Quote(s) of the Day VIII

I’m gonna try and change topics after this. Here is Professor Michael Lynch on the relationship between data and power (and the problems this bodes for our privacy):

The pool of data is a pool of knowledge. Knowledge is power; and power corrupts. As a consequence it is difficult to avoid drawing the inference that absolute knowledge might corrupt absolutely.

The Internet is a Psychology Experiment

Busy month, but the world doesn’t stop of course. My last post was about big data and privacy. This one is about big data and ethics. As data collection and analysis becomes increasingly powerful, those who control the algorithms can literally control the population in various ways and by various degrees. Below are some smart takes on the subject.

Scott Adam, creator of Dilbert, writes about startups in Silicon Valley:

Every entrepreneur is now a psychologist by trade. The ONLY thing that matters to success in our anything-is-buildable Internet world is psychology. How does the customer perceive this product? What causes someone to share? What makes virality happen? What makes something sticky?

Experience and history give start-ups their ideas on what to test first. But the thing that worked for the last business often doesn’t work for the next because no two situations are identical. So psychology on the Internet is an endless series of educated guesses and quantitative testing. Every entrepreneur is a behavioral psychologist with the tools to pull it off.

Christian Sandvig writing for the Social Media Collective Research Blog has an excellent piece about why algorithms are dangerous (it’s a must-read). Here are some of his key takeaways:

  • When I express my opinion about something to my friends and family, I do not want that opinion re-sold without my knowledge or consent.
  • When I explicitly endorse something, I don’t want that endorsement applied to other things that I did not endorse.
  • If I want to read a list of personalized status updates about my friends and family, I do not want my friends and family sorted by how often they mention advertisers.
  • If a list of things is chosen for me, I want the results organized by some measure of goodness for me,not by how much money someone has paid.
  • I want paid content to be clearly identified.
  • I do not want my information technology to sort my life into commercial and non-commercial content and systematically de-emphasize the noncommercial things that I do, or turn these things toward commercial purposes.

Facebook recently revealed that in 2012 it allowed researchers to conduct a psychological experiment on how emotions spread through social media. They manipulated the Newsfeed of over half a million randomly selected users to change the number of positive and negative posts they saw. They found that emotions are indeed contagious.

The research is notable not for the results, but rather, for what it says about the notions of consent and ethics in social media engineering and for algorithms in general. James Grimmelmann, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, put it this way:

The real scandal, then, is what’s considered “ethical.” The argument that Facebook already advertises, personalizes, and manipulates is at heart a claim that our moral expectations for Facebook are already so debased that they can sink no lower. I beg to differ. This study is a scandal because it brought Facebook’s troubling practices into a realm—academia—where we still have standards of treating people with dignity and serving the common good. The sunlight of academic practices throws into sharper relief Facebook’s utter unconcern for its users and for society. The study itself is not the problem; the problem is our astonishingly low standards for Facebook and other digital manipulators.

In the coming months and years, I think that ethics will be an increasingly pertinent issue. It’s about time we do a deep dive on this.

Thinking About Big Data

At work I am immersed in matters of privacy — thorny issues that arise out of the confluence of developments in technology, business, politics and culture. By now most of us have probably heard of the term ‘big data‘. It’ll be a few years yet before we reap the fruits (both good and ill) of big data in really meaningful and society-changing ways. But that day is coming, and there are smart people out there already thinking about the implications of this.

Big data is a perfect poster child for the double-edged sword that is technology. Just as big data promises to save babies and make the world a better place, it has enormous potential to usher in an unprecedented age of surveillance and control beyond the wildest dreams of past authoritarian regimes (I would wager that present ones are working hard right now to realise this).

With that in mind recently there has been two great pieces on this topic, go check them out:

I want to quote from the conclusion to Crawford’s thoughtful piece:

… As historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison once wrote, all epistemology begins in fear — fear that the world cannot be threaded by reason, fear that memory fades, fear that authority will not be enough.

If the big-data fundamentalists argue that more data is inherently better, closer to the truth, then there is no point in their theology at which enough is enough [my emphasis]. This is the radical project of big data. It is epistemology taken to its limit. The affective residue from this experiment is the Janus-faced anxiety that is heavy in the air, and it leaves us with an open question: How might we find a radical potential in the surveillant anxieties of the big-data era?

To tackle a problem first requires understanding it. I don’t think we can afford to be ignorant about this.

The Crux of the Matter

Over the past week, there has been a tremendous amount of digital ink spilt over the case of Brendan Eich. Eich was a talented programmer who ascended to the position of CEO at Mozilla (creator of Firefox) and then resigned in the wake of controversy. It came to light that he had donated money (US$1,500 in total) in support of Proposition 8, a 2008 Californian ballot initiative that amended the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Many proponents of same-sex marriage were not happy about this and agitated for his removal.

There are two sides to this debate: (i) those who believe that Eich’s resignation was unequivocally a good thing and (ii) those who are troubled by its implications for the freedoms of speech and belief. On this blog I am much more interested in exploring how people think, rather than what the conclusion may be. The Eich case is a great example of where reasoning can go awry in support of a seemingly worthy cause. Ultimately I think the crux of the matter revolves around one crucial question: Is opposition to same-sex marriage bigotry, on par with, for example, racism?

First I want to show that some of the arguments marshalled against Eich are problematic upon closer inspection.

1. Eich voluntarily resigned, he wasn’t fired. I don’t see the issue.

Well… he only resigned because of intense pressure, both external and internal, for him to step down because of a certain belief he holds (and which he actively supported). This is why people care about what happened to him.

2. Eich is entitled to his free speech/beliefs, but he is not entitled to be free from the consequences of them #1: Clearly it was unpopular with the market. Mozilla was within their rights to respond to public disapproval and encourage him to step down.

This one superficially makes sense but is unsatisfying to me. Yes, it is an explanation of what happened: “It was bad for the company, so we had to change”. But if we’re arguing in the political/moral realm about someone’s speech and beliefs, do we really want to make business sense the arbiter for what is justified or not?

A lot of things make business sense. But that doesn’t necessarily make them good, or right. I’m not saying this argument is wrong, I’m saying it is not enough.

So dumping our toxic waste into this river will help our bottom line? It’s a no-brainer then, amirite?

3. Eich is entitled to his free speech/beliefs, but he is not entitled to be free from the consequences of them #2: He was no longer fit for the job because he had lost the faith and trust of employees.

This is another seemingly reasonable argument. Factually speaking, it may be the case that some employees were troubled by Eich’s belief and the actions he took. And this could result in distrust and compromised performance at work. But consider this: isn’t every relationship a two-way street? As much as Eich’s attitudes and beliefs have been dissected and examined, what about the employees under him?

I’m sure the same employees who have concerns about Eich would fully subscribe to the notion that at work, what matters is your performance, not your beliefs. Is that too idealistic a notion? Perhaps. In an “ideal” world, beliefs should not matter, nor the position of the one who holds the beliefs (whether CEO, manager, desk grunt, or janitor). In the real world it’s not so simple. Beliefs don’t matter… until they eventually do.

This argument only makes sense if we accept that those employees should be able to do the very thing they would profess not to do: be intolerant of another person’s belief in the workplace.

But wait a minute. Surely some beliefs cross the line don’t they? We shouldn’t have to tolerate everything should we? Here we get to the crux of the issue.

4. What if Eich had donated to the cause of the KKK, or neo-Nazis, or to ban interracial marriage? Wouldn’t that be just cause to remove him?

Translation: (a) Bigotry (e.g., KKK, Nazism, etc) is wrong and should be resisted; (b) opposition to same-sex marriage is bigotry; (c) anyone holding bigoted beliefs should be mocked/marginalised/silenced/punished; (d) as a person in a prominent position (CEO), the natural and just punishment for Eich is removal from that position.

The key premise, I submit, is (b). Ultimately how you view Eich’s predicament — and the arguments you muster in favour or against — flows from your position on (b). For the record, I am sympathetic to both sides.

For those who have faced pain and injustice their whole life because of their sexual orientation, and for the many more that empathise with their plight, knowing that the law cannot recognise their affirmation of love and commitment to their partner must be disheartening indeed. The same-sex marriage movement is simply another chapter in the fight to claim equal rights for all people. Those who oppose it are either unenlightened folks or religious freaks.

On the other hand, I do see a distinct difference between supporting the exclusivity of heterosexual marriage and the kinds of bigotry that have been listed. It’s difficult to understand if you believe Christianity is all nonsense, but just for this moment try to see it from the other side.

Notwithstanding historical actors who have done bad things in the name of Christianity, its core teachings — e.g., that everyone is made in the image of God, and that we ought to love our neighbours as ourselves — are fundamentally opposed to any kind of prejudice or discrimination. Abolitionism in the Western world and the American Civil Rights Movement were strongly influenced by such ideas.

“If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands” — Martin Luther King Jr, Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)

Christians also believe in the order that God created. And yes, that includes the institution of marriage between a man and a woman. If you’re a non-believer, does that seem unfair and ridiculous? Absolutely. Is it equivalent to racist bigotry, which many faithful believers had devoted their lives to fighting? I’m not so sure.

What kind of future do you want?

Commentators have been quick to note that regardless of whether Eich’s predicament is justified or not, it is another demonstration of just how far society has come in terms of recognising and legitimising same-sex beliefs. Indeed, as Ross Douthat observed, such beliefs have “won” — they are gaining popular acceptance in Western societies and are being translated into concrete policies.

I want to quickly touch on point (c) above (i.e.,”anyone holding [what I consider to be] bigoted beliefs should be mocked/marginalised/silenced/punished”). My concern, which I share with Andrew Sullivan, is the intolerance that undergirds the anti-Eich crowd. Skimming through the comments to various articles on the topic, I’ve come across:

  • Those who are gleefully sinking the boot in — “I don’t want to be magnanimous, I want to crush them”
  • Those who have seemingly forgotten that two wrongs don’t make a right — “But conservatives do X/Y/Z, isn’t it hypocritical for them to complain about this?”
  • Those who are downright inquisitorial — “I’ll forgive Eich when he apologises, comes around on this issue, and make amends by giving a large donation to an organisation promoting same-sex marriage”.

We’ve been at this juncture many times before in history. Now that a particular belief is in the ascendancy, how should its proponents deal with the dissenters? The future of a civil, pluralistic society depends on the answer.

Is the Internet Good or Bad?

I’ve been meaning to link this for a while now. It is a thoughtful piece on technology, surveillance, politics and power, set against the tumultuous protests taking place in Istanbul, Turkey in 2013. Even if you don’t have the estimated 22 minutes to read the article, scroll through and admire the incredibly atmospheric photographs.

On the question itself, the answer is “yes” — an answer that is simultaneously ambiguous and crystal clear. To me the Internet is an amplifier. It gives power to both the good and the bad.

Where democracy and freedoms are at stake in non-Western countries (in a sense you can think of it as the lower rungs on the Hierarchy of Needs), connectivity and the Internet can be fantastic things. Once people are at the stage where they’re able to pursue “self-actualisation” and other higher needs, that’s when the picture gets more complicated. The end discussion about the subtle shaping and seducing of the populace through technology is spot on.

It is ironic that the societies in which freedoms are taken for granted are the ones where people’s autonomy are at stake — albeit in a different way to what we are seeing in the Middle East, Turkey, Ukraine, etc.

Quote(s) of the Day VII

Good ol’ Ross Gittins has come out with another great article questioning the prevailing economic orthodoxy: that government should just get out of the way and let businesses do their thing in a “free market”.

There is no question that capitalism has done great things. But those who put free-market economics on a pedestal tend to miss the bigger picture. The market is not inherently good or moral. People are not inherently rational and often do not behave in ways that seek their self-interest. The market value of goods and services produced by an economy (GDP) is at best a tangential measure of progress and arguably not that important if you’re trying to look at the overall well-being of people (which is ultimately what matters in the end, right?).

Using economic rationalism as the primary basis for policymaking leads to undervaluing of the environment, erosion of workers’ rights, rent-seeking by powerful corporations, disregard for things that do not have market value and commercialisation of things that probably should not be dispassionately traded as goods and services. Capitalism is useful, but like any other human endeavour it should be kept within appropriate bounds.

How to put the above more succinctly? Thanks Ross:

… I want to live in a market economy, but not a market society.

The Role of Luck

A friend of mine sent me this memo from Howard Marks, a noted investor and chairman of Oaktree Capital, a global asset management firm. Apparently he is well-known for his client memos in which he writes about investment and economic stuff.

This particular memo is a bit different as it discusses something that is often under-appreciated by the well-to-do: the role of luck in shaping our lives and our careers. I would say that as a general tendency, the more successful you are, the more likely you are to attribute an outsize proportion of that success to your own efforts.

I don’t think that is wrong per se. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle — neither are we completely self-sufficient and self-determining, nor are we drifting vessels pushed about by the vagaries of indecipherable winds.

However, I do commend Mr Marks for broaching this topic. Far too often the highly successful put self-achivement on a pedestal while overlooking or downplaying external factors. Even more problematic are those that make self-achievement the foundation of their worldview. For them, it logically follows that those who are less (or not) successful must be doing something wrong, or not doing enough things right. This has political implications.

Anyway, enough blathering from me. Check out the article for yourself, it’s very well-written with lots of good examples.

Done?

Now that we’re on the same page, I have a few random thoughts on the memo:

1. Hard work is still important, obviously. When people come from similarly ‘privileged’ backgrounds and with similar abilities (e.g., top students applying to a prestigious institution, or top candidates applying to a prestigious firm), the deciding factor will be how well-prepared they are.

2. I like how Mr Marks gives examples of moments in time when major shifts were occurring and some people were able to take advantage of it. One way to capitalise on ‘luck’ is having the ability to recognise the opportunities around you. That’s a skill that can be developed, one that betters the odds!

3. A major one from personal experience is having the courage to go for it, once you see an opportunity. “You make your own luck” is kinda true, since the people who seem to lead charmed lives tend to be way more proactive in how they live. In many ways perception is reality. It’s tough because sometimes circumstances (good and bad) outside your control will affect your level of confidence. It’s difficult but doable and certainly very beneficial to ‘train’ yourself to be more courageous.

4. Another major thing is to be humble. Recognise that many events and many people have contributed to shaping who you are and what you have achieved. Admitting that is not a sign of weakness. Rather, for me it is a good reminder that we achieve great things when we are together, and it gives me great motivation to be a positive influence on others.

5. Following on from this, it is good to have compassion for other people. Especially those who, through no fault of their own (or their ‘fault’ is due to various complex factors) do not have it as good as you. And even those who annoy us, who infuriate us, who are unseemly or repulsive to us.

I’m taking a page out of David Foster Wallace here. That dead-eyed checkout chick who can’t even be bothered to look into your eye, and who takes forever to bag your groceries. Maybe she just found out that her father has cancer. Maybe she is catatonic because she is dying inside. That unkempt, black-footed bum splayed across the payment, forcing you to step around him. Maybe he has been beaten and mistreated his whole life, and the only worthwhile thing he has ever done was to run away. Maybe he never had a chance.

Be humble. Don’t be insufferably smug. Be compassionate. Don’t make everything about you. Simple, right?