1. Some Light Cyber-Dystopian Reading Recommendations

    Posted January 6, 2015 in comment  |  No Comments so far

    It might be lunchtime or nearly lunchtime where you live. If so, you’ll probably want some lighthearted cyber-dystopian reading material to peruse at your desk while you eat your Pret sandwich. Well here you go.

    Ai Weiwei Is Living In Our Future by Hans de Zwart on Medium: a famous artist’s experience of live under permanent, overt surveillance, a life we may all be experiencing in the not too distant future. But it’s not all about the state eavesdropping on us, because guess what? We’re doing it too:

    Put a collar with a GPS chip around your dog’s neck and from that moment onwards you will be able to follow your dog on an online map and get a notification on your phone whenever your dog is outside a certain area. You want to take good care of your dog, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the collar also functions as a fitness tracker. Now you can set your dog goals and check out graphs with trend lines. It is as Bruce Sterling says: “You are Fluffy’s Zuckerberg”.

    On Nerd Entitlement by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman: triggered by, among other things, a discussion thread on Scott Aaronson’s blog, this piece looks critically at the sense of persecution often experienced by male geeks. It’s not unsympathetic but rightly points out that teenage trauma, although authentic, doesn’t negate the privilege that male geeks enjoy later in life. Now, you might say this isn’t really cyber-dystopian, but I’d say it is. As technology exerts a greater influence of our lives, the great risk is that it will be used to enforce and amplify the social advantages enjoyed by those who control it: and, for the time being, that tends to be white male nerds (like me). Addressed the issues raised in this article would go a long way to making a technology-driven future far more inclusive and a little less dystopian.

    Finally, in Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty, Eric Meyer talks about the emotional effect of Facebook’s “Year In Review” app appearing uninvited on his timeline. The app chose, as its main image, a photo of Eric’s six-year-old daughter, who had tragically died that year. As you can imagine, it was a deeply upsetting experience. Yes, it’s an example of the insensitivity of computer algorithms, but it’s also an example of the failure of design (not for the first time at Facebook) for reasons similar to the ones mentioned above. Eric Meyer has since posted a follow-up where he states, rightly, that this isn’t a Facebook problem but one common to design teams everywhere — worst-case scenarios or even slightly unusual ones are often labelled “edge cases” and then dismissed. Either way, this is a horrible example of how technology can still cause harm without anyone intending to be harmful.


  2. A snapshot of modern human life

    Posted April 26, 2013 in visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    I enjoyed reading Stephen Wolfram summarising his team’s analysis of Facebook data. The infographics aren’t just neat and easy on the eye, they offer up their insights without fuss or clutter. The writing is pitched well, informative without being intimidating or patronising. And among the graphs and the science you can detect something organic, something messy, something that can be faintly painful if you think about it too much.

    Relationship status by age, taken from Wolfram's analysis of Facebook data

    Relationship status by age, taken from Wolfram’s analysis of Facebook data

    For me, it comes out most strongly when I look at the greyish sliver that opens up towards the top-right of the above graph, which represents the proportion of people whose relationship status is “widowed”.

    This isn’t the most interesting or surprising piece of information on the page, nor is it the most novel or engaging graphic, but it’s the one that most brought home to me that beneath this sea of data, and beneath the sterile light-blue facade of Facebook, there’s something else going on: real, human, life.