Facebook’s Illuminating Algorithmic Cruelty

The ever-presumptive and unremittingly faux-positive peer pressure of Facebook is doing its part this Christmas to re-open wounds of hurt from 2014 for a bunch of people. Their Year In Review combines algorithmically-selected photographs and text from Facebook postings throughout the year. It was probably conceived in good faith; they clearly anticipated it would promote thankfulness. I think it will be widely regretted rather than welcomed, for the reasons Eric Meyer explains in the moving post from which my title is adapted.

Facebook's assumption of celebration

Frankly my year was not one for balloons

They could definitely have phrased the accompanying text better, not to mention omitted the randomly-selected cover photo – the equivalent Year In Photos at Google+ doesn’t trigger me in the same way, maybe for lack of text. Better, they could have thought through the subject a little more and realised plenty of people, though thankful for so many things, may prefer an algorithm not to force them back through the year. Humans are able to act with discretion, and to know when they are presumptive. Computers are unable to act with any more discretion than their programmer, and usually much less.

My own year has had much that I value, but little of it has been shared with Facebook so my own edition is largely valueless. It also thankfully omits the things that make me cry, like the memory of my mother’s passing this spring or the six months of triage following it. If you’ve chosen to share with Facebook, this is a wake-up call that you have also given them the implicit permission to make you relive memories on command.

Frankly it’s no worse than the other things you’ve given them permission to do with the intimacies you’ve shared. They are just as free with advertisers and social data miners; you just don’t have that rubbed in your face. If you dislike “Year In Review” you probably will hate the things they do with your data without telling you (even if they have secured your permission in advance through their Terms of Service).

In case you were wondering, it’s safe to ignore it; the card displayed on your profile is only visible to you, and as long as you don’t press the “Share” button that appears when you view it, no-one else will see it. You can stop the reminder showing up by clicking the arrow in the top right corner (see below) and telling Facebook not to show the post again. Pity it wasn’t just a button and a “hide this” option for those of us who don’t list Facebook among our confidantes. Algorithms can’t exercise discretion; don’t use them for things that demand it.

Is Santa to blame for the surveillance society?

Perhaps the reason we are not horrified by the surveillance society is because our parents normalised that behaviour by teaching us about Santa.

  • Santa knows if you’ve been naughty or nice
  • Santa knows where you’ve been & who you’ve been with
  • Santa is able to come into your home without apparent consequences
  • There’s even an elf on your shelf keeping an eye on you
  • This is all good because toys

Santa – Ta, NSA.

Top Clippings For December 18th

Simon Phipps:

Let me know if you like this…

Originally posted on Meshed Insights & Knowledge:

  1. Samsung shuts down ChatOnCNet – If only there was a way for their customers to uninstall their impotent self-defence against Google.
  2. EU software procurement breaches rules more than ever beforeOFE PDF – Because they really do prefer to feed what they perceive as corporate power brokers rather than work to create European value with European money.
  3. EU allocates half million euros for testing open sourceFSFE – It’s a rounding error on the budget, but at least it’s something. Let’s see who gets it.
  4. Apache finally publishes a code of conductBlog, Code – Fine work, but no really defence against those gaming the system.

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On Terrorism

Some politicians seem to act as if “terrorism” means a terrible crime committed by someone who doesn’t fit the speaker’s own racial & religious profile. Just because something induces terror in some or many people, that doesn’t make it terrorism. That diminishes the concept as well as grouping routine crime – for which society has millennia of experience and solutions – into the same bucket as a more subtle and serious phenomenon that preys on the meshed society.

Terrorism isn’t just performing a terrifying act. It’s provoking society’s immune system into attacking itself, making its defence systems attack the values and people they are supposed to be defending. Terrorism is an autoimmune disorder of democracy. You don’t fight terrorism by attacking the virus; you fight it by strengthening the immune system.

Behind The Bullying Epidemic

I was very sad to hear that Kathy Sierra has decided to withdraw from online interactions again. Her insights into how technical communication and collaboration happen are among the finest I have read, and losing her voice again is a tragedy. But the reason she has gone hurts us all too. Reading her explanation is very depressing. Her conclusion — that what she experienced is not a one-off event but an expected outcome — would be worrying even if it was just about her.

But it’s not.

While hyperbolic and perhaps narrow in naming Linus Torvalds, there’s a seed of truth in what Lennart Poettering says about the tendency for open source communities to amplify toxic people. That’s not uniquely because they are open source communities, though. It’s because they communicate online, with the scale that permits the overwhelming numbers to drown out any residual social brakes that would normally apply to in-person interactions.

It would be easy to assume how Kathy has been treated is purely a gender issue. But I don’t believe it is. There are sometimes female attackers too and the analysis Kathy provides suggests the effect is one of a critical mass of angst being catalysed by a sociopath. There’s no doubt sexism is a frequent key factor for the catalyst — “that woman doesn’t deserve to be right” — but catalyst role is itself gender independent and so is the angst-cloud. Gender and race dominate the ways victims are tormented to be sure, but it’s a mistake to let the undeniable misogyny of the mob define the root cause.

Online Outgroups

Drawing all these threads together for me is a long, fascinating article (h/t Alec) that makes me wonder if we are seeing the formation of outgroups in these incidents. Scott Alexander’s essay talks about red, blue and grey groupings of almost-identical people differentiated by some of the details of their political ideology such as their expectations of causality. He suggests the greatest risks come not from people who are very different, but rather from those who are almost the same.

I wonder if the socipathic hordes are the result of an online outgroup reaching critical mass? They could be Alexander’s Grey Tribe, or it could be the effect he describes is an expected behaviour of large groups of humans. Just as Fowler’s Stages of Faith seem to apply to all belief systems and not just religion, so it seems likely people can belong to many different outgroups in different parts of their lives.

Kathy suggests the catalyst is privilege envy. Her tormentors seem to think she has a privileged position she does not deserve and attack her without restraint; I bet they have that view based on more than just her gender. If that’s the case, it may not much matter which perceived privilege is the trigger, whether it’s gender, race, ethnicity, orientation or music choice. This is Alexander’s point; the smaller the difference, the worse the hate.

Whatever is going on, I also agree with Natasha Lennard that it’s a mistake to let any of these sociopaths (or the growds they catalyse) be socialised. It monstrous behaviour that must not be excused. Unlike Greg Sandoval I don’t think the perpetrators develop empathy or stop wanting to harm people. One friend suggests it’s a form of the “addictive righteous indignation” that David Brin writes about.

There is an irony that the people doing the bullying appear to be a group of people who themselves might have expected to be bullied, as the characters from Big Bang Theory are wont to observe — omegas becoming alphas and betas. It’s ongoing inadequacy recast in their minds as injustice, used to justify inhuman cruelty in the name of correcting a privilege imbalance. If you doubt there’s inhuman cruelty, watch Anita Sarkeesian’s XOXO talk.

As Paulo Friere once worried, are we seeing a group from the oppressed become oppressors instead of gaining empathy from their own experiences? Which, as Alexander ends up reflecting, points the finger backwards and as Pete Warden concludes tells us our toleration of asshole behaviour — from anyone regardless of their excuse — must end. The lulz do not justify the means.

[First posted on Ello]

Is Microsoft To Blame For Malware?

Simon Phipps:

I am still writing a monthly column for Linux Voice Magazine, a new print publication that (in my view) is being done right. If you’re not a subscriber, you won’t’ve seen my article from issue 5 in which I explain why I believe Windows’ malware infestation arises from Microsoft’s technical decisions favouring marketing rather than security.

Originally posted on Meshed Insights & Knowledge:

The action law enforcement services have taken against the GameOver-Zeus malware syndicate is great news for a change. In the UK, this was communicated with typical tabloid alarmism, framed as “two weeks to save the world” instead of “unusually effective action by law enforcement”. As a result, UK publications have been posting self-preservation information for their readers.

The BBC’s instructions start with the statement “If your computer does not run Windows, stop right here.” Users of other operating systems like Linux or ChromeOS have nothing to worry about this time, even if they are increasingly likely to be targeted elsewhere. As a result, some have asked whether Microsoft is to blame for all this malware.

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