meshedsociety weekly #193

Here is issue #193 of meshedsociety weekly, loaded with interesting analyses and essays, significant yet under-reported information bits as well as thoughtful opinion pieces from the digital and technology world.


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  • The Art of Making You Feel Small (medium.com, 5 minutes)
    “Work in Silicon Valley long enough and you’re sure to have experienced this: you sit down to talk with someone… and get up feeling small”, writes Ceci Stallsmith. But: From the most accomplished people she has worked with, none made her feel small. Thought-provoking reflections and a few suggested action points.
  • The Algorithmic Trap (perell.com, 13 minutes)
    A fascinating, critical exploration of how the internet’s dominant algorithms lead to increasingly homogenic physical environments, and how this negatively impacts local culture and travel. My thoughts on this are overall a bit more ambivalent than the author’s, but I do think his overall description of the situation is correct.
  • To Make AI Smarter, Humans Perform Oddball Low-Paid Tasks (wired.com, 10 minutes)
    A new phenomenon is emerging, dubbed “crowd acting”: People getting paid for recording themselves while repeatedly doing everyday tasks (such as drinking from a can). These videos are then used to train AIs.
  • Like Being Judged by Strangers? Get Used to It (bloomberg.com, 5 minutes)
    There is no escape: Everybody is being rated by various companies and has their habits as consumers, borrowers, investors and producers quantified.
  • Believing without evidence is always morally wrong (aeon.co, 5 minutes)
    I couldn’t stop nodding in agreement while reading. One of several important points the author makes: “Careless believing turns us into easy prey for fake-news pedlars, conspiracy theorists and charlatans.”
  • Hunting for a Hot Job in High Tech? Try ‘Digitization Economist (hbswk.hbs.edu, 6 minutes)
    Amazon is the largest employer of tech economists—with more working full-time than even the largest academic economics department. But the company is far from alone in this trend. Some 50 tech companies “have been snapping up economists at a remarkable scale”.
  • The Original Sin of Internet Culture (thefrailestthing.com, 2 minutes)
    “We burdened the internet with messianic hopes—of course we were bound to be disappointed.”
  • LinkedIn Is Now Home To Hyperpartisan Political Content, False Memes, And Troll Battles (buzzfeednews.com, 7 minutes)
    It’s almost a bit of an insult to LinkedIn that armchair hyperpartisan commentators and trolls saw the platform only as their last resort.
  • Why the Google Walkout Was a Watershed Moment in Tech (nytimes.com, 6 minutes)
    After the recent protest of more than 20,000 Google employees against how the company handled high-profile cases of alleged sexual harassment, little at the internet search giant — and, perhaps, little in Silicon Valley — will be the same again, predicts Farhad Manjoo.
  • Can Spotify Ever Meet Investors’ Expectations? (musicindustryblog.wordpress.com, 3 minutes)
    In music industry terms Spotify is doing a great job, in tech stock terms, less so. Pleasing both groups of stake holders – labels and shareholders – might be impossible.
  • The Quest to Build the Impossible Laptop (gizmodo.com, 4 minutes)
    Creating a superior 2-in-1 device (combining laptop and tablet) is actually quite a challenge.
  • The very human challenge of safe driving (medium.com, 3 minutes)
    Here is the Alphabet subsidiary Waymo explaining that a recent collision between a self-driving car and a motorcycle in Silicon Valley could have been avoided. How? Well, the crash happened shortly after a human safety driver had taken over the control over the car to avoid a potential accident with another car – and unfortunately missed the motorcycle. From the post: “Our simulation shows the self-driving system would have responded to the passenger car by reducing our vehicle’s speed, and nudging slightly in our own lane, avoiding a collision.
  • Technology Myths and Urban Legends (nngroup.com, 6 minutes)
    Technology myth: An (often inaccurate) user-generated theory about how a system functions, based on personal perceptions or second-hand experiences rather than any true understanding of the system’s functionality.
  • Relationship of gender differences in preferences to economic development and gender equality (science.sciencemag.org, 3 minutes)
    New research adding to the growing body of evidence suggesting that the gender equality paradox is a real thing. It comes down to this: The more that women have equal opportunities, the more they – on average – differ from men in their preferences.
  • In Praise of the Coin Flip (medium.com, 4 minutes)
    Sometimes, making a random choice is great. I also like rock–paper–scissors as a decision-making mechanism.
  • The three princes of Serendip: Notes on a mysterious phenomenon (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, 7 minutes)
    If one allows randomness to take decisions, one effect is that serendipity comes as a by-product.
  • Half of YouTube viewers use it to learn how to do things they’ve never done (theverge.com, 3 minutes)
    Been there done that. Most recently I searched for videos showing how to make Eggs Benedict.

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Thank you for Duplex, Google

With its experimental voice-based digital assistant system for booking appointments called “Duplex”, Google has created quite a stir. Some people are amazed. Some people are worried. Some are both. Oddly, I am neither. But there are couple of interesting take-aways.

1. Smells like Vaporware

Duplex and the demo shown are a perfect way to wow a geeky audience at a Google developer conference (mission accomplished). But for a company such as Google, is also easy to prepare the technology for a highly predictable use case such as booking an appointment. How natural and human-like would Duplex sound if the person on the other end of the line suddenly asks “Hey by the way, what do you think about the situation in the Middle East/the Eurovision Song Contest/Paleo?”. Exactly, these questions would not be asked during this type of call. Therefore, what remains is a highly trivial bot conversation, a well-functioning yet not revolutionary speech recognition system, and an indeed noteworthy human-like computer-generated voice. That’s for sure an achievement. But it does not say anything about the feasibility of the approach in more wide-ranging conversations, and neither about the actually potential of Duplex on the market.

2. “The new can’t do new things in *old* ways.”

The former Windows president Steven Sinofsky coined the adage that new cannot do new things in old ways. Yet this is exactly what Google does with Duplex. The investor Bijan Sabet puts it trechantly: “It reminds me of those apps that allow you to send a fax from a smartphone. It’s duct tape for old Infrastructure”

In fact, the whole scenario of people having to call to make an appointment should not exist at all (and probably won’t in a few years). Traditional online booking systems can do this better, as can chat bots. It’s strange that Google would try to solve such a transient problem over actual innovating in this field. Sabet again:

“Instead I would rather see Google use it’s financial and engineering might to get everyone online and connected in a decentralized way via API so office hours, reservations, communications arent addressed thru computers pretending to be humans.”

But when complaining about the misguided allocation of resources and lack of innovative thinking in regards to Duplex, the premise is that Google actually would be serious with this. But the company’s actual intentions might be very different…

3. Google kicked off an important debate

Considering the previously mentioned points, it’s unlikely that the Google management presented Duplex with the sole (or prime) intention of actually launching such a service. More probably at least is that, aside from the goal to entertain the Google I/O crowd, Google wanted to spark a debate and show how far technology has come to imitate humans in narrow, highly predictable types of conversations. Mission accomplished, again. I saw people discussing Duplex who otherwise never talk about cutting-edge tech topics. It’s important that even the non-techy crowd starts thinking about AI and its possibilities as well as challenges, because it is upon us and will affect everyone. We should be thankful to Google for doing this.

4. Our human discomfort with being presented with our lack of sophistication

On Hacker News, a commentator made this thought-provoking remark:

“People who answer phones to take bookings perform an extremely limited set of questions and responses, that’s why they can even be replaced by dumb voice response systems in many cases. In these cases, the human being answering the phone is themselves acting like a bot following a repetitive script.”

Indeed, part of the outrage and criticism in regards to Duplex could be caused by the natural human discomfort with being confronted with our own bot-likeness. Two years ago, I wrote a blog post pointing out that Twitter makes humans look like bots. Since then, I am noticing bot-like behavior everywhere.

Digital technology and particularly AI is challenging humans in ways which are scary, for the simple reason that it shows us our own shortcomings and lack of sophistication, such as when doing scripted conversations on the phone while insisting in wanting to keep the exclusive right to perform those conversations.

Machines will keep entering more and more territories of everyday life. The natural response for humans must be to actually focus on the areas in which we are and will be, for a long time, more capable than computers. And it also needs to be the realization that if we don’t want to be outperformed by bots, we must stop behaving like bots ourselves.

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The jobs of the future are already here – and some are really weird

Every discussion about the consequences of automation eventually has to lead to the same conclusion: Millions of human jobs are about to disappear because machines will be better and/or more efficient at doing them. This could lead to massive political and social unrest. However, like during any wave of structural disruption due to technological progress, new jobs and tasks suited for humans will emerge. But they might not have too much in common with the tasks and frameworks of the traditional, stable nine-to-five model and its variations.

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If you look closely, the shift is already in full effect. Over the past ten years, numerous new professions, jobs and ways to earn money have appeared. For many people, embracing these has been a necessity due to job loss. For others, new opportunities arose out of entrepreneurial foresight or the urge for independence and freedom from the constraints of traditional employments. Some of these new tasks can have concerning societal or psychological implications.

Let’s dive into the new jobs which didn’t exist ten years ago (without a claim for completeness). Overlaps are common.  Last updated:  April 26 2018. Continue Reading

The brain’s bandwidth problem and its cost in the hyper-connected age

One of Elon Musk’s key arguments for the need of a brain-computer interface is the limited bandwidth which currently exists for each of us to access our brains. Ever since he officially launched Neuralink in March 2017, the bandwidth problem and its consequences for societies have been occupying my thoughts.

As the world is getting incredibly complex, the limitations in regards to the quality and speed of accessing our brains lead to largely destructive results, which can be witnessed every day in the heated, polarized and binary political debates as well as in the simplifying responses to news events.

One commentator on Quora depicts the core problem with the lack of bandwidth very well:

“Picture anything in your mind, then try to relate it to another human with so much detail that they can reproduce it the same way you see it. One picture, a thousand words, and whatnot.

So, its like having a very very powerful computer with a very very crappy internet connection. Youre f***ed.”

Continue Reading

The internet brings people into space

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During the Q&A following a talk with the a16z investor and Netscape inventor Marc Andreessen at Stanford Graduate School of Business (54 minute-long video recording here, very worth watching), a student sitting in the audience asked the Silicon Valley mastermind about his advice for people who have big ideas that might be very capital intensive. The questioner managed to score some laughter after quoting Elon Musk who – according to him – answered the same question a few years ago with the recommendation to “become an internet billionaire first”.

That’s witty. But it is also the truth. Musk used money he had earned from various deals in the online industry (including his biggest exit PayPal, which was acquired for $1.5 billion and made him a 9-digit sum in USD) to fund the initial stages of both his electrical car company Tesla and his rocket company SpaceX – to the point at which he literally ran out of cash. Without the dotcom companies that the South Africa-born serial entrepreneur did launch and sell before he took on the really big problems, Tesla and SpaceX might not exist. Continue Reading

A radical idea for Twitter: Kill the timeline, and kill the call center

I just had a pleasant customer service experience with United Airlines through Twitter’s direct messaging feature (no I wasn’t asking about whether I could wear leggings on the plane). That’s the first positive thing you hear from me about Twitter since I stopped tweeting and consuming my timeline in November 2016.

This positive and highly time-saving experience in comparison to a traditional call or email brought me to a radical idea: Twitter should abandon the whole timeline and tweet concept altogether and focus entirely on becoming the world’s major service that connects every single consumer business, from large organizations with hundreds of thousands of employees to the mom-and-pop shop, with their customers.

Twitter has everything that is needed: The brands, the brand recognition among consumers as well as organizations, the technology, the sales force and a good install base of a couple of hundred million smartphones to start with. By becoming the definite customer support platform and thereby saving companies huge amounts of money, Twitter can charge businesses modest fees and increase the potential revenue per participating business almost infinitely considering the opportunities for b2c direct sales, market research and loyalty activities. In the example above, Twitter should now provide the airline with all kinds of tools to leverage the established contact. The limits really are only in one’s imagination and in my acceptance of commercial approaches – but I wouldn’t mind at all to get personalized fare suggestions from United, for example. Continue Reading

Towns, commerce and the future

French towns are withering and losing their core, while shopping centers outside of the cities are booming, as recently described by the New York Times. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the suburbs are going through an equally dramatic transition. Malls are being outcompeted by e-commerce and eventually have to shut down, leading to shrinking demand for chain-restaurants and other services that previously were being frequented by hungry and entertainment-seeking shoppers.

Stories like this could be written about towns in various countries. The creation of shopping clusters outside of city centers and the rise of e-commerce are two global themes that no one will be able to stop. The best way to look at the shift and its negative consequences is therefore with a stoic mindset, following the principle that what you cannot control, you shouldn’t not spend a lot of time trying to control. As long as a city doesn’t force its population to shop at the local stores (which hopefully will never happen), more shops and old school businesses will vanish. The economics and experience of getting things from the giant mall or – increasingly more likely – from the internet, are generally too intriguing for consumers to let the undesirable side effects for the community come in between themselves and the convenient purchase or unbeatable bargain. Continue Reading

The crisis of optimism

Source: IPSOS MORI

The world is undergoing a crisis of optimism. Citizens especially but not only in developed countries are losing their hope for a better future. After decades of growth and prosperity following the world wars, now stagnation, loss of purchasing power and fear of decreasing wealth are the new default. That’s why seductive authoritarian strongmen are gaining support – once again. They promise a better future. Certainly only “better” in the sense of “for those of you who have always lived in this country and share a certain zero-sum worldview”, but nonetheless. The group is obviously big enough to make someone U.S. president. Continue Reading

Medium can be the better Twitter

I have changed my mind about Medium, the service created by the Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone in 2012. Initially I was concerned about the startup’s effort to centralize content and how that would weaken the distributed publishing structure that made the web such a great place. 2 years ago I wrote:

“Nobody could be interested in a scenario in which all non-paid-for content is appearing first and foremost on Medium. A centralized approach like this means that one entity is in full control over who gets to publish what and how it is being monetized. Also, a centralized approach introduces a single point of failure. If Medium’s servers crash, all the content would be unavailable”

A lot has happened since then. Among other things, at least for me, existing social media platforms have lost most of their appeal. Especially Twitter became unbearable, and I am far from the only one who has come to this conclusion. Just read the comments here (and this article).

The reasons why Twitter turned from an exciting tool for networking and access to valuable information into a toxic, polarizing and frustrating time-sink are multifaceted. Based on my long-term observation, one of its core weaknesses is its brevity. In a time of mounting global complexity, a service that due to its limitation to 140 characters acts as an outlet for impulses, emotions and binary, one-dimensional simplifications is the worst that can happen.  Continue Reading

What’s next?

Like many people, I’m scratching my head about the state of the world, trying to make sense of the backlash against globalization, liberalism, science and secularism. The emphasis is on “trying”. It is not working. Too many dots to connect, too many contexts to consider, too many systems that are interdependent, too many ideologies and narratives that interfere with accurately assessing reality. Whenever I think I have arrived at some potentially all-comprising explanation, 10 other ideas pop up in my mind, some of them contradicting my previous hypotheses, while others adding additional layers to it, complicating everything.

And so, a lot of only loosely connected, unfinished thoughts are swirling through my head, which I’ll now pen down. Continue Reading