Facebook’s data scandal: A time for everyone to be humble and self-critical

In the early years of the existence of Facebook’s platform, app developers were able to access the data of friends of a user who installed the app and gave the necessary permissions. That’s the method Cambridge Analytica used for allegedly accumulating personal data of 50 million Facebook users.

In a trenchant blog post, James Allworth describes the dramatic extent to which the Facebook platform through its Graph API allowed third party apps to harvest data from in theory every user registered and active on Facebook, until the rules were changed in 2015. “What was Facebook thinking?”, he rightly wonders.

But here is another, equally astonishing question: Why did no one else see this coming? Continue Reading

Weekly Links & Thoughts #161

Here is this week’s issue of meshedsociety.com 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. Usually published every Wednesday/Thursday (CET), just in time so you have something good to read over the weekend (but temporarily on a slightly irregular schedule).

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Quotation of the week:

  • “It is human preferences, not machines, that are unpredictable and incomparable, as well they should be. For coordinating our interactions with strangers, impartial automata are often crucial.”
    Nick Szabo in “Things as authorities“, back in 2006. (unenumerated.blogspot.com)

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Weekly Links & Thoughts #160

Here is this week’s issue of meshedsociety.com 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. Usually published every Wednesday/Thursday (CET), just in time so you have something good to read over the weekend (but temporarily on a slightly irregular schedule).

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Weekly Links & Thoughts #159

Here is this week’s issue of meshedsociety.com 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. Published every Wednesday/Thursday (CET), just in time so you have something good to read over the weekend.

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Reading time indicator: 1 = up to 3 minutes, 2 = 4 to 9 minutes, 3 = 10 to 29 minutes , 3+ = 30 minutes or more
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Quotation of the week:

  • The engineer’s mindset has been replaced by the lawyer’s mindset, wherein you pick a side in advance of getting any evidence, and then do absolutely everything you can to belittle, dismiss, and ignore any opposing data, while trumping up every scrap that might support your own side as if it were written on stone tables brought down from the mountain by Moses.”
    Jon Evans in “Fake news is not the real problem” (techcrunch.com, 2)

Video of the week:

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Weekly Links & Thoughts #158

Here is this week’s issue of meshedsociety.com 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. Published every Wednesday/Thursday (CET), just in time so you have something good to read over the weekend.

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Reading time indicator: 1 = up to 3 minutes, 2 = 4 to 9 minutes, 3 = 10 to 29 minutes , 3+ = 30 minutes or more
Note: Some of the publications may use “soft” paywalls. If you are denied access, open the URL in your browser’s incognito/private mode (or subscribe if you find yourself reading a lot of the content on a specific site and want to support it).

  • Meet Fashion’s First Computer-Generated Influencer (businessoffashion.com, 2)
    This could be just an one-off, or it is the beginning of a major trend.
  • What is it like to live in the world’s biggest experiment in biometric identity? (howwegettonext.com, 3)
    Aadhaar, operated in India, is the world’s largest, most ambitious digital identity scheme. This text discusses problems that arise from the growing dependency of everyday processes on the system, in a country with significant parts of the population still living in poverty.
  • What happens when I choose to “Suppress Ads” on Salon? (salon.com, 2)
    Salon asks its users to either turn off ad blockers or to be fine with crypto mining on their machines. Thumbs up for testing this approach. I am sure other media and news sites will watch closely. Then again, there are already browser plugins that block website crypto mining (which unlike in the case of Salon, often happens without the users’ consent), and possibly every ad blocker soon will include such a feature. But maybe people who block ads would be fine with mining, considering that it doesn’t come with privacy intrusions and questionable tracking?
  • Inside Facebook’s Two Years of Hell (wired.com, 3+)
    I usually only recommend articles that I actually did read. But this monstrous piece (45 minutes reading time) is an exception. I simply didn’t find the time to check it out yet. However, only hours after it was published on Monday, I noticed on Nuzzel how it was praised by dozens of people on social media. Beats me how they managed to read through it so quickly on a Monday morning (if they did?), but anyway: It seems to be a must read.
  • He Predicted The 2016 Fake News Crisis. Now He’s Worried About An Information Apocalypse. (buzzfeed.com, 3)
    “Reality apathy,” “automated laser phishing,” and “human puppets” are names for predicted phenomenons characterizing a not-very-distant future of news and media. This feature article might seriously spoil your mood.
  • Clone Wars (reallifemag.com, 3)
    A deep philosophical exploration of the fact that humans appear to behave like robots when joining political movements on social media.
  • My professional opinion as a blockchain researcher: I don’t see the point (yet) (jmkorhonen.net, 2)
    Excellent food for thought. I increasingly find myself annoyed by some of the extremist libertarian positions that fuel the crypto currency and blockchain movement.
  • The Sacred and the profane (finiculture.com, 2)
    Hyper-libertarianism aside, cryptocurrencies indeed seem to challenge the current “sacred sphere” of money creation, which explains the “borderline hysteria exhibited by most if not all central banks”.
  • Cognitive Ability and Vulnerability to Fake News (scientificamerican.com, 2)
    When people learn that their attitudes are based on false information, they adjust them, but people with low cognitive ability adjust attitudes to lesser extent than those with high cognitive ability. If the study results are accurate, this would suggest (to me) that in order to maintain a stable democracy, a focus on increasing the cognitive abilities of every single member of a society (through high-end and relevant education – for example about how the mind and brain works, and how easily it is tricked) should have the highest priority.
  • Why Competitive Advantages Die (collaborativefund.com, 2)
    “Brands are hard to build and even harder to span across generations. You can do everything right and still fail because customers don’t want to be associated with products of their parents’ generation.”
  • A curated life: the lost art of human interaction (roadlesstravelled.me, 2)
    An interesting read which accurately describes one of the most important functions of smartphones: The smartphone frees us from the burden of interactions and prolonged eye-contact with strangers. While the author calls “human interaction” an art and sounds a bit romanticizing, it’s important to remember that sharing small spaces with strangers who do not belong to our kin/tribe is a rather new experience for humans, seen over the total existence of human life. So it makes sense that people usually look for an escape.
  • Why Toys? (blog.ycombinator.com, 2)
    Some of the biggest technology companies look like toys in the beginning. This trend does not fit with history. Why? Aaron Harris discusses a particular phenomenon of the tech industry.
  • Radio Is Streaming’s Next Frontier (musicindustryblog.wordpress.com, 2)
    Despite pressure from music streaming, radio still has some time left to figure out how to survive.
  • Don’t Compete. Create! (dariusforoux.com, 1)
    A plea for adopting an “abundance mindset” instead of one obsessed with competition.
  • World After Capital: Digital Technology – Zero Marginal Cost (continuations.com, 2)
    Because of the zero marginal cost dynamic of digital technology, an abundance mindset is indeed justified.
  • Why Google Stories will save, not screw, Snapchat Discover (techcrunch.com, 2)
    Last year I asked for an open alternative to Snapchat Stories and Instagram Stories. A system for Google’s fairly open but not uncontroversial AMP protocol was not what I had in mind, but it’s probably a step into the right direction. Yet, there needs to be something even better and more decentralized.
  • How Isaac Asimov shaped robotics and space exploration and predicted the Internet (rossdawson.com, 1)
    There probably are at least a few Isaac Asimov fans among readers/subscribers of meshedsociety.com weekly.
  • Eight flying taxis that are so crazy, they just might work (newatlas.com, 2)
    This overview also offers a brief, informative interview with a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering on the potential and challenges of flying taxis.
  • Artists envisioned the future of work, and the results are pure fantasy (technologyreview.com, 1)
    Awesome illustrations and ideas.
  • Is reading better for you than a spa? (bbc.com, 2)
    “Reading retreats” are now a thing.

Quotation of the week:

  • In a perfect world, I could hop in the bunk in Salt Lake City, optimize my speed settings for fuel economy, literally set it at 55, and say, ‘I’m taking my siesta,’ wake back up, and take over in Reno. I get that people think I’m smoking bird shit, but that’s what we are ultimately talking about with this technology.”
    Joe Rajkovacz, a director of and spokesperson for a trucking association, in “Could Self-Driving Trucks Be Good for Truckers?” (theatlantic.com, 2)

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Weekly Links & Thoughts #157

Here is this week’s issue of meshedsociety.com 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. Published every Wednesday/Thursday (CET), just in time so you have something good to read over the weekend.

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If you want to make sure not to miss this link selection, sign up for free for the weekly email. It is being sent out to more than 500 people (January 2018). Here is an archive of previous issues.
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Reading time indicator: 1 = up to 3 minutes, 2 = 4 to 9 minutes, 3 = 10 to 29 minutes , 3+ = 30 minutes or more
Note: Some of the publications may use “soft” paywalls. If you are denied access, open the URL in your browser’s incognito/private mode (or subscribe if you find yourself reading a lot of the content on a specific site and want to support it).

  • Bad Romance (logicmag.io, 2)
    What the mainstream movies Her, Lucy, and Ex Machina have in common: They represent a new genre of AI love stories that isn’t about the fear of being replaced by robots, but about the fear of being rejected by them (and, specifically, about men fearing to be rejected by “female” AIs).
  • South Korea’s Crypto Craze Explained by Seoul’s Largest Investor (cryptoambit.com, 3)
    Great to finally have some solid explanations on why the people of South Korea became the world’s biggest proponents of cryptocurrencies.
  • Making a Crypto Utopia in Puerto Rico (nytimes.com, 2)
    While the cryptocurrency prices are falling to new lows (which of course were record-breaking heights only a few months ago), a bunch of libertarian crypto investors are trying to turn Puerto Rico into their safe haven.
  • ‘Fiction is outperforming reality’: how YouTube’s algorithm distorts truth (theguardian.com, 3)
    With 1.5 billion active users, YouTube is a massive force that’s often forgotten when negative effects of algorithmic content recommendation systems are being discussed.
  • Optimization over Explanation (medium.com, 3)
    An informative longread on the challenge of maximizing the benefits of machine learning for society without sacrificing its intelligence.
  • How Delivery Apps May Put Your Favorite Restaurant Out of Business (newyorker.com, 2)
    The boom of food delivery platforms is creating economical challenges for many restaurants, even those who are highly popular.
  • Have Self-Driving Cars Stopped Getting Better? (spectrum.ieee.org, 2)
    The piece does not really answer the question posed in the headline, but it offers an indicator for that maybe, there has been too much optimism about the immediacy of the big breakthrough for self-driving cars. Being fairly good is just not good enough in this field.
  • Can VR Survive in a Cutthroat Attention Economy? (wired.com, 2)
    This is an intriguing perspective to assess virtual reality’s ongoing failure to break through into the mainstream: The attention economy simply is too cutthroat for VR to thrive. For specific purposes though, VR can be very valuable. Such as for readying prisoners for release.
  • Intel made smart glasses that look normal (theverge.com, 3)
    AR, if done well, won’t have the same struggle with the attention economy as VR. Intel might be onto something here. However, considering the growing public concern about the damage done to the mind through constant, compulsive connectivity (see: “Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built“), the chip maker and its partners will have to be careful in what advantages of such glasses to promote. “Now you can check social media even without your friend noticing” won’t cut it.
  • Can an app that rewards you for avoiding Facebook help beat smartphone addiction? (theguardian.com, 2)
    In Norway, 40 % of students are using an app called Hold, which allows users to earn rewards such as cinema tickets for not using their phone.
  • Facebook hired a full-time pollster to monitor Zuckerberg’s approval ratings (theverge.com, 2)
    This full-time pollster which the article is about said he left Facebook after only six months after coming to believe that the company had a negative effect on the world. It’s remarkable how the general view of Facebook has turned absolutely negative over the course of the past 1-2 years.
  • No Cutting Corners on the iPhone X (medium.com, 2)
    This is a serious case of paying attention to details (which designers of course do).
  • HomePod (daringfireball.net, 3)
    John Gruber is reviewing Apple’s new HomePod (see also my post below on how the device is putting Spotify into an uncomfortable situation).
  • How to protect privacy in a world awash in data (staceyoniot.com, 2)
    “Inadvertently disclosing new information will be the new challenge of our age.”
  • Europe’s new data protection rules export privacy standards worldwide (politico.eu, 2)
    This is a good thing and somebody has to push this forward. Drawing parallels to European colonialism as the authors do, adds no constructive value to the debate.
  • WHATIS Going to Happen With WHOIS? (motherboard.vice.com, 2)
    With the upcoming European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the fate of the domain WHOIS  (which allows anyone to see who has registered a domain) is uncertain.
  • Where Dutch directness comes from (bbc.com, 2)
    I haven’t had many interactions with Dutch people in my life, so I wasn’t aware of their reputation as being direct. I know that as a native German, I am direct, and I also know that in my country of residence Sweden, people are not direct at all. This really makes Europe such an interesting (and sometimes tricky) place.

Recently on meshedsociety.com:

  • Spotify’s voice platform problems
    My analysis on why and how Apple’s HomePod and the rise of voice platforms and smart speakers pose a new kind of problem for the music streaming pioneer Spotify.
  • Humans have handed over their minds to the AI
    Whatever decision you’ll make next (even if it is only what to eat tonight), it will at least indirectly have been influenced by an algorithm. Here I describe how humans have handed over their minds into the hands of the AIs, while tech pundits still debate about when the AI will take over. It already has.

Quotation of the week:

  • “Thanks mostly to the cryptocurrency boom and because a lot of early investors in cryptocurrencies were among our donors, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute is no longer strapped for cash, so much it is strapped for engineering talent.”
    Eliezer Yudkowsky, decision theorist and computer scientist, in “Waking Up Podcast #116 with Sam Harris”: “AI: Racing Toward the Brink” (samharris.org)

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Spotify’s voice platform problems

In addition to the struggle of finding a path to profitability, Spotify, the pioneer of music streaming (and a company which I have been following since its closed beta launch in Sweden in 2007), has two new problems, one right now and the other in the mid to long term.

The near-term problem is Apple’s smart speaker HomePod which will go on sale in the US, UK and Australia this Friday, with additional markets to follow in the upcoming months.

HomePod will only play well with Apple’s own music streaming service, Apple Music. Other streaming apps can be used via AirPlay, but HomePod owners won’t be able to control playback through their voice.

In the US, Apple Music is already said to be gaining subscribers at a higher rate than Spotify. For every new owner of an HomePod, Spotify will be a worse choice than Apple Music. Existing Spotify subscribers in the US who decide to purchase an HomePod will have a big incentive to switch, and Apple makes it easy by offering a free trial for Apple Music. Continue Reading

Humans have handed over their minds to the AI

Who decides which information and knowledge people have access to?
Increasingly, algorithms.

  • People get information and news from feeds, search engines and recommendation systems which heavily rely on algorithmic personalization.
  • Publishers and media companies produce content based on expected and past performance within the algorithmic distribution system.
  • Journalists, opinion leaders and book authors produce and share information that has been gathered under the influence of algorithms.
  • All this happens within an environment of self-reinforcing feedback loops that particularly rewards sensationalism, outrage, hatred and other negative emotions. And many people are unable to stop exposing themselves to these negative emotions on a near-constant basis, as they cleverly trigger the brain’s primal, primitive urges.

Continue Reading

Weekly Links & Thoughts #156

Here is this week’s issue of meshedsociety.com 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. Published every Wednesday/Thursday (CET), just in time so you have something good to read over the weekend.

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If you want to make sure not to miss this link selection, sign up for free for the weekly email. It is being sent out to more than 500 people (January 2018). Here is an archive of previous issues.
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Reading time indicator: 1 = up to 3 minutes, 2 = 4 to 9 minutes, 3 = 10 to 29 minutes , 3+ = 30 minutes or more
Note: Some of the publications may use “soft” paywalls. If you are denied access, open the URL in your browser’s incognito/private mode.

  • What I learned from three months of Content Moderation for Facebook in Berlin (sz-magazin.sueddeutsche.de, 3)
    An open letter by a former content moderator for Facebook. Is there a worse job than having to deal with a constant stream of pictures and videos showing the cruelest and most despicable sides of human nature? Are business models that require human tasks which no one voluntary would want to do if better job options existed, in any way morally defensible? These were the thoughts that occupied my mind after reading.
  • Growing apart and losing touch is human and healthy (m.signalvnoise.com, 1)
    A truly interesting perspective: Growing apart from people is a normal and healthy process in order to grow and prosper, according to David Heinemeier Hansson. Facebook is built on the exact opposite principle: stay connected with everyone you’ve ever friended forever.
  • Open Letter to the Airbnb Community About Building a 21st Century Company (press.atairbnb.com, 2)
    This open letter by Airbnb founder Brian Chesky is worth a read. Some goods things in here, but also the stated goal of wanting to turn “every city into a village”. If that means that everybody knows each other and has their hands in everybody else’s business, then no thank you.
  • Engineered for Dystopia (thebaffler.com, 3)
    Do engineers have a natural tendency to favor and participate in the creation of dystopias and authoritarian systems? I don’t necessarily agree with everything in here, but it’s certainly food for thought.
  • Will Everything Stay in New Orleans If Cameras Capture It All? (nytimes.com, 2)
    Speaking about dystopia: This article discusses whether large-scale video surveillance will lead to inhibitions among people seeking to partake in New Orleans’ famous vibrant and expressive public life. In general terms, this is a question which is relevant for all modern societies that are subject to mass surveillance, regardless of whether we are talking about government-run surveillance or “little brother” surveillance (people recording and sharing everything that happens around them).
  • Why publishers should consider the “Smart Curation” market (mondaynote.com, 2)
    Curation is still underestimated by many journalists and media companies. Hopefully this will eventually change.
  • Why there is so much bullshit: an analysis (withoutbullshit.com, 2)
    An apt comparison of who created the things we were reading in 1980 with the situation today.
  • Plateau Kindle Before Peak Kindle (500ish.com, 2)
    M.G. Siegler on the Kindle’s plateau, why this is not a bad thing, and what the holy grail-like next step should be.
  • With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there’s a likely culprit (theconversation.com, 2)
    The smartphone and social media-fueled obsession with perfection.
  • A therapy chatbot and app for depression and anxiety (businessinsider.com, 2)
    But of course, it is not the smartphone per say that leads to worsening of mental health among teens, but how the device is being used. The solution to the dilemma might as well be Smartphone-based. And apart from learning to use smartphones moderately (airplane mode helps!), something like Woebot could be part of a solution: a new chatbot app for iOS that promises to provide a basic form of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
  • Online Communities Are the Best Thing About the Internet (biznology.com, 2)
    And of course, there is the other side of the coin: the awesomeness of some online communities.
  • Why Trump Tweets (And Why We Listen) (politico.com, 3)
    Brilliant analysis of the unfortunate symbiosis of Donald Trump and Twitter. These two really go hand in hand.
  • Up close with Apple’s HomePod (techcrunch.com, 2)
    It’s hard to predict whether the HomePod will sell well or not. Which also makes it exciting.
  • Want to code? You better start teaching yourself (technologyreview.com, 1)
    About 74 percent of software developers are at least partially self-taught, says a survey of 39,000 developers.
  • Giving Ourselves Permission Not To Crush It All The Time In Tech (sarahbrownmarketing.com, 2)
    A reflective post on the challenge of dealing with the pressure to “crush it” all the time because of the illusion that everyone else is crushing it all the time as well. From the text: “But I frequently don’t know others’ private struggles, pains, illnesses, and challenges. And they don’t know of mine unless I share.”
  • The Mind Meld of Bill Gates and Steven Pinker (nytimes.com, 3)
    A chat over lunch with Bill Gates and the cognitive psychologist and book author Steven Pinker (most known for “The Better Angels of Our Nature”) about the state of the world.

Recently on meshedsociety.com:

Quotation of the week:

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Great times ahead for everyone in the business of audio content

Here is a German version of this post.

The rise of smart speakers and wireless headphones leads to a likely increase of time available for audio consumption. Who benefits from this? Among others of course those offering music streaming, podcasts and audiobooks.

Especially for podcasts, the potential is huge. Last year, 24 percent of Americans age 12 or older have listened to at least one podcast every month. In Germany in 2015, 1.3 million people out of about 80 million (total population) consumed podcasts every day. The room for growth is obvious.

And the conditions could not be better. Apple just released an analytics service for its podcast platform, which still is said to be the market leader (but its dominance is shrinking). Finally, podcast creators can get data on listening behavior on a per-episode basis. And while some feared that this would lead to very uncomfortable insights, such as large numbers abandoning podcast episodes prematurely, the concerns appear to have been unfounded. As Wired just titled after talking to a bunch of podcasts producers about their numbers: “Podcast listeners really are the holy grail advertisers hoped they’d be”.

Beyond a predictable growth of the podcast sector, another trend of 2018 is poised to be a blurring of the lines between the different types of audio formats. The Amazon-owned audiobook platform Audible is expanding its podcast portfolio. In Germany, it even plans to launch journalistic live shows, which would basically pit it against radio. Meanwhile, music streaming giant Spotify is also doubling down on podcasts.

Distinguishing between music streaming, podcasts, audiobooks and traditional radio might soon become much harder. That’s a natural process. For listeners, the labels don’t matter. What matters is to have access to the right type of audio content at a given moment. Whether they want their favourite songs, background noise, world news, a thought-provoking talk about philosophy, something to laugh, tunes to fall asleep to or the audio version of a bestselling book, depends a lot on their context, environment and what they are doing while listening. If a player in the market manages to offer every type of audio content with good usability and a competitive price under one roof, it’ll likely be a big hit.

Although it cannot be ruled out that audiobooks, due to the particular economics, will remain separate from other audio content. Google just started selling audiobooks on its Play Store.

The upcoming audio boom leads to interesting questions, such as what role traditional radio will play. So far it has fared quite well against digital competitors. But will millions of AirPod users end up walking around listening to their local radio station all day? That’s not impossible but rather unlikely.

Also: Will audio content be complementary or substituting to display-based digital media? Considering the current backlash against social media and the consequential emergence of movements such as “Time well spent”, replacing  display-time with audio content might be an effective way to break with a bad habit (such as mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds) by creating a better one.

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