers Twitter’s decay into anarchy and despair to be inevitable, and he may be right, but is it simply for want of supervision? We know sudden social decay all too well; just think of the terribly real-life “Lord of the Flies”.

Sound moral bearings are set by good parents, good teachers, and – if we’re lucky – good peers. At this point in history, parents and teachers are famously less adept than their charges in the new social medium, but this will change. Digital decency will be better impressed on kids when all their important role models are online.

It takes a village to raise a child. The main problem today is that virtual villages are still at version 1.0.

Posted in Culture, Identity, Internet, Popular culture, Social Media, Trust

On certain criticism of Frank Gehry

A letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, January 14, 2011.

The ABC screened a nice documentary last night, "Getting Frank Gehry", about the new UTS Business School building. The only thing spoiling the show was Sydney's rusted-on architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly having another self-conscious whinge. And I remembered that I wrote a letter to the Herald after she had a go in 2011 when the design was unveiled (see "Gehry has designed a building that is more about him than us").

Where would damp squib critics be without the 'starchitects' they love to hate?

Letter as published

Ironically, Elizabeth Farrelly's diatribe against Frank Gehry and his UTS design is really all about her. She spends 12 flabby paragraphs defending criticism (please! Aren't Australians OK by now with the idea of critics?) and bravely mocking Gehry as "starchitect".

Eventually Farrelly lets go her best shots: mild rhetorical questions about the proposal's still unseen interior, daft literalism about buildings being unable to move, and a "quibble" about harmony. I guess she likewise dismisses Gaudi and his famous fluid masonry.

Farrelly's contempt for the university's ''boot licking'' engagement with this celebrated architect is simply myopic. The thing about geniuses like Gehry and Utzon is that brave clients can trust that the results will prevail.

Stephen Wilson, Five Dock

Posted in Culture

A letter on Free Speech and the Right to be Forgotten

An unpublished letter to New Yorker magazine, August 2015.

Kelefa Sanneh ("The Hell You Say", Aug 10 & 17) poses a question close to the heart of society’s analog-to-digital conversion: What is speech?

Internet policy makers worldwide are struggling with a recent European Court of Justice decision which grants some rights to individuals to have search engines like Google block results that are inaccurate, irrelevant or out of date. Colloquially known as the "Right To Be Forgotten" (RTBF), the ruling has raised the ire of many Americans in particular, who typically frame it as yet another attack on free speech. Better defined as a right to be de-listed, RTBF makes search providers consider the impact on individuals of search algorithms, alongside their commercial interests. For there should be no doubt – search is very big business. Google and its competitors use search to get to know people, so they can sell better advertising.

Search results are categorically not the sort of text which contributes to "democratic deliberation". Free speech may be many things but surely not the mechanical by-products of advertising processes. To protect search results as such mocks the First Amendment.


Some of my other RTBF thoughts:

Posted in Privacy, Internet, Culture, Big Data

Man made software in His own image

In 2002, a couple of Japanese visitors to Australia swapped passports with each other before walking through an automatic biometric border control gate being tested at Sydney airport. The facial recognition algorithm falsely matched each of them to the others' passport photo. These gentlemen were in fact part of an international aviation industry study group and were in the habit of trying to fool biometric systems then being trialed round the world.

When I heard about this successful prank, I quipped that the algorithms were probably written by white people - because we think all Asians look the same. Colleagues thought I was making a typical sick joke, but actually I was half-serious. It did seem to me that the choice of facial features thought to be most distinguishing in a facial recognition model could be culturally biased.

Since that time, border control face recognition has come a long way, and I have not heard of such errors for many years. Until today.

The San Francisco Chronicle of July 21 carries a front page story about the cloud storage services of Google and Flickr mislabeling some black people as gorillas (see updated story, online). It's a quite incredible episode. Google has apologized. Its Chief Architect of social, Yonatan Zunger, seems mortified judging by his tweets as reported, and is investigating.

The newspaper report quotes machine learning experts who suggest programmers with limited experience of diversity may be to blame. That seems plausible to me, although I wonder where exactly the algorithm R&D gets done, and how much control is to be had over the biometric models and their parameters along the path from basic research to application development.

So man has literally made software in his own image.

The public is now being exposed to Self Driving Cars, which are heavily reliant on machine vision, object recognition and artificial intelligence. If this sort of software can't tell people from apes in static photos given lots of processing time, how does it perform in real time, with fleeting images, subject to noise, and with much greater complexity? It's easy to imagine any number of real life scenarios where an autonomous car will have to make a split-second decision between two pretty similar looking objects appearing unexpectedly in its path.

The general expectation is that Self Driving Cars (SDCs) will be tested to exhaustion. And so they should. But if cultural partiality is affecting the work of programmers, it's possible that testers have suffer the same blind spots without knowing it. Maybe the offending photo labeling programs were never verified with black people. So how are the test cases for SDCs being selected? What might happen when an SDC ventures into environments and neighborhoods where its programmers have never been?

Everybody in image processing and artificial intelligence should be humbled by the racist photo labeling. With the world being eaten by software, we need to reflect really deeply on how such design howlers arise. And frankly double check if we're ready to let computer programs behind the wheel.

Posted in Social Media, Culture, Biometrics

Suspension of Disbelief and digital safety

If the digital economy is really the economy then it's high time we moved beyond hoping that we can simply train users to be safe online. Is the real economy only for heros who can protect themselves in the jungle, writing their own code. As if they're carrying their own guns? Or do we as a community build structures and standards and insist on technologies that work for all?

For most people, the World Wide Web experience still a lot like watching cartoons on TV. The human-machine interface is almost the same. The images and actions are just as synthetic; crucially, nothing on a web browser is real. Almost anything goes -- just as the Roadrunner defies gravity in besting Coyote, there are no laws of physics that temper the way one bit of multimedia leads to the next. Yes, there is a modicum of user feedback in the way we direct some of the action when browsing and e-shopping, but it's quite illusory; for the most part all we're really doing is flicking channels across a billion pages.

It's the suspension of disbelief when browsing that lies at the heart of many of the safety problems we're now seeing. Inevitably we lose our bearings in the totally synthetic World Wide Web. We don't even realise it, we're taken in by a virtual reality, and we become captive to social engineering.

But I don't think it's possible to tackle online safety by merely countering users' credulity. Education is not the silver bullet, because the Internet is really so technologically complex and abstract that it lies beyond the comprehension of most lay people.

Using the Internet 'safely' today requires deep technical skills, comparable to the level of expertise needed to operate an automobile circa 1900. Back then you needed to be able to do all your own mechanics [roughly akin to the mysteries of maintaining anti-virus software], look after the engine [i.e. configure the operating system and firewall], navigate the chaotic emerging road network [there's yet no trusted directory for the Internet, nor any road rules], and even figure out how to fuel the contraption [consumer IT supply chains is about as primitive as the gasoline industry was 100 years ago]. The analogy with the early car industry becomes especially sharp for me when I hear utopian open source proponents argue that writing ones own software is the best way to be safe online.

The Internet is so critical (I'd have thought this was needless to say) that we need ways of working online that don't require us to all be DIY experts.

I wrote a first draft of this blog six years ago, and at that time I called for patience in building digital literacy and sophistication. "It took decades for safe car and road technologies to evolve, and the Internet is still really in its infancy" I said in 2009. But I'm less relaxed about his now, on the brink of the Internet of Things. It's great that the policy makers like the US FTC are calling on connected device makers to build in security and privacy, but I suspect the Internet of Things will require the same degree of activist oversight and regulation as does the auto industry, for the sake of public order and the economy. Do we have the appetite to temper breakneck innovation with safety rules?

Posted in Culture, Internet, Security

Letter: Online threats do damage

A letter to the editor of The Saturday Paper, published Nov 15, 2014.

In his otherwise fresh and sympathetic “Web of abuse” (November 8-14), Martin McKenzie-Murray unfortunately concludes by focusing on the ability of victims of digital hate to “[rationally] assess their threat level”. More’s the point, symbolic violence is still violent. The threat of sexual assault by men against women is inherently terrifying and damaging, whether it is carried out or not. Any attenuation of the threat of rape dehumanises all of us.

There’s a terrible double standard among cyber-libertarians. When good things happen online – such as the Arab Spring, WikiLeaks, social networking and free education – they call the internet a transformative force for good. Yet they can play down digital hate crimes as “not real”, and disown their all-powerful internet as just another communications medium.

Stephen Wilson, Five Dock, NSW.

Posted in Popular culture, Internet, Culture

Unintended consequences

The "Right to be Forgotten" debate reminds me once again of the cultural differences between technology and privacy.

On September 30, I was honoured to be part of a panel discussion hosted by the IEEE on RTBF; a recording can be viewed here. In a nutshell, the European Court of Justice has decided that European citizens have the right to ask search engine businesses to suppress links to personal information, under certain circumstances. I've analysed and defended the aims of the ECJ in another blog.

One of the IEEE talking points was why RTBF has attracted so much scorn. My answer was that some critics appear to expect perfection in the law; when they look at the RTBF decision, all they see is problems. Yet nobody thinks this or any law is perfect; the question is whether it helps improve the balance of rights in a complex and fast changing world.

It's a little odd that technologists in particular are so critical of imperfections in the law, when they know how flawed is technology. Indeed, the security profession is almost entirely concerned with patching problems, and reminding us there will never be perfect security.

Of course there will be unwanted side-effects of the new RTBF rules and we should trust that over time these will be reviewed and dealt with. I wish that privacy critics could be more humble about this unfolding environment. I note that when social conservatives complain about online pornography, or when police decry encryption as a tool of criminals, technologists typically play those problems down as the unintended consequences of new technologies, which on average overwhelmingly do good not evil.

And it's the same with the law. It really shouldn't be necessary to remind anyone that laws have unintended consequences, for they are the stuff of the entire genre of courtroom drama. So everyone take heart: the good guys nearly always win in the end.

Posted in Security, Privacy, Culture

Facebook's lab rats

It's long been said that if you're getting something for free online, then you're not the customer, you're the product. It's a reference to the one-sided bargain for personal information that powers so many social businesses - the way that "infomopolies" as I call them exploit the knowledge they accumulate about us.

Now it's been revealed that we're even lower than product: we're lab rats.

Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer, with collaborators from UCSF and Cornell, this week reported on a study in which they tested how Facebook users respond psychologically to alternatively positive and negative posts. Their experimental technique is at once ingenious and shocking. They took the real life posts of nearly 700,000 Facebook members, and manipulated them, turning them slightly up- or down-beat. And then Kramer at al measured the emotional tone in how people reading those posts reacted in their own feeds. See Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks, Adam Kramer,Jamie Guillory & Jeffrey Hancock, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v111.24, 17 June 2014.

The resulting scandal has been well-reported by many, including Kashmir Hill in Forbes, whose blog post nicely covers how the affair has unfolded, and includes a response by Adam Kramer himself.

Plenty has been written already about the dodgy (or non-existent) ethics approval, and the entirely contemptible claim that users gave "informed consent" to have their data "used" for research in this way. I draw attention to the fact that consent forms in properly constituted human research experiments are famously thick. They go to great pains to explain what's going on, the possible side effects and potential adverse consequences. The aim of a consent form is to leave the experimental subject in no doubt whatsoever as to what they're signing up for. Contrast this with the Facebook Experiment where they claim informed consent was represented by a fragment of one sentence buried in thousands of words of the data usage agreement. And Kash Hill even proved that the agreement was modified after the experiment started! These are not the actions of researchers with any genuine interest in informed consent.

I was also struck by Adam Kramer's unvarnished description of their motives. His response to the furore (provided by Hill in her blog) is, as she puts it, tone deaf. Kramer makes no attempt whatsoever at a serious scientific justification for this experiment:

  • "The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product ... [We] were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.

That is, this large scale psychological experiment was simply for product development.

Some apologists for Facebook countered that social network feeds are manipulated all the time, notably by advertisers, to produce emotional responses.

Now that's interesting, because for their A-B experiment, Kramer and his colleagues took great pains to make sure the subjects were unaware of the manipulation. After all, the results would be meaningless if people knew what they were reading had been emotionally fiddled with.

In contrast, the ad industry has always insisted that today's digital consumers are super savvy, and they know the difference between advertising and real-life. Yet the foundation of the Facebook experiment is that users are unaware of how their online experience is being manipulated. The ad industry's illogical propaganda [advertising is just harmless fun, consumers can spot the ads, they're not really affected by ads all that much ... Hey, with a minute] has only been further exposed by the Facebook Experiment.

Advertising companies and Social Networks are increasingly expert at covertly manipulating perceptions, and now they have the data, collected dishonestly, to prove it.

Posted in Social Networking, Social Media, Science, Privacy, Internet, Culture

Watson the Doctor is no laughing matter

For the past year, oncologists at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York have been training IBM’s Watson – the artificial intelligence tour-de-force that beat allcomers on Jeopardy – to help personalise cancer care. The Centre explains that "combining [their] expertise with the analytical speed of IBM Watson, the tool has the potential to transform how doctors provide individualized cancer treatment plans and to help improve patient outcomes". Others are speculating already that Watson could "soon be the best doctor in the world".

I have no doubt that when Watson and things like it are available online to doctors worldwide, we will see overall improvements in healthcare outcomes, especially in parts of the world now under-serviced by medical specialists [having said that, the value of diagnosing cancer in poor developing nations is questionable if they cannot go on to treat it]. As with Google's self-driving car, we will probably get significant gains eventually, averaged across the population, from replacing humans with machines. Yet some of the foibles of computing are not well known and I think they will lead to surprises.

For all the wondrous gains made in Artificial Intelligence, where Watson now is the state-of-the art, A.I. remains algorithmic, and for that, it has inherent limitations that don't get enough attention. Computer scientists and mathematicians have know for generations that some surprisingly straightforward problems have no algorithmic solution. That is, some tasks cannot be accomplished by any universal step-by-step codified procedure. Examples include the Halting Problem and the Travelling Salesperson Problem. If these simple challenges have no algorithm, we need be more sober in our expectations of computerised intelligence.

A key limitation of any programmed algorithm is that it must make its decisions using a fixed set of inputs that are known and fully characterised (by the programmer) at design time. If you spring an unexpected input on any computer, it can fail, and yet that's what life is all about -- surprises. No mathematician seriously claims that what humans do is somehow magic; most believe we are computers made of meat. Nevertheless, when paradoxes like the Halting Problem abound, we can be sure that computing and cognition are not what they seem. We should hope these conundrums are better understood before putting too much faith in computers doing deep human work.

And yet, predictably, futurists are jumping ahead to imagine "Watson apps" in which patients access the supercomputer for themselves. Even if there were reliable algorithms for doctoring, I reckon the "Watson app" is a giant step, because of the complex way the patient's conditions are assessed and data is gathered for the diagnosis. That is, the taking of the medical history.

In these days of billion dollar investments in electronic health records (EHRs), we tend to think that medical decisions are all about the data. When politicians announce EHR programs they often boast that patients won't have to go through the rigmarole of giving their history over and over again to multiple doctors as they move through an episode of care. This is actually a serious misunderstanding of the importance in clinical decision-making of the interaction between medico and patient when the history is taken. It's subtle. The things a patient chooses to tell, the things they seem to be hiding, and the questions that make them anxious, all guide an experienced medico when taking a history, and provide extra cues (metadata if you will) about the patient’s condition.

Now, Watson may well have the ability to navigate this complexity and conduct a very sophisticated Q&A. It will certainly have a vastly bigger and more reliable memory of cases than any doctor, and with that it can steer a dynamic patient questionnaire. But will Watson be good enough to be made available direct to patients through an app, with no expert human mediation? Or will a host of new input errors result from patients typing their answers into a smart phone or speaking into a microphone, without any face-to-face subtlety (let alone human warmth)? It was true of mainframes and it’s just as true of the best A.I.: Bulldust in, bulldust out.

Finally, Watson's existing linguistic limitations are not to be underestimated. It is surely not trivial that Watson struggles with puns and humour. Futurist Mark Pesce when discussing Watson remarked in passing that scientists don’t understand the "quirks of language and intelligence" that create humour. The question of what makes us laugh does in fact occupy some of the finest minds in cognitive and social science. So we are a long way from being able to mechanise humour. And this matters because for the foreseeable future, it puts a great deal of social intercourse beyond AI's reach.

In between the extremes of laugh-out-loud comedy and a doctor’s dry written notes lies a spectrum of expressive subtleties, like a blush, an uncomfortable laugh, shame, and the humiliation that goes with some patients’ lived experience of illness. Watson may understand the English language, but does it understand people?

Watson can answer questions, but good doctors ask a lot of questions too. When will this amazing computer be able to hold the sort of two-way conversation that we would call a decent "bedside manner"?

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Posted in Software engineering, Science, Language, e-health, Culture, Big Data

Digital Sheep and Digital Goats

My Constellation Research colleague Alan Lepofsky as been working on new ways to characterise users in cyberspace. Frustrated with the oversimplified cliche of the "Digital Millennials", Alan has developed a fresh framework for categorizing users according to their comfort with technology and their actual knowledge of it. See his new research report "Segmenting Audiences by Digital Proficiency".

This sort of schema could help frame the answers to some vital open questions. In today's maelstrom of idealism and hyperbole, we're struggling to predict how things are going to turn out, and to build appropriate policies and management structures. We are still guessing how the digital revolution is really going to change the human condition? We're not yet rigorously measuring the sorts of true changes, if any, that the digital transformation is causing.

We hold such disparate views about cyberspace right now. When the Internet does good – for example through empowering marginalized kids at schools, fueling new entrepreneurship, or connecting disadvantaged communities – it is described as a power for good, a true "paradigm shift". But when it does bad – as when kids are bullied online or when phishing scams hook inexperienced users – then the Internet is said to be just another communications medium. Such inconsistent attitudes are with us principally because the medium is still so new. Yet we all know how important it is, and that far reaching policy decisions are being made today. So it’s good to see new conceptual frameworks for analyzing the range of ways that people engage with and utilise the Internet.

Vast fortunes are being made through online business models that purport to feed a natural hunger to be social. With its vast reach and zero friction, the digital medium might radically amplify aspects of the social drive, quite possibly beyond what nature intended. As supremely communal beings, we humans have evolved elaborate social bearings for getting on in diverse groups, and we've built social conventions that govern how we meet, collaborate, refer, partner, buy and sell, amalgamate, marry, and split. We are incredibly adept at reading body language, spotting untruths, and gaming each other for protection or for personal advantage. In cyberspace, few of the traditional cues are available to us; we literally lose our bearings online. And therefore naive Internet users fall prey to spam, fake websites and all manner of scams.

How are online users adapting to their new environment and evolving new instincts? I expect there will be interesting correlations between digital resilience and the sophistication measures in Alan’s digital proficiency framework. We might expect Digital Natives to be better equipped inherently to detect and respond to online threats, although they might be somewhat more at risk by virtue of being more active. I wonder too if the risk-taking behavior which exacerbates some online risks for adolescents would be relatively more common amongst Digital Immigrants? By the same token, the Digital Skeptics who are knowledgeable yet uncomfortable may be happy staying put in that quadrant, or only venturing out for selected cyber activities, because they’re consciously managing their digital exposure.

We certainly do need new ways like Alan's Digital Proficiency Framework to understand society’s complex "Analog to Digital" conversion. I commend it to you.

Posted in Social Media, Internet, Culture, Constellation Research