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Friday
Apr122019

Angering Ourselves To Death – Postman’s Brave New World Re-Re-Visited - Chapter 3

Chapter III: The Medium Is The Mass Surveillance

 An Amazon Alexa-enabled device.

In March 2018, a whistleblower told Observer newspapers that UK-based political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested over 50 million Facebook profiles in a breach of data and privacy. Christopher Wylie who worked with an academic at Cambridge University to gather the data said “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” Wylie told the Observer. “[We] built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, posing as an online personality test. Exploiting various weaknesses in Facebook’s application programming interface (API), it collected profile information not only from those who authorised the app, but their friends and their friend’s friends.

The information was used to target American users during the 2016 United States Presidential Election and the 2016 UK Referendum on the question of remaining or leaving the European Union.

At least Cambridge Analytica had the courtesy to allow users to opt in. The invasive XKeyscore and Boundless Informant programs used by the NSA to collect signals intelligence and conduct mass surveillance on US and foreign citizens afforded users no such luxury.

As mentioned earlier, Facebook and other social media do not sell products or services directly but facilitate a platform for marketers and advertisers to do so. The well-worn aphorism “the product they are selling is you” is a misnomer. If we take the semanticist Korzybski’s maxim to heart – the word is not the thing – they are not selling you specifically, but a 1 to 1 simulacrum that extends beyond your own consciousness. Human consciousness is also tempered by human unconsciousness; we forget, misplace information, and have moments of complete unawareness of our own behaviours.

Computers don’t.

A computer has perfect memory, perfect algorithms, perfect recall. It can know you better than you know yourself. Thus we, as humans, employ computers to learn more about our habits, wishes, frustrations, and desires. This is not ill or good in and of itself but can be used by humans in either fashion.

If we are also being programmed, we are also being labelled, sorted, objectified, and tabulated. Facebook and its ilk have shifted human consciousness into accepting computers as a wholesale extension of our senses. For instance, it has become acceptable for activists to comb through large data sets such as Twitter feeds for politically incorrect comments; In December 2018, US entertainer and comedian Kevin Hart was ousted from his position as host of the 2019 Academy Awards due to making anti-gay slurs on his Twitter between 2009 and 2011.

Where as a human being may struggle to remember specific comments uttered by anyone almost a decade prior, computers enhance our collective memories by providing a library of instant storage and retrieval of anything and everything we have said or posted online. This leads to another aphorism: this is a feature, not a bug.

It is possible that the original founders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Severin, had no intention to create a mass surveillance medium the likes of which the world has never seen. According to after-the-fact reports, Zuckerberg created “FaceMash” in his Harvard University dorm room as an application to rate the relative attractiveness of girls on campus in 2003. It was later renamed “the Facebook” then simply “Facebook” in 2006. The original app was limited to colleges in Boston, then expanded to all university-level institutions, and eventually, all people with a valid email address (and over the age of 13) in September 2006.

Facebook exploited our desire for convenience and want for human interaction. People could add “friends” to their Facebook and share their opinions, photos, videos, and other content with one another. They could also join in on games. They could express their desires by an “opt-in” – the Facebook “like” button. “Liking” topics or webpages built up a profile of your preferences and interests; albeit manually. As of 2019, this is achieved via machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Facebook acquired photo sharing app Instagram in 2012; instant message service WhatsApp in 2014. It launched its own proprietary messaging platform, Messenger, in 2015. According to the End User Licence Agreements, Facebook could use these applications on your phone to harvest data about your habits, including your location. In 2016, Facebook strenuously denied eavesdropping on conversations, using one’s smartphone camera or microphone to pick up vision or audio. Facebook has spent millions of dollars on PR to counteract these claims, saying that advertising that pops up in feeds is a result of “frequency bias” or just plain coincidence.

It was confirmed in April 2019 by Bloomberg that human technicians in the employ of Amazon listen to voice searches and other audio picked up from Alexa-enabled devices. This mix of contractors and employees based around the world are tasked with refining the voice search algorithm to produce better results. However, the nature of the medium is to have an “ear” out for keywords and phrases at all times. According to the article,

“Sometimes they [employees] hear recordings they find upsetting, or possibly criminal. Two of the workers said they picked up what they believe was a sexual assault. When something like that happens, they may share the experience in the internal chat room as a way of relieving stress. Amazon says it has procedures in place for workers to follow when they hear something distressing, but two Romania-based employees said that, after requesting guidance for such cases, they were told it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.”

The media we consume and produce for is the mass surveillance; the Faustian bargain we’ve made with technology is coming back to haunt us in myriad ways. Mass surveillance by private entities is chilling enough; however, the panopticon effect of moral busybodies and invective-slinging do-gooders has also cost people their livelihoods. This public shaming by internet mob was made most famous in 2013, when corporate communication director Justine Sacco tweeted just as she departed for Cape Town: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” A joke in poor taste; it nevertheless was the Number 1 worldwide trending topic on Twitter, creating a storm of controversy before Ms. Sacco had even stepped off the plane.

Because of these interconnections both public and private, the mass surveillance nature of media is inescapable. The mass surveillance is having a profound effect on the way we parse language and the meaning of that language; and breaks down the tacit disconnect between language as action and language as thought in action. Nuance is impossible, tribal and identitarian sentiments are rising. We are analogue people, being programmed to think in binary ways.

Sunday
Mar102019

Angering Ourselves To Death – Postman’s Brave New World Re-Re-Visited - Chapter 2

Chapter II: The Media Malware Machine

Norbert Weiner.

In 1994, media theorist and documentarian Douglas Rushkoff said the media is ‘the extension of a living organism; [media and communication technology] is a circulatory system for today’s information, ideas and images.’

The media as an environment in 1994, a decade on from 1984, seems quaint by today’s comparison.

In the average Western household, you could likely find a television set, a radio, a telephone, and of course, paper, pens, and envelopes to send letters. Many households likely had a subscription to print media; newspapers, periodicals, magazines.

If you considered yourself “tech savvy” you may have had a computer of some kind. An IBM-PC compatible, a Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Macintosh, or even an Acorn RISC PC.  If you worked in the C-suite, you may have had a laptop or a cellular portable telephone. If you were on the geeky side, it’s possible you used dial-up modems to call into Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) to trade files, or even have a connection to Internet (as it was referred to back then.) Internet had a scarce handful of web pages; the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was only formed during this year.  Most users connected through portals such as CompuServe, Prodigy, or AOL (in the US) to interact with Usenet newsgroups or read their email.

In today’s world, we have only one standard computer processor architecture (the x86-64) which is found in Windows, Linux, and Mac based PCs and laptops. All web traffic is routed through Domain Name Servers, as standardised by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) which operated the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). IANA was overseen by the United States Department of Commerce as recently as 2016. In 1994, the circulatory system had many hearts.

Today we have one.

Content is the blood pumped around by that heart, transmitted and duplicated at frightening speed. In 1994, there existed 2,738 websites. If every tweet is counted as a webpage (which it very well could be, considering each tweet is given its own URL), over 6,000 webpages are created each second.

Each of those websites likely had their own web server. A beige box sitting under a desk, usually in a university physics or computer science department. In the time you read that sentence, about 24,000 more webpages exist, perhaps with images, audio, or video content attached. To enable the transmission of all this content, the internet “backbone” is its servers.

According to the Synergy Research Group, Amazon Web Services controls one-third of the world’s public cloud computing capacity, more than Microsoft, IBM, and Google combined. Formed in 1995 as a book retailer, Amazon.com has exploded into a global conglomerate that not only sells goods online but facilitates the sale of said goods by providing the infrastructure they’re sold on. In 2016, Amazon.com captured $1 out of every $2 spent on retail goods online. Amazon has a vested interest in facilitating content to create more opportunity to sell its products. In 2013, Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon, bought the Washington Post for $250 million.

As mentioned earlier, the volume of information we can encounter is infinitesimal, and growing exponentially. If we position content being distinct from information, that is, data we can interpret and use in some meaningful way, the web-enabled media environment has not been “hijacked” by fake news or disinformation as many thinkpieces and hot-takers point out.

The current media ecology a simply enables larger and larger quantities of this content to be created, shared, and consumed. In the words of German renaissance philosopher Paracelsus, “sola dosis facit venenum” or in English, the dose makes the poison.

His thesis was that all substances, at high enough dosages, are poison. One can drown if they consume too much water. Once can also be harmed if they breathe molecular oxygen at increased partial pressures. With no map to guide us on what content is “useful” and what is not, we succumb to overwhelming content overload. The well itself is not poisoned, but the amount one can drink from it will inevitably make you sick.

We now have untold media power, both as consumers and as potential producers. Anyone can connect with virtually anyone else across the globe in real-time. But for everything we gain from new media technologies, we also lose something.

It would seem the side-effect of this is polarisation, or a binary, two-valued orientation. This is not the cyberneticist Norbert Weiner’s sincere wish of using technology to enhance human beings for human use; it is technology shaping our conception of reality, and perhaps even our consciousness, to better fit machine algorithms. Rushkoff touched on this nearly a decade ago in his “contract” with technopoly – we either program or get programmed ourselves.

Now in the electronic media world, linear narratives are unimportant; we can tune into a tweet, watch three different YouTube clips at a time and use RSS readers to aggregate thousands of articles, picking and choosing the few that are worthy of our dithering attention. 15% of the world’s internet traffic is dedicated to streaming content from Netflix.

In any cybernetic system, as Weiner defined it, information control is integral to the health of that system. In his treatise Human Use of Human Beings, he describes a power station where the flow of information between man and machine flows in both ways, perhaps as status reports and commands as feedback in response to those status reports. However, a communication system requires a filter on erroneous or non-useful information. The filter was obvious in Postman’s time – TV news editors, newspaper editors, etc. The prevailing critique was that said editors may impose biases based on political or corporate diktats, restricting the “authenticity” of what was being presented.

The inherent problem with the overabundance of content is filters at the source (the publisher) yet no filter at the consumption level (the readers.) The messages are not filtered, however the information contained within the messages are. The media malware is inherent due to the lack of filtering for bogus or “fake news” at the consumption level. Is there a non-invasive filter for such information, that does not rely on Orwellian tactics? As Postman once said, information for the sake of information may not be useful; there is no value to knowing Princess Adelaide had the whooping cough.

Publishers can publish skewed perspectives, lie by omission, or flat-out create fictions which consumers may or may not have the inclination to root out. The ultimate filter would be to deny these publishers ad revenue and have them go out of business. Between January-February 2019, sites such as BuzzFeed, VICE and Huffington Post (HuffPost) laid off approximately 2,200 journalists in the US, with BuzzFeed Australia signalling similar cutbacks to its editorial division. Perhaps the poisoned adrenaline pumping through the media circulatory system will wane – the market, it seems, has decided.

Content filtering is draconian and ought to be given the disdain it deserves. What our media environment lacks is a transparent, decentralised, and self-correcting information filter; one that is unbiased, impartial, and robust enough to counteract the terror of disinformation. Aggregation, or positioning oneself on a higher level of abstraction, such as those found in apps like NewsVoice, may be a possible fix. It presents a filter for the disinformation crisis. However, it does not solve the content crisis; and at present, there may be no logical solution. The cybernetic feedback goes both ways but seems to benefit the system and not the user.

It would seem the information system on which we have come to rely is programming us, and we're being injected with malicious binary code.

Wednesday
Nov162011

The three hour layover on the way to digital journalism

Attending the A.N. Smith lecture in Journalism at Melbourne University last night, Fairfax Media Chief executive and General Manager Greg Hywood outlined the digital media strategy for Fairfax in a "post-classified ad" revenue present and of course, future. Apart from the oh-so humble reminders that the Age and Sydney Morning Herald embraced the internet long before their competitors, his subtle investor pitch demonstrating the media convergence that Fairfax employs to derive its revenue was finally indicative of a media ecological approach to journalism and content communication across a mass yet still fragmented (in terms of point of access) audience. Print in the morning, smartphones on the go and accessing the web during the day, etc.

Mr. Hywood made a salient point in terms of devising a business model to ensure not only survival, but growth in quality journalism and content creation. Leaving the privileged curatorship vs. citizen engagement debate aside; he struck at the core of the problem for lumbering giants resistant to changes in their once robust classified ad "rivers of gold." The journalism, he said, was a solution to the fundamental problem of people trying to "make sense of the world around them." The media can no longer sit idle and react to changes in the consumption of their products, they must now find "solutions" in the skein of Postman and the Media Ecologists.

For example, Neil Postman only months prior to his passing remarked in a lecture that an airline wished to spend a substantial sum to improve the speed of their aeroplanes. Researchers found that they could cut at least three hours from the Los Angeles to New York trip utilizing new engine technologies. But then engineers wondered; what did passengers do with their three hour surplus of time?

Go back to their hotels and watch television.

Thus money was saved by installing televisions into the backs of their seats - the solution was much more ingenious than attempting to appeal to the abstraction of "progress." Just like News Ltd. recognizing that the medium in the afternoon was in fact the train platform and bus and tailored its message accordingly in the form of free, portable and "light" newspapers that can be read while waiting to arrive at one's destination.

Just because journalism can be uploaded and broadcast to smartphones and tablets doesn't mean it always, in every case should; if the problem is not knowing when or where rock gigs are and the solution is a weekly street press to guide you, why force change when it isn't required? Perhaps pondering this question will write the next chapter of journalism; whether in print or online or something unheard of.

Sunday
Feb062011

The Urgency of Paradise

Today, I was fortunate enough to sit down with a one-on-one discussion session with President Emeritus of the Australian General Semantics Society, Mr. Laurie Cox. Despite his advanced age (92!) he insists his psycho-social age is merely 40, having "surpassed all the traps of adolescent thinking" with over 57 years of General Semantics training and teaching.

As we sipped coffee and talked, he asked me how I was going professionally and personally. Professionally things weren't great, but I was heading towards completing my thesis half way through the year and thus my master's degree. Personally, I didn't have much to report - though we hit upon sex, interpersonal communication and intimate relationships for a majority of the session. One of his salient points that resonated with me is this; "With all relationships, you mustn't forget the axis of time."

Of course, he referred to axis as that of a graph - that time is crucial in forming lasting, trusting and loving relationships. In our environment, we are sold many things that ought to "save time" otherwise "time is wasted." If it is, the "opportunity will be lost" at that "instant." We work "overtime" and consequently have no "time to spare." But in the realm of relationships, time is not of the essence, but "is" the essence.

"Rushing it" almost never feels as satisfying as "taking it slow" and some predatory "dating coaches" emphasize "speed seduction" and moreover "quick fucking" but not "spending time with someone significant" or "passionate lovemaking." Love and relating to others takes up our time in our thoughts and actions - it's not meant to be kept to a rigorous "timetable." One figuratively must "take the time to take the time." Even if it's "come time" to acquaint yourself with someone new, re-affirm an old friendship or even "find time" to work on oneself with hobbies, projects and other creative pursuits.

I for one viewed time as an enemy while growing up, something I felt I was constantly "short of" - but now I am beginning to view it as one of my most powerful allies.

Laurie in his own life-affirming way knows something about time - and emphasizes that we may have a lot or very little at all; but if the "timing is right" between two (or even more) people, time can invariably bind us all together, with love.

Monday
Jan102011

Steps to an Integrity of Mind

During this social media moratorium* I've been doing a wealth of reading - mostly re-reading psychology books such as Drs. Ellis and Harper's A Guide to Rational Living (I started re-reading it yesterday and am almost finished - It's incredible what can be accomplished when you decide to walk away from a computer!) I'm also re-reading much of my "useful resource" library that can be accessed here.

In addition I'm getting out of the house more - just because!

The ability to silence one's chatter to allow one to think, challenge and pose new questions is severely hampered by the "Niagara of words" as Samuel I. Hayakawa once noted. Twitter and Facebook updates with a frequency that is twice or even three times as quick than the human nervous system could possibly parse and understand. If our abstraction processes are routinely incomplete then surely social media networks are passing around discrete packages of shortened information that are whittled down into something almost nonsensical (insofar we are unable to extract meaning from them via our senses.) So why is our mind being littered with tiny tracts and tidbits? Where is our mindfulness in this instance?

In my view, mindfulness is being conscious of your abstraction and subvocalization process - also known as metacognition or "thinking about thinking." You are most likely not reading this post aloud and thus subvocalizing the words. But how often do we sit back and think about what we are telling ourselves about the world?

Usually we are unaware of our own thoughts. These are powerful - they impact on our emotions and behaviors. If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and researches of Count Korzybski are held to be valid, our reality is inferred and created by what we tell ourselves and how we derive meaning from the outside world. If we tell ourselves we are a "piece of shit" or unable to handle certain situations we feel we have been trapped in a cage built by our reactions to a largely self-constructed semantic environment.

It is true - we only have limited choice when considering the vastness of the cosmos and the immediate macrocosm that we see. Standing on the corner of the street we can choose what direction to travel and whether to peruse a shop, book a holiday or even chat up a girl we find attractive but causality remains. But there are some things we cannot prevent and other things we are completely incapable of. But that does not make life unlivable, harrowing or awful. We adapt to our environment as best as possible and carve out happiness within it.

The universe is indifferent but the way we choose to see it is up to us entirely. Even if one is a cognitive neuroscientist, a believer in the eight-circuit model of consciousness or a strict religionist or somewhere in between, we all choose to adapt to these methods of thinking - no one forces us. At the end of the day we are alone in how we conduct ourselves and how we perceive the outside world. Belief is the death of intelligence. Belief in the irrational is the death of one's agency and one's mental freedom.

Much like Marcus Aurelius says - Do you not possess reason? With reason doing its job, what else could you possibly want or need? It can feel like a struggle to become rational in an increasingly irrational world - but, at least in my opinion, it is one of the most worthwhile endeavors one can ever take.

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*I am aware that some of my non-social media activities on the web cause automated tweets to be sent, such as posting this blog or "loving" tracks on Last.fm, etc. This does not constitute a "breaking" of the moratorium according to my criterion.