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  • feedwordpress 14:20:27 on 2018/10/17 Permalink
    Tags: , , Joints After Midnight & Rants, , ,   

    Facebook Can’t Fix This. 

    The last 24 hours have not been kind to Facebook’s already bruised image. Above are four headlines, all of which clogged my inbox as I cleared email after a day full of meetings.

    Let’s review: Any number of Facebook’s core customers – advertisers – are feeling duped and cheated (and have felt this way for years). A respected reporter who was told by Facebook executives that the company would not use data collected by its new Portal product, is now accusing the company of misrepresenting the truth  (others would call that lying, but the word lost its meaning this year). The executive formerly in charge of Facebook’s security is…on an apology tour, convinced the place he worked for has damaged our society (and he’s got a lot ofcompany).

    In other news, Facebook has now taken responsibility for protecting the sanctity of our elections, by, among other things, banning “false information about voting requirements and fact-check[ing] fake reports of violence or long lines at polling stations.”

    Yep, a company that, in its core business, is currently charged with evasion, misstatements, and putting growth above civic duty is somehow still solely responsible for fixing the problems it’s created in our civil discourse and attendant democracy.

    Does this feel off to anyone else?

    We’ve had nearly two years of congressional hearings, nearly two years of testimony and apologies and “we must do better-isms.” While the company must be commended for actually making several things better (the ad transparency platform, for example), the fact that we continue to believe that the appropriate remedy for what ails us is to let the fox fix the holes in our chicken coop is downright….baffling.

    I guess this is what you get when the folks in power are happy with the results of our elections.

    But here’s my prediction, and it won’t take long for me to be proven right or wrong: Should the Democrats take control of the House, things are going to change. Quickly. Sure, with only the House, the Democrats can’t actually force any new regulation, nor can they command any cabinet level policy shifts.

    But as Trump well knows (and fears), a subpoena is a powerful thing.

    Now, if the Democrats don’t win the House, well, that’s another column.

    (cross posted from NewCo Shift)

     
  • feedwordpress 13:44:36 on 2018/10/10 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , Joints After Midnight & Rants, , merchandising, shopping   

    Amazon And The Bridge Too Far 

    Yesterday, I lost it over a hangnail and a two-dollar bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

    You know when a hangnail gets angry, and a tiny red ball of pain settles in for a party on the side of your finger? Well, yeah. That was me last night. My usual solution is to stick said finger into a bottle of peroxide for a good long soak. But we were out of the stuff, so, as has become my habit, I turned to Amazon. And that’s when things not only got weird, they got manipulative. Sure, I’ve been ambiently aware of Amazon’s algorithmic pricing and merchandising practices, but last night, the raw power of the company’s control over my routine purchases was on full display.

    There’s literally no company in the world with better data about online purchasing than Amazon. So studying how and where it lures a shopper through a purchase process is a worthy exercise. This particular one left a terrible taste in my mouth – one I don’t think I’ll ever shake.

    First the detail. Take a look at my search results for “Hydrogen Peroxide” on Amazon. I’ve annotated them with red text and arrows:

    As you can see, the most eye catching suggestions – the four featured panels with large images – are all Amazon brands. Big red flag. But Amazon knows sophisticated shoppers like me are suspicious of those in house suggestions, so it’s included a similar product in the space below its own brands (we’ll get to that in a minute).

    Above the featured items are ads: sponsored listings that are not Amazon brands, which means the advertiser (a small player named “Blubonic Industries”) is paying Amazon to get ahead of the company’s own promotional power. Either way, Amazon makes money. Second red flag.

    By now, I’ve decided I’m not interested in either the sponsored brands at the top, or Amazon’s four featured brands, because, well, I don’t like to be so baldly steered into buying Amazon’s stuff. Then again, before I move down to the results below, I do notice something rather amazing – Amazon’s familiar brown bottle of peroxide is really, really cheap – as in, $1.29 cheap. There’s even a helpful per oz. calculation next to the price, screaming: this shit is eight pennies an ounce cheap!

    Well, I’m almost sold, but because I hate to be directed into purchases, I’m still going to consider that similar brown bottle below, the one with the red label. Amazon knows this, of course. It’s merchandising 101 – make sure you give the consumer choices, but also, make sure the most profitable choice is presented in such a way as to win the day.

    So my eye moves down the page to check out the second bottle. It’s from Swan, a brand I’ve vaguely heard of. Then I check its price.

    Nine dollars and sixty nine cents.

    Which would you buy? After all, this is a staple, a basic, a chemical compound. And you trust Amazon to get shit right, don’t you? I mean, a buck and change – nearly nine times cheaper? What a deal!

    So…my eyes revert to  Amazon’s blue labeled bottle. I mean…it wouldn’t have a four-star plus review if it burned your skin, right? And that’s when I notice the tiny icon next to it, which looks like this:

    What’s this? Is this yet another annoying subscription service? Ever since we moved to New York, my wife and I have tried to figure out Amazon’s subscription services (Fresh? Pantry? Prime Now? Whole Foods Delivery? Who knows?!). I’m already deeply suspicious of any attempt by Amazon to lure me into paying them monthly for a service that I don’t understand.

    But…a buck twenty nine! So I click on the bottle, and the landing page is super clean, and there’s no obvious Prime Pantry mention. Plus, it turns out, that bottle from Amazon is the Whole Foods generic brand, which for whatever reason seems a bit better than a generic Amazon brand. Did I just get lucky? Maybe I can just get some super cheap chemicals delivered in a day to my door, and my annoying hangnail will be a thing of the past soon enough….Right?

    Here’s the landing page:

    Looks great, the price is amazing, but…Uh oh. I can’t get this bottle of peroxide until Sunday. By then, I’ve likely lost my finger to a flesh eating bacteria. As I feared, this bottle is nothing more than a baited fish hook for one of Amazon’s subscription offers – which I find out, will cost somewhere between five and thirteen bucks a month. I’ve signed up for Prime Pantry by mistake in the past, and it wasn’t a smooth or enjoyable experience. No thanks. I click back to the original search results. Seems to me Amazon is gaming the shipping deals.

    Well of course it is.  I’m no longer a happy Amazon customer at this point. Now I’m annoyed.

    But what’s this? If I scroll down below the $9.69 bottle, there’s another choice, also from Swan, and, it seems, exactly the same, if one is to judge just by the image (and we do judge just from the images, let’s just admit it). This one costs almost half as much as the one above it. What’s going on?! Here’s an annotated screen shot:

    As you can see, there’s a lot going on. I’ve narrowed my choice down to two non-Amazon brands. They look nearly identical. The most significant difference, at least in terms of the information provided to me by Amazon, is the price – the top bottle is nearly twice as expensive as the bottom one. But the top bottle has a major benefit: I can get it nearly immediately! The bottom one makes me wait a day. Is the wait worth four or five bucks? Hmm.

    Also confounding: The bottom bottle has its price broken out on a per ounce basis – 32 cents, exactly four times more than the 8 cents-an-ounce bottle I just looked at from Amazon’s Prime Pantry. Ouch! Now I’m really annoyed, and confused. My eyes dart back up to the $9.69 bottle. As I’ve shown with the empty red circle, there’s….no per-ounce breakdown shown by Amazon. It does tell me that this particular bottle is 32 ounces, whereas the bottom one is 16 ounces.

    But why not do the math for me? A quick calculation shows that the top bottle comes out to about 30 cents an ounce – two cents less than the bottom bottle. Why not show that fact?

    This, folks, this is algorithmic merchandising at its finest.

    Amazon knows exactly how many clicks it’s going to take for me to reach shopping fatigue. Not “on average for all shoppers,” or even “on average for each shopper who’s ever considered a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.” Amazon knows all of that, of course, but it also  knows exactly how long it takes ME to get fatigued, to enter what I like to call “fuck it” mode. As in, “fuck it, I’m tired of this bullshit, I want to get back to the rest of my life. I’m going to buy one of these bottles.”

    And because there’s no per-ounce breakdown of the 32-ounce bottle, and because that makes me suspicious of it, and because hell, who ever needs 32 ounces of hydrogen peroxide anyway, well, I’m just going to buy the $5 one.

    Ca-ching! Amazon just made a nearly seven percent markup on my purchase. It took five clicks, 15 seconds, and a vast architecture of data and algorithmic mastery to make that profit. Each and every time we purchase something on Amazon, that machinery is engaged in the background, guiding us through choices which insure the company remains the trillion dollar behemoth we know and…

    Love?

    ***

    Do you love Amazon anymore? For that matter, do you love Facebook, Google, or Twitter? Interactions like the one I’ve detailed above are starting to chip away at that presumption. Personally, I’ve gone from cheerleader to skeptic over the past few years, and I’m broken out into full-blown critic over the last twelve months. I no longer trust Amazon to have my best interests at heart. I’ve lost any trust that Facebook or Twitter can deliver me a public square representative of my democracy. I’ve given up on Google delivering me search results that are truly “organic.” And YouTube? Point solution, at best. I can’t possibly trust the autoplay feature to do much more than waste my time.

    What’s happened to our beloved tech icons, and what are the implications of this lost trust? In future posts, I plan on thinking out loud on that topic. I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, I think I’ll stroll down to CVS and buy myself another bottle of hydrogen peroxide. By the time Amazon’s comes, I’m sure my hangnail will be a distant memory. But that taste in my mouth? That’s going to remain.

     
  • feedwordpress 16:16:33 on 2018/09/24 Permalink
    Tags: , , , Joints After Midnight & Rants, , , ,   

    Governance, Technology, and Capitalism. 

    Or, Will Nature Just Shrug Its Shoulders?

    If you pull far enough back from the day to day debate over technology’s impact on society – far enough that Facebook’s destabilization of democracy, Amazon’s conquering of capitalism, and Google’s domination of our data flows start to blend into one broader, more cohesive picture – what does that picture communicate about the state of humanity today?

    Technology forces us to recalculate what it means to be human – what is essentially us, and whether technology represents us, or some emerging otherness which alienates or even terrifies us.  We have clothed ourselves in newly discovered data, we have yoked ourselves to new algorithmic harnesses, and we are waking to the human costs of this new practice. Who are we becoming?

    Nearly two years ago I predicted that the bloom would fade from the technology industry’s rose, and so far, so true. But as we begin to lose faith in the icons of our former narratives, a nagging and increasingly urgent question arises:  In a world where we imaging merging with technology, what makes us uniquely human?

    Our lives are now driven in large part by data, code, and processing, and by the governance of algorithms. These determine how data flows, and what insights and decisions are taken as a result.

    So yes, software has, in a way, eaten the world. But software is not something being done to us. We have turned the physical world into data, we have translated our thoughts, actions, needs and desires into data, and we have submitted that data for algorithmic inspection and processing. What we now struggle with is the result of these new habits – the force of technology looping back upon the world, bending it to a new will.  What agency – and responsibility – do we have? Whose will? To what end?

    • ••

    Synonymous with progress, asking not for permission, fearless of breaking things – in particular stupid, worthy-of-being-broken things like government, sclerotic corporations, and fetid social norms – the technology industry reveled for decades as a kind of benighted warrior for societal good. As one Senator told me during the Facebook hearings this past summer, “we purposefully didn’t regulate technology, and that was the right thing to do.” But now? He shrugged. Now, maybe it’s time.

    Because technology is already regulating us. I’ve always marveled at libertarians who think the best regulatory framework for government is none at all. Do they think that means there’s no governance?

    In our capitalized healthcare system, data, code and algorithms now drive diagnosis, costs, coverage and outcomes. What changes on the ground? People are being denied healthcare, and this equates to life or death in the real world. 

    In our public square, data, code and algorithms drive civil discourse. We no longer share one physical, common square, but instead struggle to comprehend a world comprised of a billion Truman Shows. What changes on the ground? The election results of the world’s most powerful country.

    Can you get credit to start a business? A loan to better yourself through education? Financial decisions are now determined by data, code, and algorithms. Job applications are turned to data, and run through cohorts of similarities, determining who gets hired, and who ultimately ends up leaving the workforce.

    And in perhaps the most human pursuit of all – connecting to other humans – we’ve turned our desires and our hopes to data, swapping centuries of cultural norms for faith in the governance of code and algorithms built – in necessary secrecy – by private corporations.

    • ••

    How does a human being make a decision? Individual decision making has always been opaque – who can query what happens inside someone’s head? We gather input, we weigh options and impacts, we test assumptions through conversations with others. And then we make a call – and we hope for the best.

    But when others are making decisions that impact us, well, those kinds of decisions require governance. Over thousands of years we’ve designed systems to insure that our most important societal decisions can be queried and audited for fairness, that they are defensible against some shared logic, that they will  benefit society at large.

    We call these systems government. It is imperfect but… it’s better than anarchy.

    For centuries, government regulations have constrained social decisions that impact health, job applications, credit – even our public square. Dating we’ve left to the governance of cultural norms, which share the power of government over much of the world.

    But in just the past decade, we’ve ceded much of this governance to private companies – companies motivated by market imperatives which demand their decision making processes be hidden. Our public government – and our culture – have not kept up.

    What happens when decisions are taken by algorithms of governance that no one understands? And what happens when those algorithms are themselves governed by a philosophy called capitalism?

    • ••

    We’ve begun a radical experiment combining technology and capitalism, one that most of us have scarcely considered. Our public commons – that which we held as owned by all, to the benefit of all – is increasingly becoming privatized.

    Thousands of companies are now dedicated to revenue extraction in the course of delivering what were once held as public goods. Public transportation is being hollowed out by Uber, Lyft, and their competitors (leveraging public goods like roadways, traffic infrastructure, and GPS).  Public education is losing funding to private schools, MOOCs, and for-profit universities. Public health, most disastrously in the United States, is driven by a capitalist philosophy tinged with technocratic regulatory capture. And in perhaps the greatest example of all, we’ve ceded our financial future to the almighty 401K – individuals can no longer count on pensions or social safety nets – they must instead secure their future by investing in “the markets” – markets which have become inhospitable to anyone lacking the technological acumen of the world’s most cutting-edge hedge funds.

    What’s remarkable and terrifying about all of this is the fact that the combinatorial nature of technology and capitalism outputs fantastic wealth for a very few, and increasing poverty for the very many. It’s all well and good to claim that everyone should have a 401K. It’s irresponsible to continue that claim when faced with the reality that 84 percent of the stock market is owned by the wealthiest ten percent of the population.

    This outcome is not sustainable. When a system of governance fails us, we must examine its fundamental inputs and processes, and seek to change them.

    • ••

    So what truly is governing us in the age of data, code, algorithms and processing? For nearly five decades, the singular true north of capitalism has been to enrich corporate shareholders. Other stakeholders – employees, impacted communities, partners, customers – do not directly determine the governance of most corporations.

    Corporations are motivated by incentives and available resources. When the incentive is extraction of capital to be placed in the pockets of shareholders, and a new resource becomes available which will aide that extraction, companies will invent fantastic new ways to leverage that resource so as to achieve their goal. If that resource allows corporations to skirt current regulatory frameworks, or bypass them altogether, so much the better.

    The new resource, of course, is the combination of data, code, algorithms and processing. Unbridled, replete with the human right of speech and its attendant purchasing of political power, corporations are quite literally becoming our governance model.

    Now the caveat: Allow me to state for the record that I am not a socialist. If you’ve never read my work, know I’ve started six companies, invested in scores more, and consider myself an advocate of transparently governed free markets. But we’ve leaned far too over our skis – the facts no longer support our current governance model.

    • ••

    We turn our worlds to data, leveraging that data, technocapitalism then terraforms our world. Nowhere is this more evident that with automation – the largest cost of nearly every corporation is human labor, and digital technologies are getting extraordinarily good at replacing that cost.

    Nearly everyone agrees this shift is not new – yes yes, a century or two ago, most of us were farmers. But this shift is coming far faster, and with far less considered governance. The last great transition came over generations. Technocapitalism has risen to its current heights in ten short years. Ten years. 

    If we are going to get this shift right, we urgently need to engage in a dialog about our core values. Can we perhaps rethink the purpose of work, given work no longer means labor? Can we reinvent our corporations and our regulatory frameworks to honor, celebrate and support our highest ideals? Can we prioritize what it means to be human even as we create and deploy tools that make redundant the way of life we’ve come to know these past few centuries?

    These questions beg a simpler one: What makes us human?

    I dusted off my old cultural anthropology texts, and consulted the scholars. The study of humankind teaches us that we are unique in that we are transcendent toolmakers – and digital technology is our most powerful  tool. We have nuanced language, which allows us both recollection of the past, and foresight into the future. We are wired – literally at the molecular level – to be social, to depend on one another, to share information and experience. Thanks to all of this, we have the capability to wonder, to understand our place in the world, to philosophize. The love of beauty,  philosophers will tell you, is the most human thing of all.

    Oh, but then again, we are uniquely capable of intentional destroying ourselves. Plenty of species can do that by mistake. We’re unique in our ability to do it on purpose.

    But perhaps the thing that makes us most human is our love of story telling, for narrative weaves nearly everything human into one grand experience. Our greatest philosophers even tell stories about telling stories! The best stories employ sublime language, advanced tools, deep community, profound wonder, and inescapable narrative tension.  That ability to destroy ourselves? That’s the greatest narrative driver in this history of mankind.

    How will it turn out?

    • ••

    We are storytelling engines uniquely capable of understanding our place in the world. And it’s time to change our story, before we fail a grand test of our own making: Can we transition to a world inhabited by both ourselves, and the otherness of the technology we’ve created? Should we fail, nature will indifferently shrug its shoulders. It has billions of years to let the whole experiment play over again.

    We are the architects of this grand narrative. Let’s not miss our opportunity to get it right.

    Adapted from a speech presented at the Thrival Humans X Tech conference in Pittsburgh earlier this week. 

    Cross posted from NewCo Shift. 

     

     
  • feedwordpress 03:26:39 on 2018/09/20 Permalink
    Tags: , , Joints After Midnight & Rants, , philosophy, , , software   

    If Software Is Eating the World, What Will Come Out the Other End? 

    So far, it’s mostly shit.

    Seven or so years ago, a famous VC penned a manifesto of sorts. Writing at a time the world was still skeptical of the dominance to which his industry has now ascended (to think, such a time existed, and so few years ago!), Marc Andreessen had a message for the doubters, the naysayers, and the Wall St. analysts who were (credibly!) claiming that his investments amounted to not much more than a bubble:

    Software, he claimed, was eating the world.

    Seven years later, no one can dispute Andreessen’s prescience. The man was right: If you had purchased a basket of his favorite stocks back then – he name-checked Apple, Amazon, and Facebook directly – you’d be up at least 10X, if not more. Software, it seems, has indeed eaten the world, and those smart (and rich) enough to put money into technology, as Andreessen has been, have done very, very well for themselves.

    Of course, not many people have in fact been that smart. As of last year, ten percent of investors own 84 percent of the stock market, and that ratio only gets worse as time goes by. Most of our society simply isn’t benefiting from this trend of software eating the world.  In fact, most of them live in the very world that software ate.

    ***

    We – us, all of us – have turned the world to data. Some of us – the founders of software companies, the funders of those founders, the cheerleaders who run the capital markets – took that data and used it to change the world. Along the way, the world didn’t disappear like some unfortunate animal distending a python’s midsection. No, the world remains.

    Who are we now that we’ve been eaten? What have we become?

    These are questions, it turns out, that almost none of technology’s leadership have deeply pondered. It certainly never came up in Andreessen’s manifesto. And it’s manifestly evident in the behavior of our most treasured technology founders. They are puzzled by these newfound demands from United States senators and European socialists. Don’t they understand that regulation is damage to be routed around?

    ***

    But the world is not just software. The world is physics, it’s crying babies and shit on the sidewalk, it’s opioids and ecstasy, it’s car crashes and Senate hearings, lovers and philosophers, lost opportunities and spinning planets around untold stars. The world is still real. Software hasn’t eaten it as much as bound it in a spell, temporarily I hope, while we figure out what comes next.

    Software – data, code, algorithms, processing – software has dressed the world in new infrastructure. But this is a conversation, not a process of digestion. It is a conversation between the physical and the digital, a synthesis we must master if we are to avoid terrible fates, and continue to embrace fantastic ones.

     

     
  • feedwordpress 17:32:13 on 2018/08/28 Permalink
    Tags: elections, , fake news, free press, , , Joints After Midnight & Rants, , , , , ,   

    Hey Jack, Sheryl, and Sundar: It’s Time to Call Out Trump On Fake News. 

    Next week Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, will testify in front of Congress. They must take this opportunity to directly and vigorously defend the role that real journalism plays not only on their platforms, but also in our society at large. They must declare that truth exists, that facts matter, and that while reasonable people can and certainly should disagree about how to respond to those facts, civil society depends on rational discourse driven by an informed electorate.

    Why am I on about this? I do my very best to ignore our current president’s daily doses of Twitriol, but I couldn’t whistle past today’s rant about how tech platforms are pushing an anti-Trump agenda.

    Seems the president took a look at himself in Google’s infinite mirror, and he apparently didn’t like what he saw. Of course, a more cynical reading would be that his advisors reminded him that senior executives from Twitter, Facebook, and Google* are set to testify in front of Congress next week, providing a perfect “blame others and deflect narrative from myself” moment for our Bully In Chief.

    Trump’s hatred for journalism is legendary, and his disdain for any truth that doesn’t flatter is well established. As numerous actual news outlets have already established, there’s simply no evidence that Google’s search algorithms do anything other than reflect the reality of Trump news,  which in the world of *actual journalism* where facts and truth matter, is fundamentally negative. This is not because of bias – this is because Trump creates fundamentally negative stories. You know, like failing to honor a war hero, failing to deliver on his North Korea promises, failing to fix his self-imposed policy of imprisoning children, failing to hire advisors who can avoid guilty verdicts….and all that was just in the last week or so.

    But the point of this post isn’t to go on a rant about our president. Instead, I want to make a point about the leaders of our largest technology platforms.

    It’s time Jack, Sheryl, Sundar, and others take a stand against this insanity.  Next week, at least two of them actually have just that chance.

    I’ll lay out my biases for anyone reading who might suspect I’m an agent of the “Fake News Media.” I’m on the advisory board of NewsGuard, a startup that ranks news sites for accuracy and reliability. I’m running NewsGuard’s browser plug in right now, and every single news site that comes up for a Google News search on “Trump News” is flagged as green – or reliable.

    NewsGuard is run by two highly respected members of the “real” media – one of whom is a longstanding conservative, the other a liberal.

    I’m also an advisor and investor in RoBhat Labs, which recently released a plugin that identifies fake images in news articles. Beyond that, I’ve taught journalism at UC Berkeley, where I graduated with a masters after two years of study and remain on the advisory board. I’m also a member of several ad-hoc efforts to address what I’ve come to call the “Real Fake News,” most of which peddles far right wing conspiracy theories, often driven by hostile state actors like Russia. I’ve testified in front of Congress on these issues, and I’ve spent thirty years of my life in the world of journalism and media. I’m tired of watching our president defame our industry, and I’m equally tired of watching the leaders of our tech industry fail to respond to his systematic dismantling of our civil discourse (or worse, pander to it).

    So Jack, Sheryl, and whoever ends up coming from Google, here’s my simple advice: Stand up to the Bully in Chief. Defend civil discourse and the role of truth telling and the free press in our society. A man who endlessly claims that the press is the enemy is a man to be called out. Heed these words:

    “It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.”

    No one would claim these are Trump’s words, the prose is far too elegant. But the sentiment is utterly Trumpian. With with apologies to Mike Godwin, those words belong to Adolf Hitler. Think about that, Jack, Sheryl, and Sundar. And speak from your values next week.

    *Google tried to send its general counsel, Kent Walker, but Congress is tired of hearing from lawyers. It’s uncertain if the company will step up and send an actual leader like Sundar or Susan. 

     

     
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