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November 27, 2016

Fake news sucks but isn't the end of civilization

Because fake news only works if it captures our attention, and because presenting ideas that are outside the normal range is a very effective way to capture our attention, fake news will with some inevitably tend to present extreme positions.

Real news items often uses the same technique these days: serious news stories often will have clickbait headlines. “Clickbait, whether fake or real, thus tends to make us think that the world is full of extremes. The normal doesn’t seem very normal any more.”Clickbait, whether fake or real, thus tends to make us think that the world is full of extremes. The normal doesn’t seem very normal any more.

Of course, clickbait is nothing new. Tabloids have been using it forever. For the past thirty years, in the US, local TV stations have featured the latest stabbing or fire as the lead story on the news. (This is usually said to have begun in Miami
, and is characterized as “If it bleeds, it leads,” i.e., it is the first item in the news broadcast.)

At the same time, however, the Internet makes it easier than ever to find news that doesn’t simply try to set our nerves on fire. Fact checking abounds, at sites dedicated to the task and as one of the most common of distributed Internet activities. Even while we form echo chambers that reinforce our beliefs, “we are also more likely than ever before to come across contrary views”we are also more likely than ever before to come across contrary views. Indeed, I suspect (= I have no evidence) that one reason we seem so polarized is that we can now see the extremities of belief that have always been present in our culture — extremities that in the age of mass communication were hidden from us.

Now that there are economic reasons to promulgate fake news — you can make a good living at it — we need new mechanisms to help us identify it, just as the rise of “native advertising” (= ads that pose as news stories) has led to new norms about letting the reader know that they’re ads. The debate we’re currently having is the discussion that leads to new techniques and norms.

Some of the most important techniques can best be applied by the platforms through which fake news promulgates. We need to press those platforms to do the right thing, even if it means a marginal loss of revenues for them. The first step is to stop them from thinking, as I believe some of them genuinely do, that they are mere open platforms that cannot interfere with what people say and share on them. Baloney. As Zeynep Tufekci, among others, has repeatedly pointed out, these platforms already use algorithms to decide which items to show us from the torrent of possibilities. Because the major Western platforms genuinely hold to democratic ideals, they may well adjust their algorithms to achieve better social ends. I have some hope about this.

Just as with spam, “native advertising,” and popup ads, we are going to have to learn to live with fake news both by creating techniques that prevent it from being as effective as it would like to be and by accepting its inevitability. If part of this is that we learn to be more “meta” — not accepting all content at its face value — then fake news will be part of our moral and intellectual evolution.

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November 22, 2016

[liveblog][bkc] Scott Bradner: IANA: Important, but not for what they do"

I’m at a Berkman Klein [twitter: BKCHarvard] talk by Scott Bradner about IANA, the Internet Assigned Names Authority. Scott is one of the people responsible for giving us the Internet. So, thanks for that, Scott!

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Scott begins by pointing to the “absurdity” of Ted Cruz’s campaign
to prevent the “Internet giveaway.”“ The idea that “Obama gave away the Internet” is “hooey,”” The idea that “Obama gave away the Internet” is “hooey,” says Scott.

IANA started with a need to coordinate information, not to control it, he says. It began with the Network Working Group in 1968. Then Requests for Comments (RFC) in 1969. . The name “IANA” showed up in 1988, although the function had begun in 1972 with coordinating socket numbers. The Domain Name System made IP addresses easier to use, including the hierarchical clustering under .com, .org, etc.

Back to the beginning, computers were too expensive for every gov’t department to have one. So, ARPA wanted to share large and expensive computers among users. It created a packet-based network, which broke info up into packets that were then transmitted. Packet networking was the idea of Paul Baran at RAND who wanted a system that would survive a nuclear strike, but the aim of that network was to share computers. The packets had enough info to make it to their destinations, but the packet design made “no assumptions about the underlying transport network.” No service guarantees about packets making it through were offered. The Internet is the interconnection of the different networks, including the commercial networks that began showing up in the 1990s.

No one cared about the Net for decades. To the traditional telecom and corporate networking people, it was just a toy—”No quality of service, no guarantees, no security, no one in charge.” IBM thought you couldn’t build a network out of this because their definition of a network — the minimal requirements — was different. “That was great because it meant the regulators ignored us.”

The IANA function went into steady state 1984-1995. It did some allocating of addresses. (When Scott asked Jon Postel for addresses for Harvard, Postel sent him some; Postel was the one-person domain allocation shop.) IANA ran it for the top level domains.

“The Internet has few needs,” Scott says. It’s almost all done through collaboration and agreement. There are no requirements except at a very simple level. The only centralized functions: 1. We have to agree on what the protocol parameters are. Machines have to understand how to read the packet headers. 2. We have to allocate blocks of IP addresses and ASN‘s. 3. We have to have a single DNS, at least for now. IANA handles those three. “Everything else is distributed.” Everything else is collaboration.

In 1993, Network Solutions was given permission to start selling domain names. A domain cost $100 for 2 yrs. There were were about 100M names at that point, which added up to real money. Some countries even started selling off their TLD’s (top level domains), e.g., .tv

IANA dealt with three topics, but DNS was the only one of interest to most people. There was pressure to create new TLDs, which Scott thinks doesn’t solve any real problems. That power was given to ISOC, which set up the International Ad-Hoc Committee in 1996. It set up 7 new TLDs, one of which (.web) caused Image Online Design to sue Postel because they said Postel had promised it to them. The Dept. of Commerce saw that it needed to do something. So they put out an RFC and got 400+ comments. Meanwhile, Postel worked on a plan for institutionalizing the IANA function, which culminated in a conference in Jan 1998. Postel couldn’t go, so Scott presented in his stead.

Shortly after that the Dept of Commerce proposed having a private non-profit coordinate and manage the allocation of the blocks to the registries, manage the file that determines TLDs, and decide which TLDs should exist…the functions of IANA. “There’s no Internet governance here, simply what IANA did.”

There were meetings around the world to discuss this, including one sponsored by the Berkman Center. Many of the people attending were there to discuss Internet governance, which was not the point of the meetings. One person said, “Why are we wasting time talking about TLDs when the Internet is going to destroy countries?” “Most of us thought that was a well-needed vacuum,” says Scott. We didn’t need Internet governance. We were better off without it.

Jon Postel submitted a proposal for an Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). He died of a heart attack shortly thereafter. The Dept. of Commerce accepted the proposal. In Oct 1998 ICANN had its first board meeting. It was a closed meeting “which anticipated much of what’s wrong with ICANN.”

The Dept of Commerce had oversight over ICANN but its only power was to say yes or no to the file that lists the TLDs and the IP addresses of the nameservers for each of the TLDs.” “That’s the entirety of the control the US govt had over ICANN. “In theory, the Dept of Commerce could have said ‘Take Cuba out of that file,’ but that’s the most ridiculous thing they could have done and most of the world could have ignored them.” The Dept of Commerce never said no to ICANN.

ICANN institutionalizes the IANA. But it also has to deal with trademark issues coming out of domain name registrations, and consults on DNS security issues. “ICANN was formed as a little organization to replace Jon Postel.”

It didn’t stay little. ICANN’s budget went from a few million bucks to over $100M.“ “That’s a lot of money to replace a few competent geeks.”” “That’s a lot of money to replace a few competent geeks.” It’s also approved hundreds of TLDs. The bylaws went from 7,000 words to 37,000 words. “If you need 37,000 words to say what you’re doing, there’s something wrong.”

The world started to change. Many govts see the Net as an intrinsic threat.

  • In Sept. 2001, India, Brazil, and South Africa proposed that the UN undertake governance of the Internet.

  • Oct 2013: After Snowden, the Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation proposing moving away from US govt’s oversight of IANA.

  • Apr. 2014: NetMundial Initiative. “Self-appointed 25-member council to perform internet governance.”

  • Mar. 2014: NTIA announces its intent to transition key domain name functions.

The NTIA proposal was supposed to involve all the stakeholders. But it also said that ICANN should continue to maintain the openness of the Internet…a function that ICANN never had. Openness arises from the technical nature of the Net. NTIA said it wouldn’t accept an inter-governmental solution (like the ITU) because it has to involve all the stakeholders.

So who holds ICANN accountable? They created a community process that is “incredibly strong.” It can change the bylaws, and remove ICAN directors or the entire board.

Meanwhile, the US Congress got bent out of shape because the US is “giving away the Internet.” It blocked the NTIA from acting until Sept. 2016. On Oct. 1 IANA became independent and is under the control of the community. “This cannot be undone.” “If the transition had not happened, forces in the UN would likely have taken over” governance of the Internet. This would have been much more likely if the NTIA had not let it go. “The IANA performs coordination functions, not governance. There is no Internet governance.”

How can there be no governance? “Because nobody cared for long enough that it got away from them,” Scott says. “But is this a problem we have to fix?”

He leaves the answer hanging. [SPOILER: The answer is NO]

Q&A

Q: Under whom do the IRI‘s [Internationalized Resource Identifier] operate?

A: Some Europeans offered to take over European domain names from Jon Postel. It’s an open question whether they have authority to do what they’re doing Every one has its own policy development process.

Q: Where’s research being done to make a more distributed Internet?

A: There have been many proposals ever since ICANN was formed to have some sort of distributed maintenance of the TLDs. But it always comes down to you seeing the same .com site as I do — the same address pointing to the same site for all Internet users. You still have to centralize or at least distribute the mapping. Some people are looking at geographic addressing, although it doesn’t scale.

Q: Do you think Trump could make the US more like China in terms of the Internet?

A: Trump signed on to Cruz’s position on IANA. The security issue is a big one, very real. The gut reaction to recent DDOS
attacks is to fix that rather than to look at the root cause, which was crappy devices. The Chinese government controls the Net in China by making everyone go through a central, national connection. Most countries don’t do that. OTOH, England is imposing very strict content

rules that all ISPs have to obey. We may be moving to a telephony model, which is a Westphalian
idea of national Internets.

Q: The Net seems to need other things internationally controlled, e.g. buffer bloat. Peer pressure seems to be the only way: you throw people off who disagree.

A: IANA doesn’t have agreements with service providers. Buffer bloat is a real issue but it only affects the people who have it, unlike the IoT DDOS attack that affected us all. Are you going to kick off people who’s home security cameras are insecure?

Q: Russia seems to be taking the opposite approach. It has lots of connections coming into it, perhaps for fear that someone would cut them off. Terrorist groups are cutting cables, botnets, etc.

A: Great question. It’s not clear there’s an answer.

Q: With IPv6 there are many more address spaces to give out. How does that change things?

A: The DNS is an amazing success story. It scales extremely well … although there are scaling issues with the backbone routing systems, which are big and expensive. “That’s one of the issues we wanted to address when we did IPv6.”

Q: You said that ICANN has a spotty history of transparency. What role do you think ICANN is going to play going forward? Can it improve on its track record?

A: I’m not sure that it’s relevant. IANA’s functions are not a governance function. The only thing like a governance issue are the TLDs and ICANN has already blown that.

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November 15, 2016

[liveblog][bkc] Aaron Perzanowski: The End of Ownership

I’m at a Berkman Klein Center lunchtime talk. Aaron Perzanowski is talking about “The End of Ownership,” the topic of his new book of the same name, written with Jason Schultz. Aaron is a law professor at Case Western Reserve Law School.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Normally we consumers take for granted rights for physical goods that come from the principle of exhaustion: when you sell something, you exhaust your rights to control it. That’s why we have used book stores and eBay and we can lend a novel to a friend. In this way, the copyright system gives end users a reason to participate: if you buy it, you can do what you want with it.

Aaron Perzanowski:

Online we use familiar forms of ownership: buy, rent, gift. This means that consumers don’t have to figure out every purchase from scratch; we have the basic understanding. Or do we?

The book talks about the erosion of the concept of exhaustion and the rights that flow from it.

First, copies themselves are disappearing. We used to own a copy. Now we subscribe to content streaming from the cloud. Copies are no longer rare, valuable, persistent.

Second, courts have redefined who counts as an owner. It used to be that if you paid money for it, and you paid for it once (i.e., not a subscription), then you owned it. In 1908, the courts decided that Bobbs Merrill couldn’t control the price for which a purchased copy could be re-sold. Now, end user license agreements routinely say that you have not bought a copy and thus you can not re-sell it.

He contrasts two cases from the 9th District Court of Appeal that were decided back to back on the same day, and that are totally inconsistent. In the first case, a promotional copy of a CD had stamped on it that accepting the CD binds the recipient to a prohibition on transferring it to someone else. The court said that you can’t impose ongoing obligations that travel around with the disk.

“We’ve passed the logical breaking point…”In the same case, on the same day, the same panel considered who owns the CD in the AutoCAD package. It contained the same sort of license. The court decided that those disks were licensed by users, not owned.

Q: The music CD was unsolicited. But I bought the AutoCAD disk.

A: Do you have more or less ownership interest in something you got for free or something you paid $8,000 for?

Early in the software industry, it wasn’t certain that sw could be patented or protected by copyright, so licenses played a bigger role. But now sw is everywhere, not just on little disks. Which bring us to Digital Rights Management (DRM). At first it was at least somewhat related to protecting IP. But we’ve passed the logical breaking point, E.g., Lexmark doesn’t want people to refill their printer ink cartridges. So they had code on their printers that detected non-Lexmark cartridges or refills and wouldn’t use them. The courts disagreed.

Apple recently got a patent on using infrared light recording to disable recording on your iPhone. If a concert broadcasts this light, your phone won’t be able to record it. Or if you’re a police officer who doesn’t want to be recorded. This is an example of how tech can turn the devices you think you own against you.

“The Internet of Things is really the Internet of Things you don’t own.”The Internet of Things is really the Internet of Things you don’t own. John Deer tractors have sw embedded in them that is licensed to the owner of the tractor. GM says the same thing about cars. Another example of “machine mutiny”: Keurig.

The final problem: The deceptive “Buy Now” button. You’re usually not really buying anything. E.g., remember when Amazon deleted copies of 1984 from Kindles? “What rights do people think they have when they ‘buy now.'” Aaron and Jason did an experiment that showed that if people bought through a “by now” button, they thought they have the right to keep, device, lend, and give their copy. People make this mistake because they port over their real-world understanding of buying goods.

Q&A

Q: How does this work internationally?

A: An international exhaustion regime could have dramatic consequences for people in less developed economies. I worry about this, but I don’t know the answer. It’s very tough to generalize.

Q: How does consumer understanding of this affect pricing?

A: We tested this. Would consumers behave differently if they knew the truth? We asked how much more people would be willing to pay. It was worth about $3 more for those rights, although we didn’t ask them to actually pay that money. [Amazon lets you stream a video for 24 hrs for $3-$5 or buy for somewhere around $15, or so I recall.]

Q: How are the demographics in their understanding of the rights they’re buying?

A: Generally white men 30+ were the least accurate. They assumed they were entitled to all the rights.

Q: How are the streaming services doing in terms of the confusion?

A: We haven’t researched it specifically but my intuition is that people aren’t as confused. They know that if they don’t pay their Spotify bill, they won’t have the service next month.

A: Disney will never again release Song of the South because it’s embarrassing. The loss of a cultural object like this is very disturbing.

Q: Is people’s sense of fairness shifting so we won’t be bothered by, say, GM turning off your car’s software?

A: This is a problem with dealing with consumer expectations. We’re advocating for one set, but they’re going in the other direction. We’ve situated our argument in the language of property because it’s incredibly powerful. That’s how sw owners argue their cases: “We own this property, so we get to say how it’s used.” But the property rights of IP holders shares a border with the stuff that we as consumers own.

Q: What can be done to change the trajectory?

A: The parallels to the privacy world are instructive. The people we surveyed took these concerns about ownership to heart in a way that they don’t in the privacy context.

A: You’ve only touched the tip of the ice berg. The problem is worse than you’ve indicated.

Yes, there is a broader problem.

A: [me] Take away the deception about “Buy” buttons and one could argue that customers simply have (or will have) more options. Does your focus on the property argument misses the cultural damage that unbundling licenses will wreak?

Q: This is why we talk about exhaustion. We’re trying to explain to people why ownership matters to culture. It’;s risky to argue that we just need to correct the misinformation. But there’s some hope. The only sector of the music market growing faster than Spotify et al. is vinyl. It’s a smaller percent of the market, but there are people who will pay a price premium for something that’s tangible and that’s theirs. Likewise, physical books haven’t gone away the way people [er, like me] predicted.

If it turns out that we as a culture don’t value these objects, that we want to pay $9.99 for access to everything, there’s not a lot that I can do other than point out the virtue of this other path.

Q: Are you identifying values connected to our ownership of tangible items that we ought to be defending as we move to digital items?

A: “Property functions as a stand-in for individual freedom.”Property functions as a stand-in for individual freedom. It gives individuals the right to make choices without asking anyone for permission. Thirty years ago, you could repair your car without asking anyone for permission.

Q: Have there been court cases about medical devices?

A: Not that I know of. But we give some examples in the book where individual users want to improve their functional. Manufacturers don’t want to let users monkey with them. Car companies say the same thing.

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November 11, 2016

Life will, uh, find a way

Mike Ananny [twitter: ananny] had to guest-lecture a class about media, communications and news on Nov. 9. He recounts the session with an implicit sense of wonder that we can lift our head up from the dirt after that giant Monty Python jackboot dropped on us.

monty pyton foot

It’s a reminder that step by step, we’ll make some progress back to where we were and then beyond.

No, I don’t really believe that. Not yet.

But I will.

Thanks to you.

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November 6, 2016

United Needs Info: a screenplay

United Airline’s new app let’s you watch free entertainment on flights on your Android or IoS device. But it wants to know a lot about you first:

United app's permissions

Some find that a tad intrusive. Not at all. Let me explain why…


You’re watching a movie on the new United in-flight app when suddenly a perfectly groomed middle-aged white man in an expensive suit and a carefully cropped goatee stands up and announces that the plane is now under his control. He turns his palms up, and one by one six young men rise from their seats spaced throughout the plane. Their dark faces are covered by bandanas so that all you can see are their dark eyes and dark skin. One of them coughs in Arabic.

All of your instincts, honed by years in a service known by a three-letter acronym that no one knows, not even you, come into play.

You gently swipe your thumb, scarred and weary from your many exploits, across your iPhone7™ on which you had been watching a movie, using United’s revolutionary YouScreen Personal Full Entertainment System — the Home of the Whopper — revealing what to the shapely white woman in the seat next to yours appears to be a game of Ultimate Fighter. The quizzical but charmed look on her face says she’s thinking it’s an odd time to play a game. But you know better.

Click left-right-right-up-up-A-left-D-down-right-down-down-up-A-A-B-A and … you’re in.

YouScreen slides a special screen in front of its usual friendly GUI. The YouScreen ATM (Anti-Terrorist Mode) displays blinky data and little fiddly bits against a camo background. It does a quick matrix analysis and reports on all non-white passengers currently not activating their AIS (Ass In Seat) sensor.

Got ’em!

The YouScreen’s map reveals that the one closest to you, in seat 16B, has some Arabic name that sounds all the same to you, lives in, let’s say, Iran, has been treated for cardiac arrhythmia, and during the flight watched two Jennifer Aniston movies and an episode of “Touched by an Angel.” He is clearly the weak point where you can begin.

But then you notice something interesting. YouScreen tells you that the man standing at the front of the plane is Fritz Deutscher, a German national. YouScreen reports that his phone is filled with TED Talks about leading through intimidation, and that he recently searched for “shoe inserts that embiggen you.” You can see that on his calendar are weekly therapy appointments, and twice weekly tanning sessions. There are daily skype calls to and from his mother with an average her-to-him talk time ratio of 14:1. Herr Deutscher may look tough, but is quite insecure.

You have the YouScreen ATM call Deutscher’s mobile using the special ring tone he’s set for his mother. As he lifts it to his face, you have it take a selfie, knowing that the lighting in the plane is low enough to trigger the flash. He is just for a moment dazed, confused — why is Mutti calling him in his moment of triumph? Why can’t he ever satisfy her? — and blinded.

You are out of your seat. Within moments you have subdued the terrorists.

Humbly waving off the cheers from the rest of the passengers, you slip back into your seat. The white woman next to you touches your hand. You go back to your movie.

And that movie is … Die Hard. Or maybe Air Force One. Something self-knowing and ironic. Doesn’t matter.

[Fade out]


You see, ladies and gentlemen, it’s all for your safety and convenience.

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November 1, 2016

[liveblog][bkc] Paola Villarreal on Public Interest in Data Science

I’m at a Berkman Klein Center lunch time talk by Paola Villarreal [twitter: paw], a BKC fellow, on “Public Interest in Data Science.” (Paola points to a github page for her project info.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.


Public interest, she says, is the effecting of changes in social policies in the interest of the public, especially for the underdog. Data science extracts knowledge and insight from data in various forms, using math, statistics, research, info science and computer science. “What happens if you put data and tech in the hands of civil liberties orgs, human rights activists, media outlets”What happens if you put data and tech in the hands of civil liberties orgs, human rights activists, media outlets, and governments? How might this effect liberty, justice, equality, and transparency and accountability?


She is going to talk about the Data for Justice project, which is supported by the Ford Foundation, the ACLU, and the Mozilla Foundation. The aim is to empower lawyers and advocates to make data-supported cases for improving justice in their communities.


The process: get the data, normalize it, process it, analyze it, visualize it … and then socialize it, inform change, and make it last! She cautions that it is crucial to make sure that you’ve identified the affected communities and that they’re involved in generating a solution. All the stakeholders should be involved in co-designing the solution.


Paola talks about the Annie Dookhan case. Dookhan was a chemist at a Massachusetts crime lab, who falsified evidence, possibly affecting 24,000 cases. Paola shows a table of data: the percentage of adults and juveniles convicted in drug cases and those whose evidence went through Dookhan. It’s a very high number: in some counties, over 25% of the drug convictions used possibly falsified data from Dookhan.


She shows a map of Boston that shows that marijuana-related police interactions occur mainly where people of color live. She plays a clip from marijuana,justiceos.org.


She lists her toolkit, which includes R, Stata, PostGIS, Ant (Augmented Narrative Toolkit),
and Tableau


But what counts is having an impact, she says. That means reaching out to journalists, community organizers, authorities, and lawmakers.


She concludes that data and tech do not do anything by themselves, and data scientists are only one part of a team with a common goal. The intersection of law and data is important. She concludes: Data and tech in the hands of people working with and for the public interest can have an impact on people’s lives.


Q&A

Q: Why are communities not more often involved?


A: It’s hard. It’s expensive. And data scientists are often pretty far removed from community organizing.


Q: Much of the data you’re referring to are private. How do you manage privacy when sharing the data?


A: In the Dookhan case, the data was impounded, and I used security measures. The Boston maps showing where incidents occurred smudged the info across a grid of about half a mile.


A: Kate Crawford talks about how important Paola’s research was in the Dookhan case. “It’s really valuable for the ACLU to have a scientist working on data like this.”


Q: What happened to the people who were tried with Dookhan evidence?


A: [ann] Special magistrates and special hearings were set up…


Q: [charlie nesson] A MOOC is considering Yes on 4 (marijuana legalization ballot question) and someone asked if there is a relationship between cannabis reform and Black Lives Matter. And you’ve answered that question. It’s remarkable that BLM hasn’t cottoned on to cannabis reform as a sister issue.


Q: I’ve been reading Cathy O’Neil‘s Weapons of Math Destruction [me too!] and I’m wondering if you could talk about your passion for social justice as a data scientist.


A: I’m Mexican. I learned to code when I was 12 because I had access to the Internet. I started working as a web developer at 15, and a few years later I was director of IT for the president’s office. I reflected on how I got that opportunity, and the answer was that it was thanks to open source. That inspired me.


Q: We are not looking at what happens to black women. They get criminalized even more often than black men. Also, has anyone looked at questions of environmental justice?


Q: How can we tell if a visualization is valid or is propaganda? Are there organizations doing this?


A: Great question, and I don’t know how to answer it. We publish the code, but of course not everyone can understand it. I’m not using AI or Deep Learning; I’m keeping it simple.


Q: What’s the next big data set you’re going to work on?


A: (She shows a visualization tool she developed that explores police budgets.)


Q: How do you work with journalists? Do you bring them in early?


A: We haven’t had that much interaction with them yet.

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October 25, 2016

[liveblog] Tim Wu

Tim Wu [Twitter: superwuster] is giving a talk jointly sponsored by the Shorenstein Center and the Berkman Klein Center. His new book is The Attention Merchants.  He is introduced by Erie Meyer, a Shorenstein fellow this year.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Tim begins by noting that he was at the Berkman Center at its beginning, when it was pretty much just Charlie Nesson and Jonathan Zittrain.

He says that his new book is the “history of a business model”: the re-sale of human attention. This model has “long anchored the media,” but now has “exploded into all parts of our lives.” It’s part of many business models these days. Even the national parks are selling naming rights to trails.

“Maybe a thousand times a day, something tries to get us to spend maybe a micro-second” to notice something. “The deepest ambition of the book is to say that this is having an effect on the human condition.” He points to the casino effect where you get distracted by links and an hour later you say, “What just happened?” He’s concerned about a model that has us taking our attention away from people and our surroundings and into a commercial space.

The book is a history, he says. “”Newspapers once upon a time were not a mass media.” In 1830 NY’s biggest paper’s circulation was 2,000.”“Newspapers once upon a time were not a mass media.” In 1830 NY’s biggest paper’s circulation was 2,000. Papers were expensive. So, Benjamin Day — “the first attention merchant” — lowered the price of his paper to a penny, and covered a broader range of topics, “human interest stories for a mass audience.”. E.g., the first story in his paper, The NY Sun, was about tragic lovers. He was selling his audience to the advertisers.

“We’re in a time when we’re almost addicted to free stuff — free content, free services.” But people have begun to realize that we are then the product. “What’s being resold is something very scarce: human attention.” And as food, shelter, clothing, etc., are abundant, so the scarce things become even more valuable. We have 168 hours in a week, and that is one of the last scarce resources. “The models of free are scrambling to get at that resource.”

ERIE: You say in the book that trash-talking grabs our attention.

TIM: Many of the current techniques are quite old. E.g., Trolls. The NY Sun attracted competitors, including the NY Tribune. The Trib got attention by picking fights with other newspaper editors. He was the first troll. It worked. “We’ve seen recently that you can run an entire campaign just by insulting people.” The Sun fought back with even more salacious stories. E.g., “it reported that a scientist had discovered life on the moon, including trees, horse-like animals, and man-bats. They never retracted it.”it reported that a scientist had discovered life on the moon, including trees, horse-like animals, and man-bats. They never retracted it.

ERIE: As you point out, one of them grabbed attention by being pro-Abolition, which caused the others to become rabidly anti-Abolition.

TIM: The book doesn’t totally condemn that attention-seeking model, but it warns about its tendency to run to the most lurid content. This makes for constant ethical problems.

ERIE: You talk about the Oprah model…

TIM: “Orpah Winfrey is one of the great innovators in this area.” She was a fully integrated celebrity, production company, advertising company, and a tv network, all in one. She created product endorsements that drove a lot of advertising. She also married the appeal of ministry (salvation, forgiveness, transcendence) and commercialism. By 1995, she was making more money in entertainment than anyone else and gave rise to celebrities who are themselves attention merchants. E.g., Martha Stewart, Donald Trump: the celebrity builds her/his own media empire. Tim expects this to be the future.

One of the subtexts of the book, Tim says, is that the value of human attention was not widely recognized until the 20th century, except for organized religion. The entities interested in what you spent your time doing, before the 20th century, were organized religions that wanted you praying, and going to church, and in various ways to keep God on your mind.” In some ways, Tim says, the story of the book is the story of government and business figuring out that this is valuable resource. The govt realizes it when they see they can raise an army through govt propaganda. Industry, after govt, realizes they can sell products if they have public attention.

ERIE: Can you talk about micro-celebrities?

TIM: There’s a fascinating change in celebrity. (Tim name-checks me for the line “In the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people.”) And reality tv offers the lottery of fame to anyone. This has some consistency with the American dream: Everyone can have their own land and be sort of wealthy. “We have this idea that everyone can be famous.” The negative side of this is that in fact the disparities remain: it’s extremely hard to become famous, and the pursuit of it leads to empty lives. “It’s not like you write something and people read it.” The main reason is biological: ““The default setting of our brain is to ignore everything.”The default setting of our brain is to ignore everything.”

You can control attention to some degree, but it’s always darting around, and you can really only attend to one thing at once.

ERIE: You say the first ad blocker was a remote control…

TIM: In the 1920s, Zenith was a maverick company. The head of it (“The Commodore”) thought commercials had ruined radio. He had his engineers work on ad-blocking software for TV. They came up with the remote control. Originally it was a gun so you could shoot out the commercials. There have been other revolts. In Paris, there was a revolt against posters. In Paris, advertising is still restricted to certain areas. We may be in another such period now. (He mentions the Brave browserthat blocks ads from the gitgo.) “I believe in the power and legitimacy of results.”

ERIE: “You’ve said that if you have a mission in life, it’s to fight bullies.” What should aspiring entrepreneurs do?

TIM: I struggle with this. “A lot of people who have gone into tech have been very idealistic people.” The pay-for-content models haven’t worked so well. One chapter tells the story of decision-making at Google. At one point, it was bleeding money and didn’t know what to do, so they thought about advertising. But in 1996 Larry Page had written a manifesto that declared that advertising-funded search engines will always be biased and will never serve the interests of people. But Google thought it could square the circle with Adwords: a form of advertising that made the product better and didn’t bother people. That was true at the beginning. If an ad showed up, which usually didn’t happen, it’d be useful to you.

But the demands of the ad-based model have increased. The longer it gets, the worse it gets. They’ve increasingly blurred the lines between the organic results and the ads. Google Maps shows us things and it sometimes unclear why. Most of the major platforms haven’t gotten much better for consumers over the past few years, but have gotten better for advertisers. A developer said, ““The best minds of our generation have gone to getting people to click on ads.”The best minds of our generation have gone to getting people to click on ads.”

Tech is a key driver these days, he says. “Which has changed your life more? Government or tech?” I wish Google had considered a different kind of corporate form or model. “I give Wikipedia a lot of credit for going non-commercial. I give even more to the original creators of the Internet who just built it and put it out there.” E.g., the creator of email didn’t look for a business model. Likewise for the creators of the Internet Protocol or the Web.

ERIE: Have you ever clicked on an ad on purpose?

TIM: I think yes. I think I wanted to buy those razors.

Q & A

Q: Two positive examples: FB put out the call to register to vote. Services raise money for worthy causes.

A: Yes. Gathering up attention for some purpose isn’t inherently good or evil. The book argues for carving out quiet spaces, but I believe in the Habermasian public sphere.

Q: Platforms can abandon ads but show us content based on who pays them. How can we rebel against what we can’t see?

A: Ad-blockers are not the most sustainable form of rebellion. I’ve decided that my attitude that I should never pay for anything on the Web came from my adolescent years. You have to support the content you like. “”There’s a difference between buying and supporting.””“There’s a difference between buying and supporting.”

Q: How about “Society as Spectacle“? And Kevin Kelly’s True Fan theory?

A: Paid models support a much broader variety of content. Ad models require the underlying content to more generally be mass content. That’s one of the reason that TV has gotten better over the past fifteen years. Ad supported TV drove to the middle. TV now gets 50% of its revenue from non-advertising.

Q: What’s been your hardest struggle to regain control of your attention?

A: All books probably come from a personal place. Control of attention is a struggle for me. One of the places I decided I needed to write this book was during a 10-day solo trip in the Utah desert. Time seemed to pass in very different ways. An hour could feel like a week. I felt like the modern regime was having me lose control. I like the Web, but I found I didn’t like the way I’d spent my time. I wish I’d spent time on activities I’d consciously chosen. I like JS Mills’ Chapter 3: Life is a matter of autonomy and self-development, and you need to make decisions that are yours.

Q: Is your a book is a manifesto for policy change, or a self-help book?

A: Can I have a third option?

Q: Are there policy implications?

A: I struggled with how much to make this legally prescriptive. Should I end the book with policy proposals? I decided not to, for a number of reasons. One had to do with craft: those last chapters of policy prescriptions, after a book covering 200 years, are usually pathetic. It’s very hard to regulate well. A lot of it has to do with how people conduct their lives. Policies aren’t sensitive to individual situations. I have complex feelings about it and didn’t want to cram into the book. And then people focus on those prescriptions at the expense of the rest of the book.

“If you get down to it, there is room for a new era of consumer protection” that tries to protect attention. Especially when it’s not consensual. E.g., the back of a taxi cab where you’re forced to be exposed to ads. “Non-consensual things reaching you…in law we call that ‘battery’.”

Q: Is commerce in attention span part of a democracy? People have to learn things they would not willingly learn.

A: If we perfect our filters, we may live in worlds where we learn only what we want to learn. I have complicated ideas about this. The penny press did a good job of creating the sense of a public and public opinion. But I resist the idea that to be a democracy we have to all attend to the same sources of information. “In the 19th century, America was a flourishing democracy and there was no national media”In the 19th century, America was a flourishing democracy and there was no national media, and lived in geographically defined filter bubbles. I don’t pine for the 1950s when everyone watched the same news broadcasts. Building one’s character means making your own information environment.

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October 23, 2016

[Speculative Spoiler] WestWorld

Here’s a spoiler based on nothing. Please note that I’m never right.

The Man in Black (Ed Harris) wil be revealed to be a robot. He was created by the the dead co-founder for some reason, like to be the chaos principle that will drive the genetic algorithms, or some other such sciencey sounding thing. (This would invert the Jurassic Park idea in the assumption that we can control nature is disproven. In WestWorld, according to my made-up spoiler, the park would have built in a principle of chaos.)

So, that’s settled.

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October 14, 2016

What is it anyway?

I found this on Reddit. Can you tell what it is?



Click on the black stripe to find out: The gear that drives a lawn sprinkler

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October 13, 2016

Michelle Obama speaking truth

These are words we need to hear.

I will so miss her voice. I hope she will stay where we can hear her.

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