The unfreedom of filter bubbles – let’s pop the bloody things

bubbles
We could see it coming. Sort of.

I wrote a post titled myChannel back in 2005, a time without smartphones, Facebook, Twitter and news aggregators like Flipboard. YouTube was 17 days off launching. Reviewing the tech landscape I concluded:

... mass personalisation has become a ‘qualifying’ rather than ‘winning’ criteria. The advantages to the user include choice (of the most apt personalisation), collation, and access in their own time and filtering. ...The user, the recipient of news and information, the listener, the viewer, the inter-actor, has been empowered to set the schedule. It’s what they want, when they want it and how they want it. They have one channel ... and they own it. It is myChannel.

Seems I got some part right. Two thirds of Facebook users and 59% of Twitter users in the US get their personalised news from the social network. Facebook counts a quarter of the world's population as users.

Seems I got some part wrong, to our collective misery. My post referenced user choice of personalisation service, which is of course absent under monopoly conditions. And alarmingly, my assumption that the individual would own their own channel was way off target.

The Internet and the Web have been radically centralized in the intervening years. The network effect has left many abdicating their choice of media, exposure to ideas, facility to corroborate stories, and the opportunity to debate different points of view, to algorithms written by distant employees of centralised and centralising services whose commercial motivations do not necessarily extend to ensuring you get anything other than the instant gratification that your current viewpoint is spot on. You are right. They are wrong. Empathy be damned.

We've seen this with Brexit and during the US election this year.

Since 2011, the effect has become known as a filter bubble – automated information separation that isolates each of us in own cultural or ideological bubbles.

The hi:project intends to help sort out this mess by re-establishing each and everyone of us back in the driving seat of our own lives. I like this metaphor because driving entails responsibilities as well as rights.


Image source: By Jeff Kubina, BY-SA 2.0

How and why I strive to maintain my privacy – a post in light of the Snooper’s Charter

GCHQ at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
An aerial image of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
Photographer: GCHQ/Crown Copyright. CC BY-SA 2.0

Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

Edward Snowden, 2015 (source)


I get asked now and then how to improve one's personal privacy, digitally speaking. It's unsurprising that such questions are directed my way given privacy is a core objective of the hi:project, and yet I seemed to have attracted more than the usual number of questions since my last post – Introducing Google Assistant, the Surveillance Interface.

You might want to stop commercial entities intruding – it's difficult to sum up in a sentence or two how egregious the state of commercial surveillance is today. You might want to help head off the realisation of a surveillance state if only because you've read somewhere that such things don't end well. You might simply want to have less data about your movements and purchases and media habits and general proclivities out there because it's not a case of if the corresponding databases are hacked but when.

Importantly, I write this post the very week the UK has passed the most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy. The so-called Snoopers' Charter is disgusting, distressing and, in good part, stupid. Continue reading

Introducing Google Assistant, the Surveillance Interface (SI)

google assistant by techcrunch

A new kind of interface has surfaced over the past five years – artificial intelligence (AI) based ‘personal assistants’.

Apple Siri started the ball rolling, swiftly followed by Google Now, Microsoft Cortana, Amazon Alexa, and half a dozen others. But it now has a new apogee, a new sector defining moment, a revolution dressed up as evolution. The only thing more alarming than its instrusive, opaque, and society-altering capabilities is the way in which tech pundits have ladled out the accolades, pundits whose worldview appears as limited as a magpie’s regard for shiny things.

Google Now is now Google Assistant, and it comes integrated into Google’s first full-on (i.e. not just a reference design) mobile phone – the Pixel. Continue reading

The pot calling the kettle black – Teresa May ‘subverting democracy’

Daily Mail front page 3 Oct 2016

Prime Minister Teresa May has presented the conclusion that many experts (yes, the very same derided by Brexiteer Michael Gove) worked out some time ago. There is no such thing as a 'soft' Brexit.

The very idea of a 'soft' Brexit may as well have been called 'have-your-cake-and-eat-it' Brexit, because very rarely if ever does one get such an opportunity, particularly when there are 27 others at the table.

Ain't gonna happen.

At the first day of the Conservative Party conference yesterday May put herself entirely the wrong side of history, embracing nationalism and isolationism at a time when the only way our species is going to get along together better – and it really needs to get along together better – is if we work at it together.

Instead she harrumphed and told everyone we were going to take our ball home.

She did so in the name of sovereignty even though our sovereignty is denuded in this connected world when its broader influence is diminished.

Perhaps most astonishingly, she had the arrogance to tell us Remainers that we're trying to subvert democracy by our constant attention to protecting the best interests of our economy and therefore our jobs, our schools and our healthcare system. She appears to have forgotten rather conveniently that the EU Referendum offered voters the opportunity to tell the government what they didn't want. A vote against membership of the EU was not a vote for anything quite simply because no-one had actually presented a picture of the alternative. That is only taking shape now.

I just tweeted the following diagram. We must ascertain what proportion of 'soft' Brexiters, perhaps reluctant Brexiters, would now prefer to Remain given the true, shocking, wrenching vista of Brexit.

By denying an answer to this question, May is subverting democracy.

hard brexit

 

 

Lightning – cryptocurrency and the Internet of Things

lightning

Bitcoin is an experiment. That's granted. The fact that it's trusted and actually useful is nothing short of phenomenal. Last week for example, the trade volume amounted to US$229m.

Nevertheless, Bitcoin has some fundamental constraints that keep it from going mainstream: it has a ballpark limit of 7 transactions per second, and having confidence that a transaction has 'gone through' – non-recourse transactions – takes roughly 20 to 60 minutes depending on the level of confidence you're looking for. (The user experience sucks too, but that's not for this post.)

While 229 million dollars is no small chunk of change, Visa processes many thousands of transactions per second, peaking at tens of thousands, and will have processed around US$130 billion last week.

State channel – more exciting than it sounds

The crypto awesome sauce underpinning Bitcoin is known as the blockchain, perhaps the No.1 tech buzzword of recent times. It's at the heart of the currency's success – preventing users spending the same money twice – but is also the nub of its relatively slothful nature. It's with a fair degree of excitement then that I've been tracking the progress of Lightning, a protocol first mooted to my knowledge in 2013.

The jargon here is state channel – blockchain interactions that could occur on the blockchain but get conducted off-chain without impairing the trust parties have in the interaction. Lightning facilitates state channel to speed things up and attenuate the costs needed to prove transactions (and offers a little more spark in terms of brand appeal!) Continue reading

The meaning of business

open for business

Why do firms exist? Strangely, no-one appears to have asked this question until a 27 year-old economist did so in 1937.

Ronald Coase published his answer in The Nature of the Firm, now considered a seminal text. He studied the circumstances that led entrepreneurs to hire people as employees instead of simply contracting jobs out to traders and came up with the answer we now simply refer to as transaction costs. People are hired when the various associated costs are lower than they would be otherwise.

Here's a similar sounding question, but one that is actually fundamentally different. What is the meaning / the purpose of business?

Coase needed to look no further than economics to explain why firms exist. Their existence is a binary thing. But any question seeking to address meaning and purpose encompasses philosophy, sociology, and politics.

Unavoidably, any answer is framed in terms of ... What's best? What's optimum? Why? How? And for whom?

Euler Partners sense Summer 2016 - the meaning of business

The answer was in fact framed economically for a long time in terms known as shareholder value, and perhaps Coase's question and answer influenced this blinkered perspective. But we've found and are still finding that a different answer can lead to superior economics, and not just in terms of profitability but in terms of the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit.

Euler Partners' just published its sense Summer 2016 report, The meaning of business. Available here as PDF and also on Medium.com. If you're frustrated with today's typical responses to this question, and / or if you want to build sustainable business, you'll find the report provoking.


Image credit: By Leo Reynolds, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A majority now or when it matters? #thefiftypointtwo

Brexit march June 2016

The quickest glance at my posts and tweets will tell you two things: (1) we just voted on a multi-faceted complex issue with too little understanding further muddied by the lies pedalled by both sides, and (2) I believe everyone in the UK is better off by our remaining in the European Union.

There's a reason Margaret Thatcher concurred with Lord Attlee in describing referenda as "a device of dictators and demagogues" – the same reason the UK has representative parliamentary democracy and not direct democracy. (If only David Cameron had paid more attention in class.)

Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg describes the resultant mess as a "debilitating cocktail of hubris, incompetence and dishonesty".

Yet putting the well-known shortcomings of direct democracy to one side for the moment, we must accept that just shy of 52% of voters went to the polling stations last month and put a cross against Leave. The majority has spoken, right?

Neither Leave nor Remain is perfect, of course, yet to my mind the Leave argument is akin to trashing your car because the ride is a bit bumpy, so I find myself asking ... which majority should we be thinking about? Continue reading