Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Web / Tech (page 1 of 58)

Social media, populism, and Charlie Gard

Ranjana Das, a senior lecturer at Surrey University, is looking at the way social media was used in the Charlie Gard case, and has an interesting post on “Social media and Charlie Gard: populism versus public services?“.

The social media furore around the Gard case has been startling, and offers much to reflect on, in terms of the kind of public discussion and debate that has occurred around medical ethics, healthcare and the very role of the NHS in British public life. By employing some classic markers of populism, the ‘army’ has demonstrated a kind of ‘networked populism’ which has co-opted evidence-based debate into the territory of heightened, emotive responses between and across strangers. These have ranged from genuine anguish and expressions of sorrow, to the use of terminology from the Third Reich to characterise doctors, lawyers and clinicians, and to displaying overwhelming emotions of feeling at one with and attached to the real-time tweeting of court hearings, almost as though these were televisual narratives unfolding.

For an American, part of what’s interesting and puzzling about this case is how “Charlie’s Army” came to turn on the NHS, and talk about it as an unaccountable elite ignoring the will of the people, as opposed to an institution that’s central to the postwar British state and social contract between the UK and its subjects– a very “populist” institution.

How to make Silicon Valley the enemy (it wouldn’t be that hard)

Two articles on Silicon Valley’s reaction to the election of Donald Trump caught my eye this morning. Christopher Mims writes in the Wall Street Journal about how “Tuesday’s election by Donald Trump was an expression of voter angst that heralded a new type of populism. For Silicon Valley, it also marked the ascension of a vision starkly at odds with its own.” In The Guardian, meanwhile, Julie Carrie Wong has a piece about the Valley’s cautious reaction to Trump, and their weighing the prospect of the ascension of “decidedly pro-business ideas” against immigration restrictions and other policies that could hurt the Valley. Together, they make for some very interesting reading.

As Mims notes, some of the difference is cultural and political: the Valley and Bay Area are famously cosmopolitan, left-leaning outliers. Some of it is policy: the Valley’s chieftains have been enthusiastic about open borders, generous immigration policy, and generally the whole neoliberal agenda. And more generally, there’s a suspicion that for all his business bona fides, Trump doesn’t really quite understand high tech. Wong, meanwhile, notes the unease of immigrants over Trump’s embrace of xenophobia.

Both pieces touch on two other things that I think could lead to the Valley being demonized if the miraculous job comeback that Trump has promised doesn’t materialize.

First, there’s the industry’s attitude toward labor and automation. Wong has this great bit:

Still, other Trump promises might create new markets ripe for Silicon Valley’s favorite form of disruptive innovation, such as his plan to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, some of whom form the bulk of the country’s agricultural labor force. That might create opportunity for the “agtech” sector, [venture capitalist Tim] Wilson said.

“If they really are serious and farm labor gets threatened, then anything that automates labor is something that is going to uptrend,” he said.

As Mims writes,

The populist wave Mr. Trump rode appears to be on a collision course with the fruits of technology and the people who build it.

Uber Technologies Inc. and others are testing self-driving trucks. That augurs trouble for the 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S., who hold some of the best-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree. Meanwhile, advances in artificial intelligence are beginning to consume white-collar jobs in fields such as medicine and finance, shifting the debate over the impact of technology.

I’m not sure when it happened, but Silicon Valley has come to treat the destruction of other people’s work and jobs as an opportunity for itself. “Disrupt” doesn’t just mean make supply chains more efficient, or give consumers more choice. It also means take away people’s livelihoods.

It’s especially striking when you juxtapose this attitude against the simultaneous rise of design thinking and ethnography and HCI and human-centered computing (not to mention the enthusiasm for chatbots and conversational computing).

When thinking about interfaces and smartphones and wearables, it’s critical to pay attention to people and their needs. When we’re thinking about automating their jobs or making it possible for employers to undercut workers’ autonomy and power, that empathy vanishes.

The ride-sharing app absolutely has to have an easy-to-use interface.

The fact that it’s the front end of a system that’s destroying your ability to feed your family?


(Though no one should be surprised if Valley companies don’t think about the lives of workers in Pennsylvania or North Dakota, since it often seems we barely think about the lives of working-class people in East Palo Alto or Hayward.)

The second thing that the Mims and Wong pieces touch on is a sense that, well, Silicon Valley really isn’t part of America. It’s part of the future, and so all your rage and resistance against what the Valley brings is just futile. We’ve already beta tested the future. It just hasn’t reached you yet.

The Valley also isn’t part of America in the sense that some of those who do well in it see themselves as citizens of the world. They could be anywhere, and if things get bad, they always have the option to decamp for friendlier locations (taking their unicorn companies and great ideas with them).

This has made living here exciting, but I wonder if it’s an attitude that could create some problems in the future. Mims has this illuminating exchange:

To many in Silicon Valley, this [automation and the disappearance of blue-collar jobs] is just part of inexorable progress. Electing Mr. Trump won’t shield his supporters from the reality that they are now competing with every other worker on Earth, says Balaji Srinivasan, a board partner at venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and CEO of bitcoin startup 21 Inc.

Mr. Srinivasan views the collision between tech culture and Mr. Trump’s populist movement as inevitable, and potentially so divisive that tech’s global elites should effectively secede from their respective countries, an idea he calls “the ultimate exit.”

Already, he says, elites in Silicon Valley are more connected to one another and to their counterparts around the globe than to non-techies in their midst or nearby. “My Stanford network connects to Harvard and Beijing more than [California’s] Central Valley,” says Mr. Srinivasan. Eventually, he argues, “there will be a recognition that if we don’t have control of the nation state, we should reduce the nation state’s power over us.”

(Inevitability is another way of saying, “I’m profiting from this but I’m not responsible for it.”)

The idea that credentials and networks and wealth not only make us the future but give us the ability to opt out of the nation should we so choose could become raw meat for populists.

If I were an ambitious politician, I could have a field day with this stuff. If my policies tank, the jobs don’t come back, or high-tech companies balk at the idea of relocating their factories from Shenzhen to Youngstown, I could pin the blame on a wealthy, cosmopolitan, rootless elite that sees itself as part of a global order opposed to the nation-state, that is actively seeking to destroy America by draining its wealth and destroying its jobs.

Here’s what I’d say. “Our efforts to bring American back are failing not because we lack heart or vision or soul, but because we are being subverted by an elite that has relentlessly aimed to sap our might.

“First this elite took factories and shipped them to China, and used that money to enrich and empower a nation that now challenges us on the world stage.

“Now they’re automating the jobs they couldn’t offshore.

“They’re replacing hard-working truck drivers with self-driving trucks.

“They’re replacing coal miners with robots.

“They’re replacing nurses with chatbots and automated ‘wellness stations.’

“They’re intentionally replacing stable jobs with temporary labor.

“They use foreign-made smartphones and toys to distract you while they siphon our wealth into cryptocurrencies beloved mainly by drug dealers.

“They gleefully destroy your livelihoods in order to enrich themselves, and call it progress.

“And they declare themselves ‘citizens of the world’ who aren’t beholden to our laws, who have no loyalty to the United States, who care only about themselves and their ‘networks’.

“These are the people who are keeping you down. Give me the freedom to take them on, and the good times will finally return.”

And there’d be just enough reality mixed into the lie to make it stick. I couldn’t ask for a better enemy.

How to avoid the Terminator Apocalypse: Don’t yell at Siri

You shouldn’t be mean to smart technology.


That’s the takeaway from a new Harvard Business Review piece by Michael Schrage about “Why You Shouldn’t Swear at Siri:”

[The] irresistible rise of ever-smarter machines worldwide demands that leaders and managers become better people. Self-indulgently lashing out at underperforming bots and software agents represents poor leadership-by-example — and worse, bad manners.

Sooner, rather than later, organizations will have to recognize that getting the best out of their smart technologies requires getting the best from themselves.

The abuse of technologies is actually a nontrivial social problem. Think of kids attacking robots in shopping malls (this happened in Japan), or adults beating up a hitchhiking robot (this happened in Philly). While we’ve always yelled at devices when they don’t do what we want them to (e.g., a printer that jans when we’re printing out a final paper due in a few minutes), yelling at technologies that are taking their cues from our behavior could be problematic.


Keep Me Posted

I recently got a message about the new Web comedy Keep Me Posted:

Keep Me Posted Teaser from Hillary Nussbaum on Vimeo.

As the Seed And Spark fundraiser explains:

We spend an embarrassing amount of time analyzing the nuances of that text from our latest Tinder match, or the meaning behind that random “like” on our last Facebook post, but what about the particulars of the way we communicate with our closest friends? 
Are we mistaking constant communication for true connection? 
Keep Me Posted is a 3×20 comedic web series that raises those questions and more. It follows the lives of three childhood friends stumbling towards adulthood, three friends who are constantly in touch, but still find themselves growing apart. As their lives diverge in significant, challenging ways for the first time, they hide their respective struggles behind a constant flurry of chipper texts and insincere status updates to project the impression that everything is just awesome.

Incidentally, I have that copy of Stephen King’s On Writing that they show at 1:26. It’s great. (It’s where he talks about writing as “creative sleep”.)

“The police, army and refugees could agree” that they “all dreaded a day without internet”

This is a heck of a story:

Kevin MacRitchie surveyed the inferno spreading across Diavata refugee camp. From his vantage point on the roof, where he had been fixing a satellite dish, he could see a column of thick black smoke twisting toward the sky above two rows of incinerated tents. While Greek army and police helped battle the fire, a protest had erupted at the front gate, by Syrian refugees frustrated with conditions in the camp and the asylum backlog that was keeping them there.

That meant MacRitchie was now alone. His teammate, David Tagliani, had run out to drive their equipment van into the camp, and in the meantime, the angry mass had blocked the entrance. Yet when they recognized Tagliani behind the wheel, the protestors stopped. “Wifi,” they called to each other, “wifi.” And they cleared a path to let the van pass.

The police, army and refugees could agree on at least one thing, it seemed. They all dreaded a day without internet.

Chocolate and “likes” activate the same parts of the teenage brain

The same brain circuits that are activated by eating chocolate and winning money are activated when teenagers see large numbers of “likes” on their own photos or the photos of peers in a social network, according to a first-of-its-kind UCLA study that scanned teens’ brains while using social media.

The 32 teenagers, ages 13-18, were told they were participating in a small social network similar to the popular photo-sharing app, Instagram. In an experiment at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, the researchers showed them 148 photographs on a computer screen for 12 minutes, including 40 photos that each teenager submitted, and analyzed their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Each photo also displayed the number of likes it had supposedly received from other teenage participants — in reality, the number of likes was assigned by the researchers. (At the end of the procedure, the participants were told that the researchers decided on the number of likes a photo received.)

“When the teens saw their own photos with a large number of likes, we saw activity across a wide variety of regions in the brain,” said lead author Lauren Sherman, a researcher in the brain mapping center and the UCLA branch of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles.

Source: Teenage brain on social media: Study sheds light on influence of peers and much more — ScienceDaily

“The rise of long-term robots may be upon us”

We all know that computerized and automated trading has had a huge impact on short-term trading, simply by exploiting the speed of computers to react to market changes faster than humans can (or other, slightly slower computers); but could artificial intelligence have an effect on long-term trading?

AIs offer a new form of investment technology that, for the first time in 4,000 years, could give investors a truly game-changing edge that doesn’t rely so heavily on speed.

AIs will be able to consider — just as AlphaGo did for Go — deeper risks and even uncertainties of future markets, future growth and future scenarios and, in turn, provide investors with tools that can dramatically increase long-term returns. Looking out over a longer time horizon, an AI could learn to unearth factors that are truly material for an underlying company or asset and then base investment recommendations on the performance of those characteristics. It may take time for these performances to be realized, but that’s not a problem for long-term investors.

Imagine then that these inferential tools become so powerful that asset managers stop relying on trading technologies for their edge and begin to rely on inferential technologies that extend the average holding periods of investments. Crazy? Well, as my postdoc at Stanford, Dane Rook, occasionally reminds me, we are surely nearing a hard limit in the speed of data transmission: Data can’t travel faster than the speed of light. However, is there any such equivalent upper bound to the inferential depth that is possible? It’s hard to say, but with enough data it may not be so!

The rise of long-term robots may be upon us, and that could be a catalyst for investment time horizons to reverse their current downward trend. That’d be a very good thing for the future of finance and, indeed, capitalism.

Source: Rise, Long-Term Robots. Rise! | Institutional Investor

Tim Wu on the “sofalarity”

I missed this in when it first came out in 2014:

In his book “What Technology Wants,” Kelly writes: “Technology wants what life wants: Increasing efficiency; Increasing opportunity; Increasing emergence; Increasing complexity; Increasing diversity; Increasing specialization; Increasing ubiquity; Increasing freedom; Increasing mutualism; Increasing beauty; Increasing sentience; Increasing structure; Increasing evolvability.”

We can test the “Increasing” theory by taking a quick trip up north, to an isolated area south of the Hudson Bay. Here live the Oji-Cree, a people, numbering about thirty thousand, who inhabit a cold and desolate land roughly the size of Germany. For much of the twentieth century, the Oji-Cree lived at a technological level that can be described as relatively simple. As nomads, they lived in tents during the summer, and in cabins during the winter. Snowshoes, dog sleds, and canoes were the main modes of transportation, used to track and kill fish, rabbits, and moose for food. A doctor who worked with the Oji-Cree in the nineteen-forties has noted the absence of mental breakdowns or substance abuse within the population, observing that “the people lived a rugged, rigorous life with plenty of exercise.” The Oji-Cree invariably impressed foreigners with their vigor and strength. Another visitor, in the nineteen-fifties, wrote of their “ingenuity, courage, and self-sacrifice,” noting that, in the North, “only those prepared to face hardship and make sacrifices could survive.”

The Oji-Cree… no longer face the threat of winter starvation, which regularly killed people in earlier times…. But, in the main, the Oji-Cree story is not a happy one. Since the arrival of new technologies, the population has suffered a massive increase in morbid obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Social problems are rampant: idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide have reached some of the highest levels on earth.

Technology is not the only cause of these changes, but scientists have made clear that it is a driving factor. In previous times, the Oji-Cree lifestyle required daily workouts that rivalled those of a professional athlete. “In the early 20th century,” writes one researcher, “walking up to 100 km/day was not uncommon.” But those days are over, replaced by modern comforts. Despite the introduction of modern medicine, the health outcomes of the Oji-Cree have declined in ways that will not be easy to reverse. The Oji-Cree are literally being killed by technological advances….

If we’re not careful, our technological evolution will take us toward not a singularity but a sofalarity. That’s a future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts. (Tim Wu, “As Technology Gets Better, Will Society Get Worse?”)

Indigenous People in Video Games

The Raven and the Light starts with a car crash. It ends with an almost dream-like ascent to a state of transcendence, narrated by the myth the title describes—a Northwest folk tale. Everything in between thrusts the player into a world that for some will be foreign, but for North America’s indigenous population, is and has long been painfully real.

Your character in this horror game (mostly unseen and unheard throughout) explores a fictional residential school called Mother Mary’s Residential School for Indian Students….

Not many video games would dare venture into a subject as touchy as Canada’s dark history of residential schooling and the damage that it inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of indigenous students…. The purpose of The Raven and the Light is to introduce this history. And it does this with a story that is both fictional and not. Its invented details (characters and places) might not be real, but the horror of the experience is. To wit, it uses fictional horror to teach its players about the experience of a real-life terror.

Source: The Difficult History of Indigenous People in Video Games

The unbearable lightness of being a WordPress XML file that wants to be imported into Evernote

In the early 1990s, one of the regular refrains of electronic publishing enthusiasts like William Mitchell and George Landow and Richard Lanham was that the brave new world of zeroes and ones would make information incredibly fluid. You could write something in Lisbon, and people could read it instantly in Los Angeles or Lagos. Nothing need ever be lost, or forgotten. Information would fly freely, hopping carefree from place to place and platform to platform.


Yeah, right.

I recently moved this blog from Typepad to WordPress, and during the migration it occurred to me that it would be good to be able to access all the stuff I’d written over the years– about 7500 posts– in Evernote, or even Scrivener (which I love but which is starting to get creaky). Downloading a copy of your posts from WordPress is not hard; but getting it into Evernote, or into Scrivener, requires both an immense amount of cleanup and wrangling, AND an understanding of the details of different flavors of XML (which XML was SUPPOSED TO FIX WASN’T IT?) that’s above my capacity right now.

Computational devices

Really amazing that in the twenty years since I worked at Britannica, and we were excited about the coming of SGML, that we’re still dealing with proprietary formats, import/export problems, calculating how many days it would take to do the mind-numbing work of cleaning up files, etc. etc. Just amazing.

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