more cojones than “curmudgeonly” allows

This BBC clip, available at the time of writing, on how young people are now migrating to less visible virtual environments, makes for fascinating listening:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02g4z57

It’s heartening that the generation below my own and beyond may be seriously evaluating the mistakes and assumptions that Silicon Valley has been making about our alleged disregard for privacy.  What’s puzzling, however, is that this link came my way via a tweet which signposted it as an example of “dark social”.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen this term – but I’m seeing it more and more.  Is there a deliberate intention by interested parties to define desires for interactions in more private social networks as suspicious impulses in some way?  (Much as the inexactly-termed “dark web” or “dark net” – yet again we find it difficult to differentiate between the web and the Internet – is deliberately tarring with the same brush of twilight the perfectly legal behaviours of many.)

I do hope this is not the case; I’d be equally seriously surprised, however, if it were not.

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On a related matter, I’ve recently taken to referring to myself as “curmudgeonly”.  It’s a satisfactory adjective which allows me to get cross without threatening anyone.

People allow the old to say and do stuff which if expressed and acted out by the young would lead to strong condemnation.

Or resistance at the least.

Or something, anyway.

To be a curmudgeonly late-middle-aged man is surely as harmless as they come.

Or is it?

I wonder if the state of mind in question isn’t a passive-aggressive construct.  As such, it’s hardly healthy.  Passive-aggressive states of mind mean we refuse to take ownership for our thoughts, acts and beliefs.  You could, in fact, argue we were living in a passive-aggressive society.  That it was the case, more and more.  And that governments around the world have played a key part in this happening.

From imposing web censorship through quangos and third-party communications corporations to removing the disabled from all right to reasonable support by means of scripted tests run by foreign companies to privatising the NHS via sneaky tendering processes, certainly the British government my compatriots and myself have been labouring under has turned passive-aggressive politics into a form of terribly painful art.

I don’t know about your government, but mine certainly has.

So I wonder if my curmudgeonliness isn’t a personal example of the same.  By defining myself thus, I find it easier to express hard-won positions in an environment which less and less prizes freedom and liberties.

Just as some are proactively defining more private apps as examples of an emerging “dark social” in an attempt to maintain a status quo, so maybe at the same time I’m copping out by continuing to communicate through the more traditional shared web.

Instead of using – more intelligently; more appropriately perhaps – the private alternatives which are emerging.

Not that they are ever going to be essentially private; we lost that option some time in the last century.  But the intentionality and instinct are clearly there.

And the result is a digital footprint for the individual a deal more complicated to track.  All of which I feel must be good.

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If the generation below mine and beyond are learning from the mistakes we made – our embracing wholeheartedly of a Google, and those which came after, which we believed would not become evil; which we believed would always work for us; which we believed would never turn away from placing us at a virtuously customer-focussed centre – it can only be for the better.

But we need to play our part too.

If technology is to continue to walk with us hand-in-hand, we need to give a helping hand to those technologists who see a different way.

I was wrong, earlier in this post, to talk about Silicon Valley in such a disparaging way.  I’m sure there are good people there, just as there are everywhere.

The question is for all us good people everywhere to work out how to get in touch.

If “dark social” it must be, maybe we need more cojones than “curmudgeonly” allows.

Give me a day or two.  I’ll think it through.

do algorithms institutionalise prejudice?

In the past, when I was a kid, it was operating-system software that ruled the world: CPM; PC-DOS; MS-DOS; then Windows.

Software allowed you to do stuff with the outside world.

Print to printers.

Save to floppies.

Later, even email and browse.

Humans still took editorial decisions, mind.  I remember (I think) a Netscape project where real people (yes, flesh and blood!) scoured the web for interesting things you might need to find.  A bit like Google today, but a manual operation of grand and creative idiosyncrasy.

They were living algorithms.  Entities which made decisions based on prior experience, tact, intelligence and – hey-ho – intuition.

Mostly quite sensible, but with a dash or two of mysterious procedure, too.  And why not?  After all, that is life as humanity has always experienced it.

Then came movements to bring software out into the open.  Too many liberties were being taken under lock and key.  We didn’t just want to drive our virtual engines; we wanted to have the right to take them apart and rebuild them.

So the open source movement is now grand and important.  It’s had its recent failures – but for every failure of open source we’ve uncovered, closed source has had its own share multiplied a hundred- or a thousand-fold.

However, Microsoft, the great end-of-the-20th-century closed-source software publisher, doesn’t rule the web – or our lives – in quite the same way any more as, say, Google or Facebook do.  Google and Facebook’s rules operate through the mysterious actions of the already mentioned algorithms: only, using mathematics to substitute the decisions of once very real editors.

Those editors weren’t infallible.  They were prejudiced; they were ethnocentric; they could hardly be anything but a product of their times and places.  Yet (I assume), despite these imperfections, their practice was used to define their automated cousins.  As this wonderful post points out:

[…]  Like the problem with Google algorithms defining “beauty” as whiteness per layers and years of discrimination, there is no way to amplify marginalized voices if structural inequality is reflected in our algorithms and reinforced in user pageviews.

Now of course, I may be wrong.  I’m not privy to the interior workings of Google or Facebook’s algorithms.  But surely that was exactly the problem we faced all those years ago when operating-system software ruled the roost.  And it was resolved, in great part, by open-sourcing parallel forms of code.

Curiously, I don’t hear a great clamour to do the same with search or social-network algorithms.  Maybe I’m reading in the wrong places; maybe I’m just a bit too mainstream for my own good.  I do faintly remember calls for Facebook to be a little more transparent about how it automated the decisions which allowed content into users’ feeds or not – but nothing as radical or downright as open-sourcing the whole caboodle.

I find this difficult to understand.  Algorithms now control what we see, do, act on and even feel.  They affect our perception of the world around us much more than traditional software and operating systems ever did. In the early days of PCs, the code was still an extension of ourselves.  Now, to a great extent, we have become extensions of the code.

So.  Do algorithms institutionalise prejudice?  And will they continue to do so until they are open-sourced?  I think the answer to both questions is: “Yes!”

And whilst the former continues to be the case, the latter needs to happen.

some things to grow towards in 2015 (though bollos, roscones and grapes, maybe not)

Baby roscones, waiting to growI’m gradually ridding myself of my foolish enamours; those things which made me dream –  along the way – of personal amor, critical & professional success and other stuff like that.

As a British-born “hidden” immigrant (horrible term invented by horrible people; but once invented, so difficult to unsee – in my case, my being the son of an immigrant mother), I always realised how much I owed to my Croatian heritage – as well as, latterly, my Spanish experiences – and never very much how important the English side of things was to be for me.

Bollos suizos and baby rosconesAs nation-states reassert their dominance over us, with the hiatus of the www (a kind of global Wild West in its day, I guess) now a distant speck of dust in rather tearful and generally libertarian eyes, so it becomes more important for us all to evaluate where we come from – and, what’s even more challenging, where we want to end up.

As every new year sets its stall up for us to try its wares, it becomes our duty to see what we might do differently.

I’ve realised, in my case, loyalty is something I’ve neglected over the past year; perhaps, in a way, the past decade.

Not the stultifying loyalty that forbids the truth from being told.

Not the tribal loyalty that limits one’s freedom of expression, and one’s right to evaluate new ideas and ways of thinking.

Bollos suizos on the tableAnother loyalty: a loyalty to time and place.  To a time and place one must belong to because one must.

In a way, I have recently spoken of my dissatisfaction with everything Silicon Valley’s historical disruption has meant to date.  When I can confuse a shield for a heart, anything can mean anything to anyone.

In a sense, those lovers of everything Internet – myself included, unashamedly (once upon a time) – have only themselves to blame for a world which begins to turn its back on their products and services: after all, if the www had really been a libertarian’s paradise for Western freedom and liberal free markets to easily develop, we wouldn’t have the capitalist behemoths which now stride our technological globe, aiming – as they do – to rip out of communities every last shred of independence from the single best way they propose.

The reality is quite different from that which we were promised.

A world as relativistic as the one we now live isn’t a world we should wish to grow up in.

Loyalty, then, to the evidence of the intelligent; to the consequential; to those who believe to disrupt because you can is simply to be a barbarian of the worst kind.

Our job in such a panorama?  Keepers of the barbarians at the gates, well beyond the gates.

And when the barbarians become as established – as well within those gates, I mean, as too many of our governments of today seem to want to be – perhaps it is time to reflect and grow in other places.

Baby roscones, kindaCertainly, one must maintain a sense of perspective.  But also be aware of what makes one different.  Yes.  I love bollos, roscones and eating grapes on the strike of twelve.

But my background lies more firmly, whether I like this or not, in the fudging humanity of an erstwhile relatively tolerant, relatively efficient, relatively democratic Britain.

That Britain which needs reclaiming and maintaining – now from the barbarians within.  All the year round.  All round democracy.

Happy New Year.

And happy new year, too.*

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* Or didn’t you know that – at least in some languages – writing in lower case means something much bigger and grander than writing in upper case ever could?

That is to say, you don’t always have to shout to be heard …