Joho the Blog

June 19, 2014

Getting YouTube’s “ban” on indie music wrong and right

YouTube is planning on banning indie music labels from their site? That can’t be right.

Despite the headlines, it probably isn’t. After running a misleading article, the Guardian has published a good clarifier.

As far as I can tell, the initial headlines left out a big FROM and IF clause: Indies will be blocked FROM the new Youtube subscription music-streaming service IF they don’t agree to the contract YouTube is offering. (The contract may be unfair, favor the majors, etc. but that’s still a big FROM and IF.)

The Guardian article then usefully clarifies just how muddy the waters are by pointing to conflicting and ambiguous evidence that YouTube may in fact ALSO block unsigned indies from the free service OR prevent the indies from monetizing their presence in the free service.

BTW, when the original kerfuffle arose, a Reddit thread was the best source of info I found. Reddit got it righter.

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June 18, 2014

[2b2k] The Despair of Knowledge

Jill Lepore has an excellent take-down in The New Yorker of Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. Yet I am unconvinced.

I thought I was convinced when I read it. It’s a brilliantly done piece, examining Christensen’s evidence, questioning his methods, and drawing appropriate lessons, including wondering why we accepted the Innovator’s Dilemma for decades without critically examining it. (Christensen became so famous for it that his last name isn’t even flagged as a spelling error on my Mac.)

I got de-convinced by a discussion on a mailing list I’m on that points to some weaknesses in Lepore’s own argument, including her use of “cherry-picked” examples — a criticism she levels at Christensen — and her assumption that the continuity of companies, as opposed to their return on assets, is the right measure. As a person on the mailing list points out, John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison take return on assets as a key metric in their book The Big Shift. And then someone else maintained that ROA is a poor measure of networked phenomena. That morphed into a discussion about the pragmatic value of truth: Does disruption provide a helpful framing for the New York Times as it considers its future?

The problem is that brains are truthy. They are designed to pay attention to things that seem to matter to us, bending our world around our concerns and interests. And brains are associative, so they make sense of the world — maybe even at the level of perception — by finding the relationships that seem to matter to us. In Heidegger’s terms, we are not indifferent knowing machines, but are creatures that care about what happens to us and to others. The brain is an unreliable narrator.

We now have access to an unfathomable sea of information that can contradict anything we settle on. That sea has been assembled by caring creatures and their minions, but it is so vast and global that it contains information beyond the caring and linking of any one of us. Every understanding can be subverted with a wink and a hand wave because all understanding simplifies a world that is resolutely and even necessarily complex. The universe outruns us.

Now we have machines that can look at masses of data and escape from our temptation to turn everything into a narrative. But those machines are limited by our decision about which data is worth gathering and connecting. There is hope in this direction, but it’s not clear whether we are capable of accepting the findings of machines that correlate without stories.

TL;DR: Our brains are truthy and the world is too big to make sense of. Not that that will stop us from trying.

 


[June 20:] Clay Christensen has cried foul in an interview.

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June 14, 2014

Reservations

Here’s a humor thing of the sort I sometimes write. You know, the sort that isn’t very funny. Enjoy

Reservations

A restaurant with three Michelin stars is now trying to up its customer service game by Googling its customers before they arrive. According to a report from Grub Street, an Eleven Madison Park maitre d’ performs Internet recon on every guest in the interest of customizing their experiences.

Casey Johnson, April 13, 2014, Ars Technica

[SCENE: Interior of the entryway of an upscale restaurant. A large LCD panel on a side wall announces that it is Chez Henri. A casually elegant maitre d' welcomes a couple dressed for a night out.]

Don: Hello, we have a reservation for…

Maître d’: Welcome, Ms. and Monsieur Hartman.

Don: Wow. Um, I’m Don Hartman…

Maître d’: Indeed! We’re so pleased you have chosen to dine with us tonight.

[Maître d' claps twice at the LCD. It now reads "Chez Randi & Don."]

Don: Oh, that seems a bit much.

Maître d’: Ah, on a normal night, yes, absolutely. But when Randi Hartman née Fox, co-director of the Rockvale Chamber of Commerce, shows up with Donald Hartman, Revco’s newly appointed Regional Manager of Operations, on her arm, within one week of their fifteenth wedding anniversary…

Don: I don’t think I mentioned any of that when I made the reservation.

Maître d’: You’ve barely changed, Ms. Hartman, if I may say so.

Randi: Thank you. I guess.

Maître d’: So we have tonight decided to adjust our menu to accommodate the difference in tastes exhibited in the — if I may — struggle at your wedding between the contemporary Japanese hors d’oeuvres and the classic French entrees.

[Claps twice at the LCD panel which updates to say "Chez Randi & Don: NY's Finest Sushi-Poisson Fusion Restaurant.]

Maître d’: As for the salad with mandarin oranges, we’ll just let that go by as a courteous response to a well-meaning new in-law.

[As they are taken to their seats, another couple enters and the LCD panel changes to display "Pat & Miriam's Yeehaw Chopsticks: NY's Finest Szechuan-Longhorn Fusion Restaurant"]

[SCENE: Don and Randi are seated at a table. Their waiter steps up.]

Marcus: Hello, Ms. and Mr. Hartman. I’m Marcus, and I’ll be your server tonight. May I offer you a cocktail on the house to celebrate your anniversary and also your reaching the half-way point in paying off your mortgage?

Don: Really? I didn’t realize…

Marcus: Halfway in terms of the number of payments, but unfortunately you won’t hit the halfway mark in the total amount you owe for another 3 years and two months. Do come back to us then!

Randi: That’s very kind of you and simultaneously chilling. I’ll have a …

Marcus: Dirty martini. Tanqueray. Three olives. Very cold.

Randi: Why, yes…but…

Marcus: Dumb luck. There was a thirty-five percent chance tonight was going to be a Cosmo night. Shall I queue up a Cosmo for cocktail #2?

Randi: Oh, I hardly ever have two…

Marcus: No need for pretense here at Chez Randi and Don. We can just accept who we are. In fact, I’ll make that a double. And for you, sir, your usual?

Don: Usual? I’ve never been here before…

Marcus: Of course, but you have cookies turned on in your browser. Firefox. Excellent choice. By the way, you’re two upgrades behind, which I wouldn’t mention except that the latest update has important security patches. Let me know if you’d like me to take care of that. [sotto voce] (I’ll clear your browser history while I’m there. Seriously.)

Randi: I have to say that I’m finding this pretty creepy…

Marcus: I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize you’re so uncomfortable with yourself.

Randi: That’s not the point…

Marcus: I’ll be right back with your drinks.

[Marcus exits.]

Don: Wow.

Randi [fiddling with her phone]: My signal sucks. Can I borrow your phone?

[Lights quickly fade and return. Marcus is taking their order.]

Marcus: And I assume that you would like your fillet medium rare, and with no onions anywhere on the plate, or preferably anywhere in the entire restaurant, haha. I know how you feel about onions, Mr. Hartman! And for you, Ms. Hartman, may I recommend something that will help you get into the size six dress you bought three months ago? By the way, I was able to reach your bathroom scale over wifi, but the pesky thing keeps insisting on telling the truth, doesn’t it?

Randi: Sure, whatever, Marcus. And since you know everything, perhaps you can tell me how a place with three Michelin stars would ever get a health violation for improperly refrigerating its shellfish.

Marcus [flustered]: What? Oh, that was ages ago…

Randi: November 9, 2012.

Marcus: The thermostat on one of our refrigerators went on the fritz and wouldn’t you know it, that’s the night a city health inspector showed up.

Randi: What are the chances of that? Thirty-five percent?

[Lights quickly fade and return. Antonio is refilling Randi's water glass]

Randi: Thank you, Antonio.

Antonio: You’re welcome…Wait, how do you know my name?

Randi: I went to your Facebook page. Looks like that new tattoo must have hurt.

Antonio: Uh, thanks. I almost didn’t do it.

Randi: Well, Martina seems like a nice woman. Strong.

Antonio: You don’t know the half of it.

Randi: Are you sure about that? Let me ask you something. Did the restaurant tell you anything about my husband and me?

Antonio: No, not really. Just to be super-sure that your silverware is set perfectly straight, and that your bread basket has to stay full of sweet rolls no matter how many you chow down because your blood sugar is dipping below 80.

Randi: Anything else?

Antonio: Well, just that if you think we’re treating you different because you’re a woman, you’ll go ballistic.

Randi: So, they called me a bi…

Antonio: No, no. Although it’s true your avatar in our system is a pig with a stick up its butt. We hardly ever use that one.

[Lights quickly fade and return. Marcus is back and the dinner plates are being cleared.]

Marcus: And how was everything? Were the Julienne potatoes not to your liking, Randi, or was the portion just too big? I can assure you that the serving size is precisely the same as we offer to people with penises.

Randi: So you talked with Antonio.

Marcus: Let’s just say some texts were exchanged. Oh, don’t worry. You’re not going to have to give another $40 to the ACLU to protect him. By the way, you might consider upping your contribution, although that might mean you’d have to give up your subscription to Us Weekly. Us? Really? Not even People?

Randi: So, you want to do this, Marcus? I wonder how your 57 Twitter followers would feel about learning that MyOwnMan32 lives at home, hasn’t found a hair growth hoax he hasn’t fallen for, and writes erotic Harry Potter fan fiction under the name "Hermiones_Nipple"?

Marcus: You want to go Twitter on me? I’ll go Twitter all over your Spanx-wearing heinie. I will tweet you out so hard that Facebook’s timeline will run in reverse. Just try me, the former Most Likely to Smell Like Sperm.

Randi: That was a mean yearbook comment in high school! That’s not even on the Internet!

Marcus: You want to keep it that way, or do you want to take me on, bitch?

Randi: You do not want to unleash the kraken, my friend. I know where you live. I know who you’re stalking and why she calls you The Leaker. I know the real reason you gave the Fergus Slim Flashlight only one star at Amazon — funny review, by the way. I know why you can never go back to Rum Bay Beach in the Turks and Caicos. I even have a pretty good idea of exactly where to dig.

Marcus: Oh, you think you know alllll about me, do you, Ms. twice-a-week personal-zone waxer, you repeat-instant-replayer of that scene in House of Cards, you know which one. We are a fucking three star restaurant, lady. We don’t just do a Google search and call it a day as if were some goddamn house of pancakes. We do our research the way we prepare our Truite Sauté Sauce Amere: with a thoroughness that burns through sous chefs as if they were cheap votary candles. We’ve already named the constellations of the moles on your back, and we’ve alerted your primary care physician that M44, the Beehive Cluster, needs immediate attention. We know not only your past boyfriends, but have some statistical confidence about who the next one will be. A word to the wise, Don, there’s a point at which a family accountant is paying just too much attention to deposits and withdrawals, if you know what I mean. So, Randi-with-an-i since 1996, if you want to play, you better bring your game, because you are frankly an amateur playing in the big leagues of Knowing You.

Don [putting his hand on Randi's]: It’s not worth it, sweetie.

Randi: But I could…

Don: I know you could, but he’s not worth it.

Marcus: Excellent choice. Now, [smiling] can I get you some dessert?

[Pause a beat.]

Randi [timidly closing the dessert menu]: Surprise us.

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June 8, 2014

Will a Google car sacrifice you for the sake of the many? (And Networked Road Neutrality)

Google self-driving cars are presumably programmed to protect their passengers. So, when a traffic situation gets nasty, the car you’re in will take all the defensive actions it can to keep you safe.

But what will robot cars be programmed to do when there’s lots of them on the roads, and they’re networked with one another?

We know what we as individuals would like. My car should take as its Prime Directive: “Prevent my passengers from coming to harm.” But when the cars are networked, their Prime Directive well might be: “Minimize the amount of harm to humans overall.” And such a directive can lead a particular car to sacrifice its humans in order to keep the total carnage down. Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics don’t provide enough guidance when the robots are in constant and instantaneous contact and have fragile human beings inside of them.

It’s easy to imagine cases. For example, a human unexpectedly darts into a busy street. The self-driving cars around it rapidly communicate and algorithmically devise a plan that saves the pedestrian at the price of causing two cars to engage in a Force 1 fender-bender and three cars to endure Force 2 minor collisions…but only if the car I happen to be in intentionally drives itself into a concrete piling, with a 95% chance of killing me. All other plans result in worse outcomes, where “worse” refers to some scale that weighs monetary damages, human injuries, and human deaths.

Or, a broken run-off pipe creates a dangerous pool of water on the highway during a flash storm. The self-driving cars agree that unless my car accelerates and rams into a concrete piling, all other joint action results in a tractor trailing jack-knifing, causing lots of death and destruction. Not to mention The Angelic Children’s Choir school bus that would be in harm’s way. So, the swarm of robotic cars makes the right decision and intentionally kills me.

In short, the networking of robotic cars will change the basic moral principles that guide their behavior. Non-networked cars are presumably programmed to be morally-blind individualists trying to save their passengers without thinking about others, but networked cars will probably be programmed to support some form of utilitarianism that tries to minimize the collective damage. And that’s probably what we’d want. Isn’t it?

But one of the problems with utilitarianism is that there turns out to be little agreement about what counts as a value and how much it counts. Is saving a pedestrian more important than saving a passenger? Is it always right try to preserve human life, no matter how unlikely it is that the action will succeed and no matter how many other injuries it is likely to result in? Should the car act as if its passenger has seat-belted him/herself in because passengers should do so? Should the cars be more willing to sacrifice the geriatric than the young, on the grounds that the young have more of a lifespan to lose? And won’t someone please think about the kids m— those cute choir kids?

We’re not good at making these decisions, or even at having rational conversations about them. Usually we don’t have to, or so we tell ourselves. For example, many of the rules that apply to us in public spaces, including roads, optimize for fairness: everyone waits at the same stop lights, and you don’t get to speed unless something is relevantly different about your trip: you are chasing a bad guy or are driving someone who urgently needs medical care.

But when we are better able control the circumstances, fairness isn’t always the best rule, especially in times of distress. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of consensus around the values that would enable us to make joint decisions. We fall back to fairness, or pretend that we can have it all. Or we leave it to experts, as with the rules that determine who gets organ transplants. It turns out we don’t even agree about whether it’s morally right to risk soldiers’ lives to rescue a captured comrade.

Fortunately, we don’t have to make these hard moral decisions. The people programming our robot cars will do it for us.

 


Imagine a time when the roadways are full of self-driving cars and trucks. There are some good reasons to think that that time is coming, and coming way sooner than we’d imagined.

Imagine that Google remains in the lead, and the bulk of the cars carry their brand. And assume that these cars are in networked communication with one another.

Can we assume that Google will support Networked Road Neutrality, so that all cars are subject to the same rules, and there is no discrimination based on contents, origin, destination, or purpose of the trip?

Or would Google let you pay a premium to take the “fast lane”? (For reasons of network optimization the fast lane probably wouldn’t actually be a designated lane but well might look much more like how frequencies are dynamically assigned in an age of “smart radios.”) We presumably would be ok with letting emergency vehicles go faster than the rest of the swarm, but how about letting the rich go faster by programming the robot cars to give way when a car with its “Move aside!” bit is on?

Let’s say Google supports a strict version of Networked Road Neutrality. But let’s assume that Google won’t be the only player in this field. Suppose Comcast starts to make cars, and programs them to get ahead of the cars that choose to play by the rules. Would Google cars take action to block the Comcast cars from switching lanes to gain a speed advantage — perhaps forming a cordon around them? Would that be legal? Would selling a virtual fast lane on a public roadway be legal in the first place? And who gets to decide? The FCC?

One thing is sure: It’ll be a golden age for lobbyists.

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June 6, 2014

19 hours in the Negev

My wife and I just spent nineteen hours in Yeruham [flickr photos] in the Negev desert. We were visiting Avi Warshavsky and his family who I know through the Center for Educational Technology, an Israeli non-profit that encourages tech innovation (in Hebrew and Arabic) for schools. Avi is the head of MindCET, a remarkable ed tech incubator in Yeruham, and is a highly respected figure in the Israeli open tech field. (I was brought to Israel by Yad Hanadiv and the National Library of Israel to talk with the Library about its digital initiative. I also gave an informal talk to the Library staff, talked at a Wikimedia conference, and went to a meetup of Hasadna (a collective of open data activists), so it’s been a busy and ultra-stimulating week.)

Anyway, yesterday evening we went down to Yeruham, a town of 10,000 noted for its open-hearted culture. You come to Yeruham after a long drive through an increasingly barren landscape. Yeruham Lake announces the start of the town, which in the US might make it all the way to being a large pond, but which is the second largest lake in Israel. (I think I must have gotten that wrong since it doesn’t even make Wikipedia’s list of lakes in Israel, which is only three entries long.) The town itself is modest but full of the signs family life: playgrounds, small shops, cafes, a well-used cultural center.

That evening, Avi took us and two of his children to see "the crater" from atop Mt. Avnun. You drive up a two-way road about the width of 1.5 cars until you are on the top of a mountain. Then you walk for about two minutes to get to the edge of a cliff bounded by a trip wire pretending to be a fence. The crater is not a deep hole but more like an upside-down bottle cap, except the edges are mountains and the bottle cap would take a day of walking to cross. Also, if you or any of your loved ones get too close to the edge of this bottle cap, they will be pulled off by an invisible vortex which your host insists does not exist but you can sense through your X-Man power of Being Afraid.

It’s quite beautiful.

The next day, we started the morning by going to David Ben-Gurion‘s burial place, which is a park of green atop a bluff that looks out at a sea of bluffs. Magnificent. If only Charlton Heston were there to hold his arms out majestically.

In the park, if you go in the morning, you can see wild ibexes (ibixen?) chewing at the vegetation, birds of various sorts, and lizards scuttling about. The ibexes we saw were smaller than deer, and lovely. It was great to see the ibex outside of its usual habitat: the crossword puzzle.

Then we went to Avdat, a Unesco World Heritage site where you can wander through a mountaintop village built of stone inhabited by the Nabataeans, Romans, and Byzantines from third century BCE to the seventh century CE. It was one of 65 walled villages along the route incense caravans took to ships waiting in Gaza. It is a beautiful spot, and more of the old village remains than I’d expected. We were the only people there. (It was also the first time in my life I wished I were wearing sun glasses. After about half an hour, I had trouble seeing.)

In a total switch of context, we then went to the MindCET offices, which were closed for the Shavuos holiday. Avi and I were able to catch up on the 14 startups MindCET has worked with, the global Ed Tech competition MindCET is co-sponsoring, and more. MindCET is a great place for early stage startups, providing them with a place to co-work and mentoring. Yeruham would like to attract more tech companies, which I can see. It seems like a wonderful community.

Also, at night Yeruham has stars We should get some of those for Boston.

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June 1, 2014

Oculus Riiiiiiiiiift

At the Tel Aviv headquarters of the Center for Educational Technology, an NGO I’m very fond of because of its simultaneous dedication to improving education and its embrace of innovative technology, I got to try an Oculus Rift.

They put me on a virtual roller coaster. My real knees went weak.

Holy smokes.

wearing an Oculus Rift

 


Earlier, I gave a talk at the Israeli Wikimedia conference. I was reminded — not that I actually need reminding — how much I like being around Wikipedians. And what an improbable work of art is Wikipedia.

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[liveblog] Jan-Bart de Vreede at Wikimedia Israel

I’m at the Israeli Wikimedia conference. The chair of the Wikimedia Foundation, Jan-Bart De Vreede, is being interviewed by Shizaf Rafaeli.

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.

Jan introduces himself. Besides being the chair, in the Netherlands he works on open educational resources at Kinnesnent. He says that the Wikimedia Foundation is quite small compared to other organizations like it. Five members are elected by the community (anyone with enough edits can vote), there are four appointed members, and Jimmy Wales.

Q: The Foundation is based on volunteers, and it has a budget. What are the components of the future for Wikipedia?

A: We have to make sure we get the technology to the place where we’re prepared for the future. And how we can enable the volunteers to do whatever they want to achieve our mission of being the sum of all knowledge, which is a high bar? Enabling volunteers is the highest impact thing that we can do.

Q: Students just did a presentation here based on the idea that Wikipedia already has too much information.

A: It’s not up to us to decide how the info is consumed. We should make sure that the data is available to be presented any way people want to. We are moving toward WikiData: structured data and the relationship among that data. How can we make it easier for people to add data to WikiData without necessarily requiring people to edit pages? How can we enable people to tag data? Can we use that to learn what people find relevant?

Q: What’s most important?

A: WikiData. Then Wikipedia Zero, making WP access available in developing parts of the globe. We’re asking telecoms to provide free access to Wikipedia on mobile phones.

Q: You’re talking with the Israeli Minister of Education tomorrow. About what?

A: We have a project of Wikipedia for children, written by children. Children can have an educational experience — e.g., interview a Holocaust survivor — and share it so all benefit from it.

Q: Any interesting projects?

A: Wiki Monuments [link ?]. Wiki Air. So many ideas. So much more to do. The visual editor will help people make edits. But we also have to make sure that new editors are welcomed and are treated kindly. Someone once told Jan that she “just helps new editors,” and he replied that that scale smuch better than creating your own edits.

A: I’m surprised you didn’t mention reliability…

Q: Books feel trustworthy. The Net automatically brings a measure of distrust, and rightly so. Wikipedia over the years has come to feel trustworthy, but that requires lots of people looking at it and fixing it when its wrong.

Q: 15,000 Europeans have applied to have their history erased on Google. The Israeli Supreme Court has made a judgment along the same lines. What’s Wikipedia’s stance on this?

A: As we understand it, the right to be forgotten applies to search engines, not to source articles about you. Encyclopedia articles are about what’s public.

Q: How much does the neutral point of view count?

A: It’s the most important thing, along with being written by volunteers. Some Silicon Valley types have refused to contributed money because, they say, we have a business model that we choose not to use: advertising. We decided it’d be more important to get many small contributions than corrode NPOV by taking money.

A: How about paid editing so that we get more content?

Q: It’s a tricky thing. There are public and governmental institutions that pay employees to provide Open Access content to Wikipedia and Wiki Commons. On the other hand, there are organizations that take money to remove negative information about their clients. We have to make sure that there’s a way to protect the work of genuine volunteers from this. But even when we make a policy about, the local Wikipedia units can override it.

Q: What did you think of our recent survey?

A: The Arab population was much more interested in editing Wikipedia than the Israeli population. How do you enable that? It didn’t surprise me that women are more interested in editing. We have to work against our systemic bias.

Q: Other diversity dimensions we should pay more attention to?

A: Our concept of encyclopedia itself is very Western. Our idea of citations is very Western and academic. Many cultures have oral citations. Wikipedia doesn’t know how to work with that. How can we accommodate knowledge that’s been passed down through generations?

Q&A

Q: Wikipedia doesn’t allow original research. Shouldn’t there be an open access magazine for new scientific research?

A: There are a lot of OA efforts. If more are needed, they should start with volunteers.

Q: Academics and Wikipedia have a touchy relationship. Wikipedia has won that battle. Isn’t it time to gear up for the next battle, i.e., creating open access journals?

A: There are others doing this. You can always upload and publish articles, if you want [at Wiki Commons?].

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May 30, 2014

Manifest Netiny

That title is supposed to be a very bad play on “Manifest Destiny,” the 19th century American assumption that of course European-Americans will master the entire stretch of the country, transforming it according to their cultural norms. What, we’d stop in Sheboygan? Pshaw!

We have the same narrative now with the Net. Of course the Net will continue until every region is hooked up. Of course it will go beyond humans until every conceivable device is chattering over the Net. Of course! What, we’d stop with the affluent or with the human? Pshaw!

I’m not say that this narrative is wrong, just as Manifest Destiny triumphed. I’m just pointing out that it’s a narrative, and not actually a destiny.

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May 24, 2014

An Hasidic tale

For no reason whatsoever, here’s an Hasidic tale, recounted by Walter Benjamin in his essay “Franz Kafka”, in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn.

In a Hasidic village, so the story goes, Jews were sitting together in a shabby inn one Sabbath evening. They were all local people, with the exception of one person no one knew, a very poor, ragged man who was squatting in a dark corner at the back of the room. All sorts of things were discussed, and then it was suggested that everyone should tell what wish he would make if one were granted him. One man wanted money; another wished for a son-in-aw; a third dreamed of a new carpenter’s bench; and so everyone spoke in turn.

After they had finished only the beggar in his dark corner was left. Reluctantly and hesitantly he answered the question. “I wish I were a powerful king reigning over a big country. Then, some night while I was asleep in mu palace, an enemy would invade my country and by dawn his horsemen would penetrate to my castle and meet with no resistance. Roused from my sleep, I wouldn’t have time even to dress and I would have to flee in my shirt. Rushing over hill and dale and through forests day and night, I would finally arrive safely right here at the bench in this corner. This is my wish.”

The others exchanged uncomprehending glances. “And what good would this wish have done you?” someone asked.

“I’d have a shirt,” was the answer.

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May 21, 2014

[liveblog] Judith Donath on designing for sociality (“Social Machines”)

Judith Donath is giving a book talk to launch The Social Machine. I read it this weekend and it is a rich work that explores the ways in which good design can improve our online sociality. I’m a fan of Judith’s and am looking forward to seeing what 25-minutes’ worth of ideas she selects to talk about tonight, given the richness of her book.

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.

Judith begins by saying that the theme of the book is the importance of online social interaction and designing for it. Our interfaces may look sophisticated but they’re primitive when it comes to enabling social interaction. She uses a Mark Twain story ["Was the World Made for Man?"] about an oyster’s point of view to remind us that online design isn’t really all that evolved. One big issue: We can’t see the interactions.

We like being with other people, Judith remindsd us. We like seeing how they look, feeling the energy in a room, etc. This is hard to perceive when you’re looking at screen. Our computers connect us to tremendous crowds, but we don’t see the level of activity or the patterns. She shows a work from 25 years ago when she spent a summer in Japan. Her friends were in Boston on computers. The “who” command let her see who was online and how active they were; it was an old-style computer print-out of a list. She came back from Japan trying to design a more useful display. In the early 1990s she came up with “Visual Who,” a text-based visualization of the people online, filterable by interests, etc. She shows some other ways of displaying social network maps, but such maps aren’t yet integrated into the social network interfaces. Maps like these would help manage Facebook’s privacy settings, she ways. Or we could use them as an interface for keeping up with people we haven’t interacted with in a while, etc.

Legibility is a huge issue, she says. Information is non-spatial, so it can be hard to parse. Judith points to the Talk pages where Wikipedia pages are discussed and edited. Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg did a visualization (History Flow) of the edits on the Chocolate article. This lets you see what’s controversial and what isn’t. They then took the same data and looked not at every edit, but sampled it at fixed times. It’s a much smoother diagram. That shows the reader’s experience, while the first version showed the writers’ version.

Now Judith talks about “Beyond Being There” (a paper by Hollan, Nielsen, Stornetta, et al.). We can do things with these tools that we can’t do face-to-face. (The fact that we’re in public looking at our cell phones indicates that we’re getting some meaningful social connection that way, she says.) Judith shows the interface to “Talking Circles,” [pdf] an interface for audio conferences. It consists of colored circles. When someone speaks, their circle’s inside moves with their voice. Circles that are near each other are able to hear each other. As they move away, they can’t hear each other. So you could have a private conversation over this digital medium.

These interfaces change the social dynamics around a space. E.g., the “Like” economy induces some to use Intagram to try to gather more likes. Judith points to the Karrie Karahalios and Viega’s Conversation Clock“, a table top that shows who spoke when and who overlapped (interrupted) another. E.g., the fact that we’re all being watched (or think we are — Judith references the Panopticon) shapes our behavior. She points to the EU’s decision that Google has to remove links upon user request.

Judith points to a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, who looks young in a painting done when she was 65. If you think about data as portraying someone, you become aware of the triangle of subject, audience, and painter, each with their own interests. (She says that two years ago another portrait of Elizabeth from the same time and studio shows her looking very old indeed.)

When you think about doing portraits with data, you have to ask how to make something expressive. She points to “The Rhythm of Salience,” a project she created using an existing conversation database. She picked out words that she identified as being about the individuals. At heart, a portrait takes what’s representative of someone, exaggerates it, and shows the salience. She shows the Caricature Generator by Susan Brennan. You can do the same thing with words, e.g. Themail by Fernanda Viegas and Scott Golder. People save their email, but generally they don’t use their archives. People are more interested in keeping the patterns of relationships than in the individual emails. So, Themail shows a histogram of the month-to-month relationship with anyone in your archive. The column shows the volume of messages, but the words that compose the bars show you the dominant words. [I didn't get that exactly right. Sorry]

She ends by showing Personas by Aaron Zinman (and Donath). You type in your name and spits back a little portrait of you. It searches Google for mentions of your name and characterizes it.

All of these raise enormous questions, she says.

Q&A [extra special abbreviated version]

Q: [me] Is this change good? Or pathological? You show an incredibly fluid environment; is this changing our f2f relationships?

A: Jane Jacobs wrote the Life and Death of Great American Cities not to judge cities but to make them better. My book tries to show ways we can use design to make our social relationships better. Right now we deal with one another differently f2f and in the real world. In 10 years, that distinction will be much less pronounced. E.g., as Google Glass type products and better interfaces will have much more important affects on f2f. That’s why it’s important that we think about these issues now.

Colin Maclay: And as danah boyd says, for the youth it’s not offline or online life. It’s just life.

Q: What’s the difference between info that you put up and info about you that others post and use?

A: There’s very little use of pseudonymity online. Usually it’s your real name or you’re anonymous. Judith shops online for most of her stuff, and she reads reviews. But she doesn’t write reviews in part because she doesn’t want her deodorant review to come up when people google her. That’s where pseudonyms come in. Pseudonyms don’t guarantee complete anonymity but for everyday use they enable us to gain control over our lives online.

Q: Nicholas Negroponte: You were doing social networking work decades ago. Why is it taking so long for the evolution we’re waiting for?

A: The Web set design back tremendously. The Web made it easy for everyone to participate, but one of the costs was that the simplicity of the interface of the Web made it hard to do design or to have identities online. It slowed down a lot of social design. Also, the world of design is extremely conservative because companies imitate one another.

Q: GPS is causing a generational difference in how we navigate space…

A: Tech is often designed subconsciously so that there are insiders and outsiders. [I've overly shortened this interchange.]

Q: Email vs. text messaging?

A: There are fashions. Also, IM has its uses…

Q: How can sites guarantee what they intend to provide, e.g., privacy? How can they ensure trust? E.g., people have figured out how to take screencaptures of snapchat, subverting the design.

A: Design doesn’t guarantee things. But we should have spaces where we have good enough privacy. We need better interfaces for this. Also, many things you see online don’t let you have a sense of how big your audience is or how permanent will be what you say. Some of the visualizations I’ve talked about give you a sense of the publicness of what you’re saying.

Q: Pseudonymity does reign supreme on Reddit. And whatever happened to Second Life, which seems to address some of the issues you talked about.

A: About every 7 years, a new avatar-based space comes out, so we’re about due for the next. Our original work with Chat Spaces was in response to The Palace. I’m not a big fan of that type of graphical chat space because they’re trying to reproduce the feeling of being f2f without going “beyond being there. ” E.g., a student [?] wrote a paper on why there are chairs in Second Life. Good question. Q: What about skeuomorphism? That metaphor holds things back. Is it just an art to come up with designs that break the old metaphors?

A: The first part of the book deals with that question. There’s a chapter on metaphor. If your metaphors are too heavy handed, they limit what you can do. E.g., if you use folders, you have to figure out which one to put your email in. If you used labels (tags), you wouldn’t have to make those decisions. A lot of the art of design is learning how to use metaphors so you can do something more abstract while still being legible, and how you can bend the metaphors without breaking them.

Q: How does Internet balkanization affect your viewpoint and affect designers?

A: How do we use language and images to bridge cultures? Designers have to understand what images mean. It’s an enormously difficult problem. It’s crucial to try to be always cognizant of one’s own cultural issues. E.g., Caricatures look different depending on your cultural norms. In the book, I did not write about caricatures of Obama in white and black publications, butepending on what norm you use, you get different results about what’s salient.

Q: If you could give people a visualization of how they behave in negotiations, that could be useful when people get stuck.

A: The Conversation Clock’s design has done some work on this. Who’s saying no? Who’s interrupting. It’s difficult for people to notice.

Q: The iPhone has just moved away from skeuomorphism. Do you know how long it takes for us to move away from this?

A: Much of this has to do with style and fashion.

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