We’re Living in a World of Black Box Systems

Sounds like another episode of the dystopian tv-series Black Mirror.
Reading Wired this morning, journalist Siva Vaidhyanathan thinks Members of U.S. Congress don’t fully understand the tech companies they’re supposed to regulate and goes on to suggest that none of us really do either.

So as we look at the myriad ways Google and Facebook have let us down and led us astray, let’s remember that no one has the manual. No one fully understands these systems, even the people who designed them at their birth. The once impressive, now basic, algorithms that made Google and Facebook distinct and useful have long been eclipsed by even more sophisticated and opaque data sets and machine learning. They are not just black boxes to regulators, journalists, and scholars. They are black boxes to the very engineers who work there.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, wired.com

Use any of the popular web apps and services offered by FAANG and you might be wondering what’s going on behind the scenes. What data points are collected? How is the price I’m seeing on that Amazon purchase ultimately determined — by my location/IP address? — by a purchase history algorithm? — by my recent social media activities?

Many apps work like ‘black box’ systems. Our inputs and outputs can be viewed, but the inner workings are largely hidden to us. Smart phones and smart home hubs for example run programs that are always connected to the net, constantly pinging information back to the mothership, perhaps also listening to our private conversations despite assurances from manufacturers and app developers otherwise. Buried somewhere in the 10-page terms of service agreement, you might have knowingly (or unknowingly) granted access to your device’s text messaging, microphone and/or photos. Unscrupulous data brokers will gladly harvest this information for a variety of purposes, the least sinister of which is probably to just serve you targeted advertisments.

Tech giant Google is currently facing a class-action lawsuit that alleges they track users on hundreds of thousands of apps even when they opt out of “Web & App Activity” in the settings. This yet again raises the spectre of privacy erosion in the digital age with many people now realizing the convenience of “free” web apps and services typically means you’re paying with personal information and diminished battery life because of all the data pinging back and forth. Is it any wonder 5G networks are touted as the next big thing.

Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned, but I’m not keen of my headphones collecting personal data every time I listen to something. I question the necessity of bluetooth lightbulbs controlled via smartphone or my refrigerator collecting data on what our family eats each week and able to tell us when we’re out of milk and eggs. There’s an endless array of IoT products and services that are unnecessarily complex and over-engineered with user data collection perhaps foremost in mind.
I’m old enough to remember a time when household appliances were designed and engineered to last more than 5 years and most automobile engine issues could be fixed without special computer diagnostic equipment. Instead, we have a trend towards OEM products that can’t be readily serviced by 3rd parties or mechanically-inclined owners. Core product functions are increasingly controlled by proprietary software that will lock out, or worse ‘brick’ a device or system from users who attempt any tinkering or repair. This has bolstered the right to repair movement in several countries among consumers seeking greater control over the products they own.

All of this reminds me of Nicholas Carr’s 2015 ideacity talk where he asks the audience to “go out onto the sidewalk and smash your smart phones“. Don’t you sometimes feel like doing that?

Vicious versus Virtuous News Cycles

What garners your attention — vicious or virtuous news?

NPR journalist Lulu Garcia-Navarro sheds light on something called doomscrolling which she describes as the self-destructive behavior of only consuming ‘bad’ news online.

Doomscrolling (aka doomsurfing) interestingly shows up on Webster’s (article, not a dictionary entry) and is characterized as: “the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.

While this sounds insidious and avoidable, one could argue, has there really been any ‘good’ news lately?

Think of those nights you had trouble falling asleep. Lying in bed with the phone, screen glowing, scrolling through the headlines. Page after page, link after link. Google’s algorithms seem to know exactly what you like to consume. It’s like a train wreck that you can’t stop watching. You don’t want to stare, but you just can’t look away.
Facebook and Reddit are prime examples of social networks saturated with infinite scrolling feeds of pseudo-news and infotainment that have been called ‘behavioral cocaine’. In some ways it’s like the digital equivalent of a casino interior: designed without natural light or clocks with lots of glittering stimuli causing you to temporarily lose track of time and become oblivious to the outside world.

Over the past few months our global 24-7 news cycle seems to be relentlessly focused on negative events: the latest covid outbreaks, rioting in the United States, political corruption, the growing surveillance state, systemic racism, rising unemployment, the dire consequences of climate change. Tucker Carlson has an endless stream of divisive hot-button topics from which to rant.

Turn on your television, go anywhere online and you’re bombarded with a tsunami of doom and gloom information about the perilous state of our world. “These are unprecedented times” and “This is the new normal.”

How many times have you heard those words this year? Everything is cancelled. Stay home and hunker down. Travel only for essential purposes we’re told.

This so-called “new normal” world we’re living in feels disorienting in many ways. Wearing a mask out in public; plexiglas partitions and hand sanitizer stations at grocery stores, shopping malls and restaurants — basically everywhere; fist pumps instead of handshakes; spectator-less sporting events; our children’s education increasingly going online; businesses unwilling to accept cash payments for goods and services. Will these aspects of daily life become permanent fixtures in our society?

Let’s meet for a drink and chat, I say to a friend. I call the local pub to book a spot on the patio but I’m told there are no seats available today. “We have a table available Saturday afternoon @3:30pm”, the hostess says. That’s ok I say. We instead make plans to meet on my friend’s driveway with a couple of lawn chairs six-feet apart. All good.

Remember the good ol’ normal days when you could just walk over to the pub spur of the moment and share a pitcher of beer with 1/2 dozen people? No, the new normal apparently involves pre-booking everything. I imagine all those unused beer pitchers are now being recycled into safety partitions or PPE face shields for our frontline health care workers.

Some days it feels like we’re stuck in a Black Mirror episode. This week it’s a lab experiment conducted by a higher intelligence designed to test various anxiety-inducing stressors on the human psyche. By seeking out ‘good’ news one of the characters discovers salvation from the psychological tyranny of incessant global pandemic updates.

Ongoing reports of the emanate global economic and societal collapse conjure up a dystopian Philip K. Dick short story. Our story begins with negative news endlessly repeating through a neural-interactive simulation until the main characters eventually figure out a way to hack the programmatic brainwashing and escape to a better world. The planned exodus from earth is led by a small, well-financed consortium of Silicon Valley tech entreprenuers with ambitious plans to colonize Mars.

Back in the real world, many of the people I talk to are inclined to just stay home and postpone trips abroad. Physical distancing on a 2-1/2 hr flight doesn’t seem all that doable.
The global travel and tourism industry, worth approximately 2,893 billion U.S. dollars in 2019, is now largely decimated as a result of the global pandemic and is indeed going through an incredible shift. But perhaps this upheaval was inevitable. The Boeing 737 MAX plane crashes earlier this year in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people now look like an ominous precursor the airline industry was on an unsustainable trajectory in terms of prioritizing cost-cutting engineering initiatives over passenger safety.

This afternoon a bunch of printed ADs arrived in our mailbox.

A local cosmetic and dental implant office. Headline: “Behind Your Mask Is a Beautiful Smile”; large image of woman wearing a surgical face mask. The AD goes on: “High efficiency HEPA/MERV 17 air filtration systems and all required PPE keeping your safety in mind.” The second AD, a local auto dealership leaflet with the headline: “We Are Open For Business!” (all caps, big). The AD continues: “Now offering enhanced protocols to help ensure your health & safety!”; (medical iconography) “Enhanced Safety & Sanitation Protocols.” That’s basically the extent of the message.

None of this feels normal or unprecedented. Just surreal.

I’m terrible at blogging

Today I came to the realization that pretty crappy at blogging on a regular basis — at least the last few years. Well, you know, the old excuse life gets in the way comes to mind.
I used to make time every week or so to write at length. Could be work related musings, experiences on my bike, creative things on my mind — any and all inspirations.
Now, during the lockdown, it seems there shouldn’t be any obstacles in the way to writing each week. Working remotely means the daily commute to the office has been eliminated (for the time being). So let’s say there’s about 90 minutes give or take that have been freed-up whereas pre-lockdown I’d be fighting traffic on the Gardiner twice a day.

Now seems like a good time to vent. I miss seeing friends and colleagues. I’m tired of wearing a mask everywhere; tired of using hand-sanitizer. I miss watching live sports, going to a bar for a drink; seeing live music, going out to the cinema. I’m tired of being stuck at home, every day having to hear neighbours 2 houses down renovating what seems like every last square-inch of their property. Eventually the banging, sawing, drilling noises will cease and they’ll run out of a) ideas of things to fix, or b) money to finance further ideas of things to enhance structurally or aesthetically. Why not just enjoy your house the way it is? But who am I to complain. These things are rather trivial.