Walking Out the Lockdown

It’s mid February. The dead of winter. It’s cold and there’s a fresh blanket of snow on our street that’s about to be completely saturated with salt by city-appointed snow removal workers. I love winter and being outdoors, but the salt is everywhere. It’s insidious. Crunching incessantly below my feet as I walk in any direction, like fingernails scraping across a chalkboard.

We throw down obscene amounts of salt in the city of Toronto. I wonder about the environmental implications of all that salt and various engineered snow-melting mixtures entering our water; the impact on trees, shrubs, the local wildlife, our dogs’ paws. Is it really so necessary? It’s as though there’s a refusal to acknowledge the very existence of winter, that any discernible accumulation of snow must be completely eliminated — immediately — from city sidewalks, private and commercial properties because, god forbid, someone could slip and fall.

I love walking though. It’s an easy, healthy activity during these ongoing lockdowns. As a recent Harvard Business Review article points out:

“Walking is one of the simplest and most strategic things you can do for yourself. It takes little preparation, minimal effort, no special equipment, and it can contract or expand to fit the exact amount of time you have available.”

Don’t Underestimate the Power of a Walk — Deborah Grayson Riegel

The CDC goes on to say, a moderate-to-vigorous walk can improve the quality of our sleep, thinking, and learning and thwart any symptoms of anxiety. Regular walking can also boost memory and attention. Our brain cells build new connections (important as we age) and our creativity gets a charge too!

After a long brisk walk I feel invigorated and better able to think laterally and come up with higher quality solutions to problems at hand. The doldrums of thought are effectively banished. An inspiring Wade Davis talk comes to mind:

“Creativity is not the motivation of action, it is by definition the consequence of action. You have to do what needs to be done and only then ask whether it was possible or permissable. Pessimism is an indulgence, dispair an insult to the imagination just as orthodoxy is the enemy of invention.”

Feeling Great at 65, ideacity 2019 — Wade Davis

Now, I am turning off the computer. Getting up off my ass and going out for a walk.

If Facebook Didn’t Exist…

Here’s a crazy thought: if Facebook didn’t exist would the world be a more peaceful, empathetic place?

How much real-world violence would never have happened if Facebook didn’t exist? One of the people I’ve asked is Joshua Geltzer, a former White House counterterrorism official who is now teaching at Georgetown Law. In counterterrorism circles, he told me, people are fond of pointing out how good the United States has been at keeping terrorists out since 9/11. That’s wrong, he said. In fact, “terrorists are entering every single day, every single hour, every single minute” through Facebook.

Adrienne LaFrance, Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine

Imagine a world without Facebook, also WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok and every other popular social media platform. If these networks didn’t exist I wonder what the hell most of us would be doing on our phones all day. It’s possible things like distracted driving, continuous partial attention and digital echo-chambers wouldn’t be persistent problems.

Our phones used to be simple voice calling devices. No GPS, no high-definition cameras, and no constant connectivity to centralized social media platforms. This connectivity we now all have following us around in our pockets has exacerbated a range of anxiety disorders, particularly among our kids, who now must deal with cyber-bullying. Throughout the industrialized world we now see a crisis of social and political divisiveness with the United States of America perhaps leading the way.

Of course bullying and political divisiveness have been around long before the Internet, but social media coupled with widespread smartphone use have arguably made these things much worse.
Back in 2017 one of Facebook’s former VPs, Chamath Palihapitiya, spoke out and made stunning remarks about the platform he and his ‘user growth’ team of engineers helped create:

“I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.” He added, “[There’s] no civil discourse, no cooperation; [only] misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem–this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

Indeed, social media has become a troubling conduit for misinformation.

Facebook’s original motto was Move fast and break things. Once a sort of inspirational hacker ethos built around the idea of using technology in disruptive and innovative ways. In software development this approach would focus on rapid prototyping and iteration of releases over more methodical planning, user testing and feedback.
Another of Zuckerberg’s mottos was the seminal Make the World More Open & Connected. Now, in the wake of rampant misinformation of widespread voter fraud leading to the Washington D.C. insurrection, these old mottos are cringe worthy.
Facebook (and Twitter) now wield incredible power to influence and divide people on a massive scale. Break things? Mission accomplished. Social media plays an undeniably significant role as much as we’d like to think it’s entirely Donald Trump’s fault.

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 popular web app or service offered by FAANG and it’s anyone’s guess what’s going on behind the scenes. What data points are collected? How is the price you see on Amazon determined — by location/IP address? — by a purchase history algorithm? — by your recent social media activities?

Many of these systems collect ridiculous amounts of information. Our inputs and outputs can be viewed, but the inner workings — the bits of personal data scraped up behind the front-end — are largely hidden to us.

Smart phones and smart home hubs are good examples of devices that run a plethora of background ‘services’ that are always connected to the net, constantly pinging information back to the mothership. These devices are perhaps also listening to our private conversations despite assurances from manufacturers and software developers otherwise. Buried somewhere in the 10-page jargon-laden 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.

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 again raises the spectre of privacy erosion in the digital age with many of us now realizing the convenience “free” apps and services typically means we’re paying with our personal information which is run through algorithms, sold, and re-sold, to 3rd parties.
We also pay through diminished battery life on our mobile devices and the added requirement for higher capacity data plans because of all the data pinging back and forth. Is it any wonder 5G networks are touted as the next big thing. Our data, and more of it, will just get pushed around a helluva lot quicker!

I’m not keen of the idea my headphones are 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?