Category Archives: culture, media & technology

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,

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?

Facebook And The Age Of Disinformation

In the first of three Senate judiciary subcommittees investigating Russian meddling in the 2017 U.S. Presidential Election, there were no shortage of hard questions for tech giant representatives (Facebook, Twitter, Google).

10 months on since the inauguration of Donald Trump and the prevalance of disinformation — yes, the much heralded rise of ‘fake news’ coined, ironically, by Trump himself — circulating social media networks remains a concerning trend. The power to influence election outcomes (Facebook in particular has been singled out on this issue) has become a central theme of the Senate investigations.

Significantly, why did Facebook accept political advertisements paid for in Russian roubles. In the video clip Senator Al Franken put Facebook’s Chief Legal Counsel Colin Stretch on the hot seat for Facebook’s seeming inability to connect 2 rather obvious (and highly suspicious) data points:

Franken: “How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in roubles were coming from Russia? Those are two data points! American political ads and Russian money: roubles. How could you not connect those two dots?”

“People are buying ads on your platform with roubles. They’re political ads. You put billions of data points together all the time. That’s what I hear that these platforms do: they’re the most sophisticated things invented by man, ever. Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can’t put together roubles with a political ad and go hmm, those two data points spell out something bad?”

The Blocked Web

The use of ad blocking software went up a whopping 30% in 2016. Their popularity, particularly among web-savvy millennials, has been on the rise for several years and shows no signs of slowing down. PageFair, a company that studies the digital landscape says in their 2017 Global Adblock Report that 11% of the global internet population (using 615 million global devices) are now actively blocking ads. Anyone who works in the digital advertising industry might be slightly alarmed by these numbers.

Many high profile web sites have begun to institute rather drastic measures to recoup lost advertising revenues. Visit Wired or the LA Times with an ad blocker enabled browser lately? You’ll be greeted with an ad block wall politely asking you to deactivate your ad blocker if you want to continue consuming content.

Looks like the free ride is over. The days of free-to-consume news appear to be coming to a close on the web. Newspapers, faced with declining print circulation, are moving more resources to their digital editions. Quality journalism cost money. The free access/ad supported model clearly isn’t sustainable in the face of growing ad blocker usage.
Partial paywalls like on The Globe & Mail provide free access to some articles while restricting access to ‘premium’ content with the aim of converting the casual readers into monthly paid subscribers.
But getting people to pay for news and infotainment online seems to be a slow uphill battle as evident when you consider 74% of ad block users say they leave websites with ad block walls.