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When tech companies can do good in the world

‘How it Works’, #385 from the brilliant XKCD.com

Tech companies are renowned for eyes-bigger-than-their-belly mission statements. Facebook, no exception, has the mission: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (taken from the Investor Relations FAQ section, or you can go to their oddly meta Facebook page…)

I’ve never been quite sure about whether Facebook was doing good with this mission. In the main, it has meant Facebook pushing at the norms of ‘sharing’, seeking to transform sharing — our thoughts, our information, our data, our time — into a default mode of behaviour online. (For more, see my review of José Van Dijck’s Culture of Connectivity).

However, sometimes, making the world more open and connected means working to change norms that really do need to be changed. A few weeks ago, Facebook  made public some of its training videos about an issue that affects everyone’s daily experience and makes some of us less equal than others: unconscious bias. For Facebook, propelled in no small part by Sheryl Sandberg, making the world more open and connected is supported by a subsidiary mission: “building stronger, more diverse and inclusive organisations”. Facebook has always been bold about being the change it wants to see in the world, and often that can come at the expense of individual users, with data being exploited, users tracked wherever they are online, etc. But, in this instance, Facebook is actually trying to do an unequivocally good thing. Let’s suspend speculation about precisely why and take them at their word when they say their goal is “to achieve broader recognition of hidden biases” and offer a “framework for action” by all organisations. 

Tech in general is rightly criticised for drawing the bulk of its staff from certain groups: mainly male, mainly Caucasian or Asian. #ILookLikeAnEngineer, arising out of sexist commentary about software engineer Isis Wenger’s (@IsisAnchalee) appearance in ads for her firm, demonstrates perfectly just how far we still have to come, not only in tech but in society generally. Consequently, Facebook is not the only company looking to tackle this issue. Google has also been striving to tackle unconscious bias in a public way with anti-bias workshops and coaching sessions, as it has repeatedly been called out about its biases, including in the seemingly innocuous Google Doodles: Spark Summit did an interesting report last year about the rate at which Doodles honour white men. Google Ventures even positions itself as leading the research in this field; this is rather cheeky, given that unconscious bias has been studied academically for decades…. It will be very interesting to see whether Alphabet manages to do better at being more diverse and representative across all levels of the organisation(s), at any rate.
Although tech companies might not be breaking new ground, then, they are opening up the issue, popularising initiatives that tackle unconscious bias at organisational level, and making more readily available resources that can help educate and inform everyone. It’s also an interesting corrective to the increasingly pervasive sentiment that being mindful about everything is all we need to make improvements. David Sze at HuffPo wrote recently about the limits of what introspection can achieve. Research challenges our self-images, suggesting that we are poor judges of the sum of our behaviours, and how to correct flawed patterns of thought or behaviour.

As well as large tech firms trying to lead the way in airing these issues, there are start-ups expressly designed to act as correctives. Textio, for example, promises software that will spot gender biases in job adverts. This is an area that lends itself well to the start-up culture because the landscape is constantly changing. As certain biases are exposed — such as male candidates being more likely to apply for a job that requires a “proven track record” — others will take their place. A constant cycle of close observation and innovation are needed, and this is where re-inventive tech companies and new start-ups can offer most hope for keeping up with and tackling new problems. 

For those interested in exploring their own unconscious biases, it’s worth taking a look at Project Implicit, which is a Harvard project founded in 1998 that studies unconscious bias and offers a range of implicit association tests. The tests are completely free online and seek to measure attitudes and beliefs that one wouldn’t consciously express.

The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (José Van Dijck) — book review

The Culture of Connectivity is a few years old now (the acknowledgments are signed June 2012), but it caught my eye as an interesting endeavour to chart critically the origins of some of the companies and platforms dominating our online experiences today, and probably for the foreseeable future. 

Overall, the book is a firmly theorised version of the many critiques written about how social behaviours can be (and are) co-opted by capitalism under the guise of ‘the sharing economy’, ‘social networking’, etc. (see, most recently, yesterday’s Guardian long-read by William Davies).
Interestingly, as I was writing this review, I caught sight of Wired’s reporting of yesterday’s Science, which published a study into the impact of Facebook’s algorithms on interactions between users from different political backgrounds. However, as Wired and others note (e.g. Zeynep Tufekci on Medium), the study’s methodology is not robust enough to allow us to reach firm conclusions about how technological decisions impact social experiences, although the study suggests both that Facebook’s algorithms decrease the amount of ideologically challenging content users see and that users limit their own exposure to such content via their active choices between content.
A few brief comments on the individual chapters themselves:
I joined Facebook in 2005 and have paid attention to some of the dust-ups over Terms of Service, the introduction of Timeline, etc., but it was still interesting to read an overview of how Facebook has repeatedly pushed users to stretch the norms of data sharing. Van Dijck summarises well the various criticisms over the company’s asymmetrical attitude towards transparency (whereby it has few obligations and users many), and I think her analysis is persuasive.
The book next explores how Twitter’s filtering and weighting algorithms can produce, as well as reflect, trends, and can create a circular pattern of popularity. Twitter is the main SNS that I use currently, and the site whose future choices will most directly impact my online experience (at least in the short-term, while I’m still a loyal user!).
The latter chapters I found mainly of academic interest, as they analyse sites that haven’t attracted me as an active user. Van Dijck explores Flickr’s difficulties establishing itself as a leader through indecisive leadership and a fractious relationship with the core user base, and she identifies how YouTube, ostensibly a ‘democratic’ UGC site, has been on a convergence course with PGC (professionally generated content) producers, tracing users’ own conversations about the lines between self-expression and marketisation.
The chapter on Wikipedia was surprisingly fascinating. Van Dijck teases out the nuances of Wikipedia’s user levels, including the increasing bureaucratisation of the site behind the scenes, with strict control over the content of the site exercised in a veiled layer of interactions below the familiar layout of which page. I have previously dallied with editing Wikipedia, but doing so is not particular intuitive for a newbie, and I have been genuinely anxious about incurring the wrath of other users for ‘not doing it right’, so I’ve not bothered.
From a personal perspective, I find looking at the impact of embedded, often invisible structures — including language (“friending”, “sharing”, etc.), algorithms, and “logged-in experiences” — in forming our online experiences is an intuitive approach to exploring this new social ecosystem in which many of us live. Her Foucauldian exploration of the “power of norms”, and how social media has changed online norms around privacy and sharing information, seems productive. She finds (unsurprisingly, although nonetheless usefully) that platforms are “mediators rather than intermediaries: they shape the performance of social acts instead of merely facilitating them”.
What is most interesting in the book is how it clearly debunks some of the myths about the utopic potential of social media, which elide the technological and human choices involved in constituting social practices online. Only a few days ago, for example, Accenture’s “Pulse of Media” argued that “consumers are now both kings and kingmakers, fully in control of which bundles, which brands and which content succeeds”, naively suggesting that the bundles being offered, the brands “promoted” and advertised through personalised ads, the content encouraged to “trend”, have no impact on consumer choices. Van Dijck goes some way to shining a spotlight on software which, as DM Berry (@BerryDM) has argued, is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and yet “also withdraws”. The research on hard data that is being undertaken by researchers with access to data held by the big SNSs, such as the Science article mentioned above, is only the beginning of the work that needs to be done.

Van Dijck‘s book offers chapters on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and Wikipedia, as five of the major players in various digital niches (social networking sites (SNSs), user-generated-content (UGC) sites), although she steers clear of addressing either trading and marketing sites (TMSs) like Amazon or eBay, or play and games sites (PGSs) such as FarmVille or Angry Birds. Her individual analyses are interesting for anyone who hasn’t actively followed the development of these sites, but at times the chapters are dry. Organising the book this way makes sense, allowing Van Dijck to focus on chronological historical analysis, but I wondered several times whether a thematic structure (e.g. considering governance as a whole) might have been more productive. 

Around these five central chapters exploring the growth, development, governance and users of these platforms, Van Dijck offers a methodology for writing such histories, combining [academic nerd alert!] actor-network theory and political economy. The main aim is to draw together theories about the social and the technical in order to develop a theory of how they can be mutually constitutive. 

Despite finding the book informative and persuasive, I also found myself frustrated as a reader. In her search for a more objective historical narrative voice, Van Dijck doesn’t tackle the impact of the structures and strategies that she is charting. Although she offers the example of the Alvin family to describe different user reasons and strategies for engaging with social media, she tries to stay away from offering any value judgments. At various times, the book refers obliquely to privacy concerns as though the reader would be so thoroughly familiar with the arguments that they could be taken as read. This is probably true of her intended audience, but the book could benefit from a greater focus on the individual and the specificities of individual experiences, even if this might make the text more polemical.

At the risk of a hackneyed metaphor, there can be something Kafkaesque in the increasing technocracy of leading platforms, in the diminishing freedoms for the individual user who interacts online only through increasingly closely mediated channels. As platforms grow, commercialising or merely becoming more complicated, the rules for users interacting with them grow more detailed and more unfathomable. Wikipedia, for example, still open to (almost) all, is nevertheless more complex for a first-time user who wishes to modify it than it once was.

Cultural references and authenticity

Caveat: This post took rather a long time to gestate, so please excuse the references to old tweets (in Twitter terms!).

Whilst waiting around on jury service recently, I spent some time reading Keats as part of my general project to correct the blind spots of my general C19 knowledge (at university I got to choose what I studied perhaps slightly more than is good for me!). I was reading for fun, hence slowly, and an idle thought popped into my head as I loitered on the phrase “pretty hummer” (l.2, ‘Sleep and Poetry’, for those interested). I thought about whether I could ever use it given modern connotations of the word ‘hummer’, and whether I’d sound like an arse if I did (or in attempting to explain myself), and then I mentally bemoaned the lack of general literary knowledge today. And then I stopped myself.

It’s quite a classist expectation, isn’t it? A bit like the constant moans about how exam standards are going down. Or is that quite a classist response, expecting most people to know about and embrace X Factor but be baffled and disengaged when it comes to literary works like Endymion?

I stopped myself particularly because the train of thought reminded me of a recent Twitter discussion between the wonderful @cnlester and @parislees about how to approach concepts like intersectionality with casual acquaintances and strangers day-to-day without sounding either alienating or patronising, as well as CN’s very thoughtful reflections on CN’s mother’s experience as a working-class, first-generation university student, immersed in — and isolated by — cultural references that she didn’t ‘get’.

CN pointed out:

It’s a tough balancing act.

I feel as though I’ve been on both ends of this. As a overly bookish, not-very-cool kid growing up in a working class area where my family didn’t quite fit, I learnt quickly to (try to) fake it, pretending to have seen the new Steps video (I didn’t even know how one would see such a thing…), laughing and nodding along to all sorts of things that baffled me. Kids were canny (and rude) enough to call me out on it now and again, which is one of the high (read low) points of mortification.
At university, I perfected my neutral face, my ‘oh yes, I know exactly what you mean’ expression, and people questioned less (either they were more polite or I was more convincing). I’ve always been wonderfully impressed by those with the self-possession to just come out and say, ‘What’s a carafe?’ without what I would have felt to be obligatory blushes. (Fortunately, books taught me this one, otherwise I’d have had to relive those memories of mortification whilst trying to answer.)
Assimilating new references into my own internal reference frame without being too obvious is now second nature. In a way this is a good thing, a sort of flexibility and openmindedness that can be used to good effect. However, it leaves me with a sort of cultural cautiousness, a cultural contingency. It makes my class presentation essentially inauthentic no matter what circumstances I find myself in, and it can feel uncomfortably disingenuous at times, particularly when I catch myself making assumptions about what people ‘ought’ to know (or even do know) when I ought to know better.

Married to the job

I always hate this phrase because it implies quite negative things about marriage, and about a deep and abiding dedication to one’s work. Still, I think it is rather apt for my current state. I am still working 10-12 hour days (depending on whether it’s a good day or a bad day), and I occasionally hate it. When I hate it, however, it’s because a) my blood-sugar has dropped to a horrendously low level, or b) something (or someone) has made me momentarily angry.

I have always been slightly envious of those who can “work to live”, as they say, because I have never wanted to be one of those who “live to work”. Yet I couldn’t ever be properly satisfied with a job that I didn’t love and feel passionate about, and with that comes the inclination to take on new roles and do whatever is necessary to see that the job is done as well as it can be. And that inevitably involves becoming “married to the job”. As with all marriages (so I’m told), it has to be worked at, though, and sometimes I have to remind myself that I love it after all.

When does the New Year start?

No, the answer is not “00:01 on 1st January”, thank you very much. I think most people will agree that, in fact, the New Year begins where the holiday season ends: going back to work. In my case, the New Year started yesterday, when I flew back to Boston for the final time. (Can you sense the excitement?) I flew with American Airlines, not wholly of my own volition; I bought the tickets on Priceline‘s “name your own price” service, where you don’t find out your airline until after you’ve booked. In my experience, American Airlines have old planes, which means poor entertainment systems (think back to ye olden days of one screen mounted on the ceiling showing one reel of PG films/sit-coms), mediocre food, and in this particular case poor staff (because I turned down the initial drink offering—I had my own bottle of water with me, and I don’t like to be wasteful—when the actual meal came around the hostess then asked me snidely, “Will you be eating?”). Still, I got back in one piece, and that’s the main thing.

As I’d booked a morning-afternoon flight, I got back in fairly good shape and not overly tired, so I went to the gym. I’ll confess, however, that it wasn’t solely my willpower driving me to the gym. It was the fact that the night before, my father and I had watched Claire Sweeney’s Big Fat Diet. I thought that it might be a bit like awful, rubbish celebrity ‘reality’ tv, but it wasn’t. I felt so much empathy for Claire as she embarked upon what was essentially the ‘living as you want’ diet. Watching her health risks rise scared both me and my father, aside from the shocking visuals of how only 3 weeks without exercise or controlled diet can begin to radically change one’s body shape.

Between watching that and getting back here (where deadlines suddenly seem far more real and close), my New Year has definitely leapt out of the gates after what threatened to be a sluggish start!

Breasts, breasts, breasts…

Society does seem obsessed with them, when we stop to think about it. If this title caught your eye, then consider yourself part of society, and ask yourself why while reading this excellent article over at The F-Word, which I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. Bold and wonderfully open, it can’t help but be a little troubling as well, particularly this paragraph, which I present to you now, teaser-style (somewhat ironically, given that it’s about breasts…):

Nowadays things are much better. I’ve got better at dressing to make my breasts look smaller (not that I should have to, although I would choose to anyway), and looking older means that I get less unwanted attention (not that I should have received unwanted attention when I was younger either, and not that I am exactly geriatric at 25). I no longer feel like a sex object every waking moment. I no longer hate my breasts and I no longer feel that they’re unwanted appendages. I would definitely like them to be smaller and I won’t pretend otherwise, but they feel like part of me, rather than the disembodied udders that they used to feel like. I’m still not happy though. Why should I ever have felt that way? Why should I have had to have struggled so hard to be respected and taken seriously?

“The End of Mr. Y” (Scarlett Thomas): Review continued

Well, I’m halfway through this book now, which I initially commented on in Christmas Books. I’ve been reading it off and on in amongst other reading/writing projects, and I keep putting it down because I’m not sure it’s worth continuing. That might sound a little bit harsh, but it’s a horrible feeling to see great potential and be disappointed.

What’s got me right now is Thomas’ presentation of the Troposphere. Ariel keeps shouting “Console,” which is ‘something like a desktop’ and helps her navigate her way around. It seems to be halfway between Skymaze (children enter a computer game which they can play for real, with lethal stakes), a book by Gillian Rubinstein, which I enjoyed greatly as a child, and Insomnia, the Stephen King thriller where another dimension blurs with this one and only the two protagonists can see the dwarfish demon who threatens them and manipulate the energy of the world around them to try and defeat him. And I’m finding Thomas’ version nowhere near as enjoyable as these two.

Perhaps the strangely anachronistic language and vision we have of the Troposphere is postmodernly pastiche-like deliberately (I suspect this is the case), melding the Victorian literary aspect with Ariel’s rather typical brand of bleakness and all the science and technology references Thomas likes to throw in. Personally, however, I feel like this says more about the author’s pretensions* than about her writing skill.

To be fair, it may be the case that Thomas is trying to show the limits of language, and that we apply the best words we can to the unknown, even when they seem anachronistic. Ariel, the main character, does at one point note: “Nothing like this happened to Mr. Y. This must be the effect of TV and cinema and – not that I’ve played them often – video games on my weak mind”, so, indeed, maybe the author is trying to show something about subjectivity. However, I can’t help feeling that in this scenario arguing “it’s the limits of language” would be the argument given by an apologist covering for a weak authorial imagination, and claiming “it’s about subjectivity” is perhaps convenient after the fact but not a well-constructed, premeditated attempt. I genuinely believe Thomas could have imagined better; that’s why I’m feeling so disappointed with the read. And I won’t even begin to mention the “god” that appears when Ariel is told by the (typical) disembodied female voice that guides her in the video-game-like Troposphere that she can “play the Apollo Smintheus card”.

Naturally, I’ll finish the book, and my opinion may well change, but right now I have an eyebrow raised. I’ll keep you posted!

* On the topic of pretensions, I should probably say that one of the things I really do like about the book is the strange black colour given to all the page edges, so that from a distance the book appears to be a block of black something. This sort of colouring actually adds an air of tongue-in-cheek fun, whilst one of the things I loathe most is the seeming vogue now for publishers making the foredge of the book  ragged, as if to try and suggest real parchment or an old text when the top and bottom of the book will be perfectly machine-cut flat.