An ugly problem, a possible solution

Taylor Lorenz at The Atlantic takes a long, hard look at Instagram and the extent of the misinformation and extremist ideologies that riddle the site.

Instagram is the internet’s new home for hate
Following just a handful of these accounts can quickly send users spiraling down a path toward even more extremist views and conspiracies, guided by Instagram’s own recommendation algorithm. On March 17, I clicked Follow on @the_typical_liberal. My account lit up with follow requests from pages with handles alluding to QAnon, and the app immediately prompted me to follow far-right figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Laura Loomer, Alex Jones, and Candace Owens, as well as a slew of far-right meme pages such as @unclesamsmisguidedchildren and @the.new.federation. Following these pages resulted in suggestions for pages dedicated to promoting QAnon, chemtrails, Pizzagate, and anti-vaccination rhetoric.

On and on it goes.

@q_redpillworld17, for instance, which requested to follow me after I followed @the_typical_liberal, has posted several videos and images claiming proof that the New Zealand shooting was a “false flag”; one post compares the mosque’s blood-spattered carpet with another image, implying that the carpets don’t match so the shooting was staged. Another is a graphic video of the shooting, with a caption claiming that the bullets disappeared mid-air. Another suggests 200 examples of proof that the Earth is flat. Another falsely claims that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is secretly connected to the Clintons, who feed baby blood to George Soros.

It’s interesting, vital reading, with links to Instagram accounts I’m certainly not going to follow or even link to here.

But what can be done? Ignore the worries of the privacy, anti-censorship and free-speech activists and regulate the whole tech industry? Yes, let’s start with that.

The white paper on online harms is a global first. It has never been more needed
Some of the worries seemed rooted in the classic error of confusing the internet with a few giant companies that have come to dominate that world. In reality, the problem we have is not the internet so much as those corporations that ride on it and allow some unacceptable activities to flourish on their platforms, activities that are damaging to users and, in some cases, to democracy, but from which the companies profit enormously. Sooner or later, democracies will have to bring these outfits under control and the only question is how best to do it. The white paper suggests one possible way forward.

It does so by going to the heart of the problem – corporate responsibility.

[…]

The white paper says that the government will establish a new statutory duty of care on relevant companies “to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services”. Fulfilment of this duty will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator with formidable powers and sanctions at its disposal. Companies will have to fulfil their new legal duties or face the consequences and “will still need to be compliant with the overarching duty of care even where a specific code does not exist, for example assessing and responding to the risk associated with emerging harms or technology”.

You can read the White Paper online and judge for yourself.

A new kind of electronic music

Nowadays it’s mostly classical, but when I was younger I was a big fan of electronic music — though by that I mean Underworld and Brian Eno, not … whatever this is.

What will happen when machines write songs just as well as your favorite musician?
It would take a human composer at least an hour to create such a piece—Jukedeck did it in less than a minute. All of which raises some thorny questions. We’ve all heard about how AI is getting progressively better at accomplishing eerily lifelike tasks: driving cars, recognizing faces, translating languages. But when a machine can compose songs as well as a talented musician can, the implications run deep—not only for people’s livelihoods, but for the very notion of what makes human beings unique.

That future is just around the corner.

Warner Music signs first ever record deal with an algorithm
Mood music app Endel, which creates bespoke soundscapes for users, is expected to produce 20 albums this year. […]

“I’m certain listeners enjoying these new albums will benefit from reduced anxiety and improved mood,” said Kevin Gore, president of Warner Music Group’s arts music division, described as “a new umbrella of labels focused on signing, developing and marketing releases across under-served genres”.

Generative, ambient background music is an “under-served genre” now?

Here’s another write-up from Classic FM of the same story. I especially liked their choice of image and caption to accompany the piece.

Warner Music becomes first record label to partner with an algorithm
The algorithm uses musical phrases created by composer and sound designer Dmitry Evgrafov to create pieces of music tailored to specific users.

Founder and CEO of Endel, Oleg Stavitsky said: “We are focused on creating personalised and adaptive real-time sound environments, but we are happy to share those pre-recorded albums to demonstrate the power of sound and our technology.”

Gone but not forgotten

A comprehensive list of what could be described as Google’s project failures.

Killed by Google – the Google graveyard & cemetery
Killed by Google is a Free and Open Source list of dead Google products, services, and devices. It serves to be a tribute and memorial of beloved products and services killed by Google.

We shouldn’t be afraid of failing, as that’s how we grow. I wouldn’t describe Google Reader as a failure, though. Still sorely missed.

happ://y.birthday.www

As I mentioned earlier, the Web turns 30 this year. Let’s reminisce with the Verge.

The World Wide Web turns 30: our favorite memories from A to Z
Over the past 30 years, major portions of the web have come and gone. They’ve made us laugh and cringe, let us waste time and find friends, and reshaped the world in the process.

For its anniversary, we’re looking back at some of our favorite websites, from A to Z, as well as some key people and technologies. Of course, there was far too much good stuff to include, so we had to note some additional favorites along the way.

Yes there are the obvious ones like Flickr and Geocities, but what about these blasts from the past?

JENNICAM
Jennifer Ringley started broadcasting every moment spent in her college dorm, by way of grainy photos uploaded every 15 minutes, in 1996. She was one of the first people to share her life online without a filter, offering a sense of intimacy and relatability that we now take for granted with digital celebrities. She was also one of the first people to discover the pitfalls of internet fame, including burnout after living years of her life in public, which is why she’s stayed mostly offline since 2003 when Jennicam went dark.

[…]

LIVEJOURNAL
Once upon a time (around the turn of the 21st century), there was a social network called LiveJournal where large numbers of people (some with very confusing pseudonyms) hung out, blogged, argued in long comment threads, posted fiction and poetry and art, and had a generally good time. In 2007, LiveJournal was sold to a Russian media company, and many of its original contributors eventually decamped to Facebook, Twitter, and other foreign climes. LiveJournal is still, well, live; its servers (and its user agreement) are now Russian and so are many of its users.

Breaking up is hard to do

The techlash continues.

Elizabeth Warren proposes breaking up tech giants like Amazon and Facebook
At a rally in Long Island City, the neighborhood that was to be home to a major new Amazon campus, Ms. Warren laid out her proposal calling for regulators who would undo some tech mergers, as well as legislation that would prohibit platforms from both offering a marketplace for commerce and participating in that marketplace.

“We have these giants corporations — do I have to tell that to people in Long Island City? — that think they can roll over everyone,” Ms. Warren told the crowd, drawing applause. She compared Amazon to the dystopian novel “The Hunger Games,” in which those with power force their wishes on the less fortunate.

“I’m sick of freeloading billionaires,” she said.

She’s far from the lone voice on this issue.

Elizabeth Warren is right – we must break up Facebook, Google and Amazon
The current effort is bipartisan. At a Senate hearing I attended last week, the arch-conservative Missouri Republican Josh Hawley asked me, rhetorically: “Is there really any wonder that there is increased pressure for antitrust enforcement activity, for privacy activity when these companies behave in the way that they do?”

Hawley added: “Every day brings some creepy new revelation about these companies’ behaviors. Of course the public is going to want there to be action to defend their rights. It’s only natural.”

House of Lords report calls for digital super-regulator
The chair of the committee, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, called on the government to be less reactive in how it responds to digital risks: “The government should not just be responding to news headlines but looking ahead so that the services that constitute the digital world can be held accountable to an agreed set of principles,” he said.

“Self-regulation by online platforms is clearly failing and the current regulatory framework is out of date. The evidence we heard made a compelling and urgent case for a new approach to regulation. Without intervention, the largest tech companies are likely to gain ever more control of technologies which extract personal data and make decisions affecting people’s lives.”

You can always take matters into your own hands.

Goodbye Big Five
Reporter Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting my money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Here’s what happened.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well.

Kids and screens

There’s a lot of talk about today’s children oversharing on social media. But what kind of example are the parents setting?

When kids realize their whole life is already online
While many kids may not yet have accounts themselves, their parents, schools, sports teams, and organizations have been curating an online presence for them since birth. The shock of realizing that details about your life—or, in some cases, an entire narrative of it—have been shared online without your consent or knowledge has become a pivotal experience in the lives of many young teens and tweens.

It seems we’re all on our screens, all the time. That plural is key, though, isn’t it? It used to be that there was only the one screen at home — the TV in the living room — but now everyone has their own screen and we sit and watch them all separately.

Here’s a report on research Ofcom carried out on what children are watching, and what they’re watching it on.

Life on the small screen: What children are watching and why
The evidence gives a sense of what attracts them to online video rather than traditional TV – and just how much has changed in the course of a generation.

We’ve got a couple of teenagers in the house, and so some of these conclusions struck a nerve. Here’s an extract about live TV.

Life on the small screen: What children are watching and why – A report for Ofcom (pdf)

What role does live TV play in children’s lives?

Key findings

• Most children viewed live TV as a family ritual, often watching programmes routinely every year (e.g. Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!)

• Parents welcomed live TV as an opportunity for “family time”, and were often actively encouraging their children to join them for communal TV watching

• Children were often using live TV as ’background noise’ while doing another task or to fill time while they were waiting for something

• Most live TV viewing was on a communal screen or device and therefore usually it was a compromised choice between those watching (e.g. parents and siblings)

[…]

Conclusions

The children loved being able to find whatever they wanted, whenever they liked. As YouTube responds to demand, it can offer a seemingly limitless choice of content. YouTube offers everything they could possibly want, and then allows them to easily access more of what they like the most. […]

Live TV is explicitly thought of by the children and their parents as an opportunity for “family time”, when they all sit down to watch something together. However, the children tended to feel that they weren’t choosing the content themselves, or it was a compromised choice. At other times children put live TV on for a few minutes as a ‘time filler’ while they were waiting for something or had a few minutes to spare. Overall, children seem most attracted to content that they can view on their own device, over which they can exercise maximum choice, and which directly feeds the things that interest them.

I think I miss that “family time”. It feels less natural now than it did when the kids were little.

Talk it over with an AI

We all need someone to talk to. A problem shared is a problem halved, they say. But is that still true if the person you’re talking to doesn’t actually exist?

Chatbot therapy
Since virtual therapy seems to work, some innovators have started to suspect they could offer patients the same benefits of CBT—without a human on the other end. Services like Replika (an app intended to provide an emotional connection, not necessarily therapy) and Woebot (a therapy service that started in Facebook Messenger before breaking out on its own) allow human patients to interact with artificially intelligent chatbots for the purpose of improving their mental health.

I gave Woebot a go some time back. It felt potentially useful but quite scripted, a little heavy-handed. I’ve just started with Replika and so far the conversations feel more natural, though a little random at times.

This app is trying to replicate you
Replika launched in March. At its core is a messaging app where users spend tens of hours answering questions to build a digital library of information about themselves. That library is run through a neural network to create a bot, that in theory, acts as the user would. Right now, it’s just a fun way for people to see how they sound in messages to others, synthesizing the thousands of messages you’ve sent into a distillate of your tone—rather like an extreme version of listening to recordings of yourself. But its creator, a San Francisco-based startup called Luka, sees a whole bunch of possible uses for it: a digital twin to serve as a companion for the lonely, a living memorial of the dead, created for those left behind, or even, one day, a version of ourselves that can carry out all the mundane tasks that we humans have to do, but never want to.

That line above, “a living memorial for the dead”, is key, as that’s how Replika started, with the story of Eugenia Kuyda and Roman Mazurenko.

Speak, memory
Modern life all but ensures that we leave behind vast digital archives — text messages, photos, posts on social media — and we are only beginning to consider what role they should play in mourning. In the moment, we tend to view our text messages as ephemeral. But as Kuyda found after Mazurenko’s death, they can also be powerful tools for coping with loss. Maybe, she thought, this “digital estate” could form the building blocks for a new type of memorial.

She’s not the only one wandering down this slightly morbid track.

Eternime and Replika: Giving life to the dead with new technology
At the moment, Eternime takes the form of an app which collects data about you. It does this in two ways: Automatically harvesting heaps of smartphone data, and by asking you questions through a chatbot.

The goal is to collect enough data about you so that when the technology catches up, it will be able to create a chatbot “avatar” of you after you die, which your loved ones can then interact with.

But would they want to? Grief is a very personal thing, I can’t imagine this approach being for everyone.

‘Have a good cry’: Chuckle Brother takes aim at the grief taboo
“It’s like when you are a kid and you fall over and you think it’s all right and then your mum comes and says, ‘Are you all right, love?’ You burst into tears,” he said. “It was the same when Barry died. Everybody was saying sorry about your brother.”

Replika seems less about leaving something behind for your family and friends when you’ve gone, but more about making a new friend whilst you’re still around.

The journey to create a friend
There is no doubt that friendship with a person and with an AI are two very different matters. And yet, they do have one thing in common: in both cases you need to know your soon-to-be friend really well to develop a bond.

But let’s not get carried away, we’re not talking Hal or Samantha yet.

Three myths about Replika
Social media has put forth a number of quite entertaining theories about Replika. Today we are listing some of the ideas that we love … even though they are not exactly true.

Though you never know how these things will progress.

This Y Combinator-backed AI firm trained its chatbot to call you on the phone, and it’s fun but a little creepy
Much like the text version of Replika, my conversation with the bot threw up some odd quirks. “I think you look lovely today,” it said, and when I pointed out that it doesn’t have eyes, it replied: “Are you sure I don’t?”

Strange, funny, and occasionally creepy nonsequiturs are not new to Replika, in fact, there is a whole Subreddit dedicated to weird exchanges with the bot. Overall, however, the bot seemed to follow the train of the conversation reasonably well, and even told me a joke when I asked it to.

Looking back for a better digital future

A review of two books on the histories and possible futures of the internet, that try to position themselves somewhere between the more common approaches that recent studies have taken — either deterministic accounts of the “improbable marriage of countercultural hippie experiments and the military-industrial complex”, or heroic tales from Silicon Valley of “whimsical personalities and talents of digital entrepreneurs and inventors”.

Counter-histories of the Internet
Two recent books address similar speculative scenarios in the course of offering alternative histories of the internet: David Clark’s Designing an Internet and Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States. Clark’s book introduces its readers to scientists who designed our networks, many of whom still dream of redesigning them. Rankin writes about groups of students and researchers who used early computers with uncommon egalitarianism. Both authors wonder why versions of the internet that they personally favor have not prevailed. They also hope that recalling such forgotten projects could inspire their readers to fight for a better digital future.

[…]

Rankin explicitly describes herself as “highlight[ing] the centrality of education—at all levels—as a site of creativity, collaboration, and innovation.” More obliquely, but no less forcefully, Clark tries to free his readers from a myopic view of web architecture as a given landscape within which we pursue our goals and interests without considering how that landscape came to be. He shows that knowing more about how the web was built, or could have been built, allows us to think more freely about how we distribute our capacities and resources within it.

It’s an interesting debate, though I worry it may be a little redundant — do the top execs at Facebook, Google and Amazon have these books on their reading list?

Web beginnings and endings

It’s hard to believe the web’s thirty years old already. It seems like it’s been around forever in the way it underpins everything we do, from TV watching to banking. But we’re still grappling with the consequences its introduction has had on our societies, and probably will for another thirty years yet.

But let’s step back a little, to how it all began.

CERN 2019 WorldWideWeb rebuild
In December 1990, an application called WorldWideWeb was developed on a NeXT machine at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as CERN) just outside of Geneva. This program – WorldWideWeb — is the antecedent of most of what we consider or know of as “the web” today.

In February 2019, in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the development of WorldWideWeb, a group of developers and designers convened at CERN to rebuild the original browser within a contemporary browser, allowing users around the world to experience the rather humble origins of this transformative technology.

web-beginnings-and-endings

Their timeline is very interesting, too: “thirty years of influences leading up to (and the thirty years of influence leading out from) the publication of the memo that lead to the development of the first web browser.”

web-beginnings-and-endings-1

But all good things come to an end, and another one of the big players from back in the day is no more.

A eulogy for AltaVista, the Google of its time
You appeared on the search engine scene in December 1995. You made us go “woah” when you arrived. You did that by indexing around 20 million web pages, at a time when indexing 2 million web pages was considered to be big.

Today, of course, pages get indexed in the billions, the tens of billions or more. But in 1995, 20 million was huge. Existing search engines like Lycos, Excite & InfoSeek (to name only a few) didn’t quite know what hit them. With so many pages, you seemed to find stuff they and others didn’t.

web-beginnings-and-endings-3

Who’s next, I wonder.

Better off without it?

It seems every day there’s a new delete-your-Facebook-account article doing the rounds, but what happens if you did? Would the effects on your wellbeing really be as positive as people suggest? New research would suggest the answer is yes.

What would happen if Facebook were turned off?
Those booted off enjoyed an additional hour of free time on average. They tended not to redistribute their liberated minutes to other websites and social networks, but chose instead to watch more television and spend time with friends and family. They consumed much less news, and were thus less aware of events but also less polarised in their views about them than those still on the network. Leaving Facebook boosted self-reported happiness and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.

Hanging on

Typewriters are still around, and thankfully so too are some of the typewriter repair shop.

This typewriter repairman was told computers were king. Twenty years later, he’s still in business
But Quezada’s admiration for the machine is clear. The Underwood and its kind “are like Mercedes, like Rolls Royces,” he said. They belong to an era before planned obsolescence, when people did not just replace, but repaired, what they owned.

Unlike the pager, the PDA, the floppy disk and the VCR, the typewriter has escaped the heap of gadgets defunct and disused. The reason, according to Steve Soboroff, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and typewriter collector: Its slow pace is meditative, not frustrating, an exercise in deliberateness closer to engraving than typing on a computer.

hanging-on-1

Business isn’t what it was, of course.

When Quezada left his Mexican home state of Chihuahua in 1987 to join his sister in San Gabriel, the shop she owned with her husband — an Italian immigrant who repaired typewriters as a boy in Salerno — had servicing contracts with school districts in San Gabriel, El Monte, Whittier and Alhambra.

In the summer, when students were gone and the schools wanted classrooms full of typewriters repaired, the shop had so much business it had to hire temporary workers, Quezada said.

“Around 1980, every little town had a shop that repaired and sold typewriters. A typewriter was expected to be serviced and repaired, and it was expected to last 20, 30 years.”

Quezada took over the shop in the mid-’90s. It wasn’t long before computers were supplanting the typewriter. Though he’s held on, business gets leaner every year, the new interest notwithstanding.

His door is still open at the moment, at least.

hanging-on-2

International Office Machines

When Facebook’s troubles began

(Or rather, when our troubles with Facebook began.)

Things were very different in 2004.

15 moments that defined Facebook’s first 15 years
At that point, success meant having 250,000 users on the platform. In the decade and a half since, Facebook has added four zeroes to that figure, transforming from a website for poking your college crush to, arguably, the most powerful engine of communication in the world. Zuckerberg’s creation has, for better and for worse, forever changed how people connect, how businesses make money, how politicians seize power, and how information flows across communities and cultures. It’s where grannies share pictures of their grandkids and where state-sponsored trolls wage cyberwar against other countries. It’s how volunteers raise money for hurricane victims and how hate-mongers rally their followers to kill people.

I think this moment is the key one.

2. News Feed launches.
… But News Feed did more than alert users to the privacy risks inherent in all this sharing. It also began the process of consolidating a world of information into one, ceaseless scroll, personalized to every individual user’s interests and beliefs. The News Feed wrested control away from publishers, putting it in the hands of Facebook’s almighty algorithms.

Another take on that, from 2014.

How Facebook’s design has changed over the last 10 years
September 2006, a major development: Mini-Feed and News Feed debuted. These additions shook up the look of Facebook by shifting emphasis away from the profile and towards the actions people took on Facebook, moving the service from a directory to a feed. And people were not happy.

And this one, from 2013.

Facebook news feed changed everything
Looking back, it’s clear that news feed is one of the most important, influential innovations in the recent history of the Web. News feed forever altered our relationship to personal data, turning everything we do online into a little message for friends or the world to consume. You might not like this trend—or, at least, you might claim you don’t like this trend. But the stats prove you probably do. News feed is the basis for Facebook’s popularity, the thing that initially set it apart from every other social network, and the reason hundreds of millions of us go back to the site every day.

But news feed is bigger than that. Either directly or indirectly, it’s the inspiration for just about every social-media feature that has come along since. News feed paved the way for Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Flipboard, and Quora—for every site that thrives off of the communities created by lots of people’s individual contributions. News feed changed the media (it’s hard to imagine BuzzFeed without it), advertising, politics, and, to the extent that it altered how we all talk to one another, society itself.

Who would have thought, at the time, that all that would lead us here — fake news and post truth.

Facebook partners with Snopes and Associated Press to tackle fake news
The update will make it easier for users to report hoax stories and also bring in third-party fact checking to investigate and flag reported stories. Facebook will also be looking at how many people share articles after they’ve read them and combine this data with disputed flags to push fake stories to the bottom of news feeds. Fact-checkers at ABC News, FactCheck.org, the Associated Press, Snopes and Politifact will be using a tool created by Facebook to help evaluate the truthfulness of stories that have been flagged as fake news.

That turned out not to be so easy.

Snopes ends their ‘debunking false stuff’ partnership with Facebook. Here’s why.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re striving to make third-party fact checking more practical for publishers — it seems like we’re striving to make it easier for Facebook. At some point, we need to put our foot down and say, ‘No. You need to build an API,’” Green said. “The work that fact-checkers are doing doesn’t need to be just for Facebook — we can build things for fact-checkers that benefit the whole web, and that can also help Facebook.”

Sounds like it wasn’t just a ‘bandwidth’ issue, but more a commitment to open systems versus closed. Once again, the people behind Snopes.com have my respect.

And for some further background reading, try these from Roger McNamee, author of Zucked – Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.

How to fix Facebook—before it fixes us
An early investor explains why the social media platform’s business model is such a threat—and what to do about it.

How Facebook and Google threaten public health – and democracy
The sad truth is that Facebook and Google have behaved irresponsibly in the pursuit of massive profits. And this has come at a cost to our health.

China’s fear of losing control

This isn’t quite the brave new world we were hoping these new technologies would enable.

Davos: George Soros calls Xi Jinping a “dangerous opponent” of open societies
Soros said he wanted to “call attention to the mortal danger facing open societies from the instruments of control that machine learning and artificial intelligence can put in the hands of repressive regimes.” Echoing recent concerns raised about China’s use of facial-recognition technology, Soros asked: “How can open societies be protected if these new technologies give authoritarian regimes a built-in advantage? That’s the question that preoccupies me. And it should also preoccupy all those who prefer to live in an open society.”

Tracing his critique of authoritarian governments to his own childhood under Nazi occupation in Hungary, Soros, who is now 88, urged the Trump administration to take a harder stance on China. “My present view is that instead of waging a trade war with practically the whole world, the US should focus on China,” he said

The complicated truth about China’s social credit system
What’s troubling is when those private systems link up to the government rankings — which is already happening with some pilots, she says. “You’ll have sort of memorandum of understanding like arrangements between the city and, say, Alibaba and Tencent about data exchanges and including that in assessments of citizens,” Ohlberg adds. That’s a lot of data being collected with little protection, and no algorithmic transparency about how it’s analysed to spit out a score or ranking[.]

[…]

The criteria that go into a social credit ranking depends on where you are, notes Ohlberg. “It’s according to which place you’re in, because they have their own catalogs,” she says. It can range from not paying fines when you’re deemed fully able to, misbehaving on a train, standing up a taxi, or driving through a red light. One city, Rongcheng, gives all residents 1,000 points to start. Authorities make deductions for bad behaviour like traffic violations, and add points for good behaviour such as donating to charity.

Running a red light is one thing, but what if you’re a journalist investigating corruption and misconduct?

Chinese blacklist an early glimpse of sweeping new social-credit control
What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.

“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

In China, facial recognition tech is watching you
Megvii, meanwhile, supports the state’s nationwide surveillance program, which China, with troubling inferences, calls Skynet. Launched in 2005, Skynet aims to create a nationwide panopticon by blanketing the country with CCTV. Thanks to Face++, it now incorporates millions of A.I.-enhanced cameras that have been used to apprehend some 2,000 suspects since 2016, according to a Workers’ Daily report.

[…]

Jeffrey Ding, an Oxford University researcher focused on Chinese A.I., believes there is more pushback in the West against deploying facial recognition technology for security purposes. “There’s more willingness in China to adopt it,” he says, “or at least to trial it.”

But there’s also less freedom to oppose the onslaught. “The intention of these systems is to weave a tighter net of social control that makes it harder for people to plan action or push the government to reform,” explains Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The line from Soros about the danger from “the instruments of control that machine learning and artificial intelligence can put in the hands of repressive regimes” chimes with what I’m reading in James Bridle’s new book, New Dark Age.

May we live in interesting times.

IT in the dock

Things aren’t going well in the courts at the moment.

HMCTS suffers major IT issues
Significant IT issues at the HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) have caused chaos across the UK’s courts as users have been unable to connect to the network and use IT systems that require access to it.

The issues began last week and are mainly affecting devices trying to connect to the main Ministry of Justice (MoJ) network, which is used by the department as well as all its agencies and several arm’s-length bodies.

Law courts in chaos as IT meltdown disrupts thousands of cases
The communication failures, which started last week, are a significant embarrassment for the Ministry of Justice, which is investing £1.2bn in a high-profile programme promoting online hearings which aims to replace the legal profession’s traditional reliance on mountains of paperwork.

The IT breakdown meant that staff at the MoJ were unable to send emails, wireless connections went down, jurors could not be enrolled and barristers could not register for attendance payments. Courts were left unsure of when some defendants were due to appear and some court files could not be retrieved, leading to prosecutions being adjourned.

The Register had reported on this a few days before, when the problem seemed to be restricted to just their CJSM (Criminal Justice Secure eMail) system.

Lawyers’ secure email network goes down, firm says it’ll take 2 weeks to restore
For reasons that were not immediately clear, Egress Technologies, provider of CJSM, said in an emailed update to users seen by The Register that restoring CJSM would involve wiping their mailboxes for up to two weeks.

It’s now more serious than that.

Nationwide UK court IT failure farce ‘not the result of a cyber attack’ – Justice Ministry
The Ministry of Justice has said a data centre outage was responsible for the widespread collapse of the UK’s civil and criminal court IT infrastructure over the past days.

In a statement to Parliament today, justice minister Lucy Frazer pinned the fault on Atos and Microsoft, saying there had been an “infrastructure failure in our suppliers’ data centre”.

Here’s a report from 2016, highlighting the issues the department was facing…

Ministry of Justice IT systems are ‘fragile and precarious’, say MPs
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) must get to grips with its poor IT systems or risk “further demoralising essential staff”, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned. […]

“ICT systems in probation are inefficient, unreliable and hard to use,” the PAC said. “In a service that relies on successful joint working between multiple partners, it is essential that ICT supports, rather than frustrates, effective and efficient collaboration. This is far from the case for probation.”

… which led to the £1,000,000,000 plan to “transform courts with better use of technology”.

UK justice system set for ‘wholesale shift’ to digital
The reform programme foresees “a wholesale shift to accessing justice digitally” and flags up two “significant developments” that will affect the way courts and tribunals operate: “The first is our aim for all cases to be started online, whether or not they are scheduled for the traditional system or for online resolution. The second will be the completion of some cases entirely online, which will be much more convenient for everyone involved.”

How was that received? With not much confidence, it seems.

PAC doubts justice system transformation programme will be a success
Public Accounts Committee says it’s difficult to see how the government’s “extremely challenging” £1.2bn project to overhaul courts through use of technology “will ever work”.

I don’t know if that’s related to today’s IT breakdowns there, but it makes you wonder.

How much is too much?

Screentime, I mean.

I know I’ve asked this more than once or twice before, but the answer still seems to be ‘it depends’. Take this article, for example, on the trend for music concerts to impose a no phones rule. It sounds eminently sensible.

The simple joy of “No Phones Allowed”
The no-phones policy illuminated something about smartphone use that’s hard to see when it’s so ubiquitous: our phones drain the life out of a room. They give everyone a push-button way to completely disengage their mind from their surroundings, while their body remains in the room, only minimally aware of itself. Essentially, we all have a risk-free ripcord we can pull at the first pang of boredom or desire for novelty, and of course those pangs occur constantly.

Every time someone in a group of people deploys a screen, the whole group is affected. Each disengaged person in a crowd is like a little black hole, a dead zone for social energy, radiating a noticeable field of apathy towards the rest of the room and what’s happening there. […]

I imagine that in another decade or two we’ll look at 2010s-era device use something like we do now with cigarette smoking. I was born in 1980, and I remember smoking sections on planes, which is unthinkable today. I wonder if today’s kids will one day vaguely remember the brief, bizarre time when people didn’t think twice about lighting up a screen in the middle of a darkened concert hall.

Yes, but what about the children, I hear you cry. How much screen time should we let them have?

A philosophy professor argues kids should use more technology, not less
Kids aren’t losing themselves in their devices, but potentially finding themselves. What’s more, they’re doing exactly what generations of kids have long done: Immersing themselves in the toys and objects of the moment that reflect the society they inhabit, and which will help prepare them for the future.

Shapiro, an assistant professor of philosophy at Temple University and a respected thinker on education, childhood and technology, presents his case in the new book The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World.

Ok well never mind the philosophy professors, what do the real experts say?

Screen time not intrinsically bad for children, say doctors
Spending time looking at screens is not intrinsically bad for children’s health, say the UK’s leading children’s doctors, who are advising parents to focus on ensuring their children get enough sleep, exercise and family interaction rather than clamping down on phones and laptops.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has produced the first guidance for parents on how long children should spend on their laptops and phones, which throws the ball firmly back into the parents’ court.

Worry less about children’s screen use, parents told
It said there was no good evidence that time in front of a screen is “toxic” to health, as is sometimes claimed. The review of evidence found associations between higher screen use and obesity and depression. But the college looked at this and said it was not clear from the evidence if higher screen use was causing these problems or if people with these issues were more likely to spend more time on screens. […]

Dr Max Davie, officer for health promotion for the RCPCH, said phones, computers and tablets were a “great way to explore the world”, but parents were often made to feel that there was something “indefinably wrong” about them. He said: “We want to cut through that and say ‘actually if you’re doing OK and you’ve answered these questions of yourselves and you’re happy, get on and live your life and stop worrying’.

Stop worrying? That’s not a phrase you come across in the news very often.

Stop scaremongering about kids spending time on their phones
Still, the screen time scaremongering continues. Partly it’s the fault of scientists and journals, for doing and encouraging shoddy, shocking science; and partly it’s the media’s fault for overhyping weak and uncertain results. “It’s a lot easier,” says David Ellis, a psychologist at Lancaster who specialises in the psychological impacts of technology, “to get the press to cover something about how tech is having a bad effect, than something which says it’s having very little effect.” The RCPCH’s guidelines are a refreshing change.

So we need more research on the quality of the research?

Screens might be as bad for mental health as … potatoes
“Researchers will essentially torture the data until it gives them a statistically significant result that they can publish,” Przybylski says. (Not all researchers who report such results do so with the intention to deceive. But researchers are people; science as an institution may strive for objectivity, but scientists are nevertheless susceptible to biases that can blind them to their misuse of data.) “We wanted to move past this kind of statistical cherry-picking. So we decided to look for a data-driven method to collect the whole orchard, all at once.” […]

To put it in perspective, the researchers compared the link between technology use and adolescent well-being to that of other factors examined by the large-scale data sets. “Using technology is about as associated with well-being as eating potatoes,” Przybylski says. In other words: hardly at all. By the same logic, bullying had an effect size four times greater than screen use. Smoking cigarettes? 18 times. Conversely, getting enough sleep and eating breakfast were positively associated with adolescent well-being at a magnitude 44 and 30 times that of technology use, respectively.

The kids (who use tech) seem to be all right
“This is an incredibly important paper,” says Candice Odgers, a psychologist studying adolescent health and technology at the University of California, Irvine, who wasn’t involved in the research. “It provides a sophisticated set of analyses and is one of the most comprehensive and careful accountings of the associations between digital technologies and well-being to date. And the message from the paper is painstakingly clear: The size of the association documented across these studies is not sufficient or measurable enough to warrant the current levels of panic and fear around this issue.”

I know it’s not strictly screen time that us parents worry about, but will all this stop the scaremongering in the media about too much of it being bad for us and our children? I’ll certainly be glued to my phone, waiting to find out.

Endless and insurmountable to-do lists

A welcome corrective from Quartz to all those productivity articles I used to enjoy reading, always in search of the perfect to-do app or system, distracting myself with the business-of-work rather than getting on with the actual work itself.

The life-draining tedium of errands is even worse in this age of digital convenience
Technology promised to simplify our lives—but errands seem to overwhelm us now. Automation, “smart technologies,” and “virtual assistants” haven’t magically made tedious tasks easier, but rather replaced old steps with new ones. You don’t necessarily have to go places to get things done, but you do have to recall old passwords or reset new ones, deal with infuriating bots that take your calls but can’t answer questions, and manage a slew of accounts. And because we change jobs more often and lead increasingly hectic lives, we experience a kind of “errand paralysis”.

Can’t go back

2019! As everyone else is greeting the new year with positivity and optimism for the future, I’m taking the contrary position and sharing some rather backward-facing articles.

Jason Koebler at Vice reminiscences about his old Tripod homepage (I had one of those!), and wonders whether he should rejuvenate it.

We should replace Facebook with personal websites
There’s a subtext of the #deleteFacebook movement that has nothing to do with the company’s mishandling of personal data. It’s the idea that people who use Facebook are stupid, or shouldn’t have ever shared so much of their lives. But for people who came of age in the early 2000s, sharing our lives online is second nature, and largely came without consequences. There was no indication that something we’d been conditioned to do would be quickly weaponized against us.

Wired’s Jason Kehe takes a step back from his iPhone.

Going dumb: My year with a flip phone
I felt like a wholer person. My mind was reabsorbing previously offloaded information and creating new connections. I was thinking more and better. My focus was improving. I thought I was breaking through.

In the end, I was not.

(He chooses a Kyocera phone, though I think we can all agree this was the best phone of its time.)

Web designer Andy Clarke shares the techniques he would have used back in 1998 to lay out a website — frames, tables and spacer gifs. Remember them?

Designing your site like it’s 1998
The height and width of these “shims” or “spacers” is only 1px but they will stretch to any size without increasing their weight on the page. This makes them perfect for performant website development.

Of course, these days we’re certain we know a much better way of doing all this. And that’s his point.

Strange as it might seem looking back, in 1998 we were also certain our techniques and technologies were the best for the job. That’s why it’s dangerous to believe with absolute certainty that the frameworks and tools we increasingly rely on today—tools like Bootstrap, Bower, and Brunch, Grunt, Gulp, Node, Require, React, and Sass—will be any more relevant in the future than elements, frames, layout tables, and spacer images are today.

What will all this look like in the next 20 years?

Listening with your whole body

A fascinating report on the new wearable technology allowing deaf concert goers to experience music in a brand new way.

New wearable tech lets users listen to live music through their skin
Back in September, 200 music fans gathered at the Bunkhouse Saloon in downtown Las Vegas for a private live concert with a unique twist: several of the fans were deaf. The concert served as a beta test for new wearable technology that allows deaf and hearing users alike to experience musical vibrations through their skin for a true “surround body” experience. […]

People at the Vegas concert (both deaf and hearing) reported feeling like their bodies became the instrument and the music was being played through them. One woman likened the experience to “living inside the strings of a piano,” after experiencing the third (Presto agitato) movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata while wearing the kit.

Reading that reminded me of an incident when I was a university Deputy Registrar, helping to run the graduation ceremonies at York Minster, one of Europe’s largest cathedrals. Before the ceremony was due to start, I was outlining the proceedings to one of our deaf students and her supporter — showing her the stage and the route across the nave and so on — when she suddenly turned to me with a look of extreme anxiety and confusion.

The organ had started to play. She couldn’t hear it, but she could certainly feel it. It was like an earthquake, she said.

It’s currently being refurbished, so this year’s ceremonies had to make do with a digital organ.

The once-a-century refurbishment
York Minster’s Grand Organ is currently undergoing a major, £2m refurbishment, the first on this scale since 1903.

The instrument, which dates back to the early 1830s, is being removed – including nearly all of its 5,403 pipes – and will be taken to Durham for repair and refurbishment by organ specialists Harrison and Harrison.

whole-body-listening-1

Over three weeks, a team of eight people from organ specialists Harrison and Harrison dismantled the instrument – including nearly all of its 5,403 pipes – and transported it to their workshop in Durham for cleaning and repair works to be carried out. The pipes range in length from the size of a pencil to 10m long and the instrument overall is one of the largest in the country, weighing approximately 20,000kg.

Stolen millions

More announcements of company data (our data) being stolen. The numbers involved each time are just incredible.

Hackers breach Quora.com and steal password data for 100 million users
Compromised information includes cryptographically protected passwords, full names, email addresses, data imported from linked networks, and a variety of non-public content and actions, including direct messages, answer requests and downvotes. […] In a post published late Monday afternoon, Quora officials said they discovered the unauthorized access on Friday. They have since hired a digital forensics and security firm to investigate and have also reported the breach to law enforcement officials.

Whenever these stories are reported, the articles often end with a little summary of other recent snafus. The one above ended with:

Quora’s post is only the latest disclosure of a major breach. On Friday, hotel chain Marriott International said a system breach allowed hackers to steal passport numbers, credit card data, and other details for 500 million customers. In September, Facebook reported an attack on its network allowed hackers to steal personal details for as many as 50 million users. The social network later lowered the number of accounts affected to about 30 million.

A post from The Register, about that massive Marriott breach, concluded with this reminder of previous losses.

Marriott’s Starwood hotels mega-hack: Half a BILLION guests’ deets exposed over 4 years
Few hacks of individual firm’s customer data have come close to the scale of this one. The Yahoo! breach in 2013 saw three billion email accounts breached, while Carphone Dixons, the UK electronics retail chain, managed to lose control of 5.9 million sets of payment card data. In the US, the US Government Office for Personnel Management (which handles sensitive files on millions of government workers) had the personal data of 21 million employees’ breached by hackers.

Down the Amazon storefront rabbit hole

The list of Things I Just Don’t Understand Anymore continues to grow. I’m familiar with shopping. I’m familiar with online shopping. But then again —

A business with no end
Recently, one of my students at Stanford told me a strange story. His parents, who live in Palo Alto, Calif., had been receiving mysterious packages at their house. The packages were all different shapes and sizes but each was addressed to “Returns Department, Valley Fountain LLC.”

I looked into it and found that a company called Valley Fountain LLC was indeed listed at his parents’ address. But it also appeared to be listed at 235 Montgomery Street, Suite 350, in downtown San Francisco.

So were 140 other LLCs, most of which were registered in 2015.

And so begins another incredible journey down the e-commerce internet rabbit hole with Jenny Odell, as she tries to untangle the mess of connections between an evangelical church university, many spurious, scammy Amazon storefronts, and an American weekly news magazine.

Indeed, at some point I began to feel like I was in a dream. Or that I was half-awake, unable to distinguish the virtual from the real, the local from the global, a product from a Photoshop image, the sincere from the insincere.

I’ve highlighted Jenny Odell’s journalism here before, and this piece is just as fascinating. It’s being discussed on the Amazon Seller forums, with legitimate sellers worrying how they can possibly compete with fraudulent dropshipping at such a big scale.

A Business with No End — Much explained about shady Amazon sellers
The vast international illegal operation employs hundreds of fake companies, fake churches, fake bookstores, fake department stores that may or may not exist, fake brands, fake HB1 visas, fake reviews, a fake university in California full of “students” on student visas who write click-bait and fake reviews, and even a fake psychiatric hospital. Oh, and apparently a lot of shady fake Amazon sellers. Not confined to Amazon, the empire also involves multiple click-bait farms and fake review farms, and even Newsweek magazine. All part of a vast hidden empire run by a man named Park.