Ms Mansplaining

I’ve often wondered vaguely where the term “mansplaining” — the patronising way in which men who know nothing about a subject insist on explaining it to a woman — came from. Now I know, courtesy of a ‘Lunch with the FT’ feature in today’s Financial Times. The phrase was coined by the American writer and essayist, Rebecca Solnit. It was prompted by an experience she had at one of those high-end Aspen think-rests in which rich members of the US elite persuade themselves that they are really really interested in ideas. Reflecting on it later, she published a wonderful essay, “Men Explain Things to Me” in Guernica.

It’s terrific. This how it starts…

I still don’t know why Sallie and I bothered to go to that party in the forest slope above Aspen. The people were all older than us and dull in a distinguished way, old enough that we, at forty-ish, passed as the occasion’s young ladies. The house was great–if you like Ralph Lauren-style chalets–a rugged luxury cabin at 9,000 feet complete with elk antlers, lots of kilims, and a wood-burning stove. We were preparing to leave, when our host said, “No, stay a little longer so I can talk to you.” He was an imposing man who’d made a lot of money. He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his authentically grainy wood table and said to me, “So? I hear you’ve written a couple of books.”

I replied, “Several, actually.”

He said, in the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice, “And what are they about?”

They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?”

So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book–with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.

Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said–like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr. Pelen’s class on Chaucer–“gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” Still, there are these other men, too. So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, “That’s her book.” Or tried to interrupt him anyway.

But he just continued on his way. She had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless–for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we’ve never really stopped.

Lovely, isn’t it. She’s a very good essayist. Remember her lovely LRB Diary piece about the luxury coaches which ferry Silicon Valley’s overpaid elites from the San Francisco that their stock options have rendered unaffordable for normal human beings?

It begins:

The buses roll up to San Francisco’s bus stops in the morning and evening, but they are unmarked, or nearly so, and not for the public. They have no signs or have discreet acronyms on the front windshield, and because they also have no rear doors they ingest and disgorge their passengers slowly, while the brightly lit funky orange public buses wait behind them. The luxury coach passengers ride for free and many take out their laptops and begin their work day on board; there is of course wifi. Most of them are gleaming white, with dark-tinted windows, like limousines, and some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.

Why Facebook has abandoned news for the important business of trivia

Today’s Observer column:

Connoisseurs of corporate cant have a new collector’s item: Mark Zuckerberg’s latest Epistle to his Disciples. “We built Facebook,” it begins, “to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us. That’s why we’ve always put friends and family at the core of the experience. Research shows that strengthening our relationships improves our wellbeing and happiness.”

Quite so. But all is not well, it seems. “Recently,” continues Zuck, sorrowfully, “we’ve gotten feedback from our community that public content – posts from businesses, brands and media – is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.”

Well, well. How did this happen? Simple: it turns out that “video and other public content have exploded on Facebook in the past couple of years. Since there’s more public content than posts from your friends and family, the balance of what’s in news feed has shifted away from the most important thing Facebook can do – help us connect with each other.”

Note the impersonality of all this. Somehow, this pestilential content has “exploded” on Facebook. Which is odd, is it not, given that nothing appears in a user’s news feed that isn’t decided by Facebook?

Read on

One rule for big data, another for the rest of us…

This morning’s Observer column:

Last week, much of the tech world was temporarily unhinged by a circus in Cupertino, where a group of ageing hipster billionaires unveiled some impressive technology while miming the argot of teenage fandom (incredible, amazing, awesome, etc) and pretending that they were changing the world. Meanwhile, over in the real world, another tech story was unfolding. Except that this is not just a tech story: it’s a morality tale about how we have come to inhabit a world in which corporate irresponsibility, incompetence and greed goes unpunished, while little people can’t get a loan because they have an incorrect blemish on their credit records, which is almost impossible to detect and correct.

This story concerns Equifax, an outfit of which I’m guessing you’ve never heard. Nor had I. It’s one of the three largest American credit agencies (the others are Experian and TransUnion). Its business – its only business – is to collect, securely store and aggregate information on more than 800 million individual consumers and nearly 90m businesses worldwide…

Read on

Oh, and there’s a UK angle on this…

Hypocrisy on stilts

Now here’s something you couldn’t make up — unless you have plumbed the depths of surveillance capitalism. Unroll.me is a ‘service’ that promises to help you clean up your inbox. You give it permission to access your Gmail, for example, and: “Instantly see a list of all your subscription emails. Unsubscribe easily from whatever you don’t want.”

Unroll.me is owned by an analytics outfit called Slice Intelligence. And last week the New York Times (in a profile of Uber’s controversial boss, Travis Kalanick) revealed that Unroll was collecting its subscribers’ emailed Lyft receipts from their inboxes and selling the anonymized data to Uber — which used the data as a proxy for the health of its competitor’s business.

Embarrassing, eh? Not at all. Unroll’s boss, Jojo Hedaya, has published a post on the company blog under the headline “We Can Do Better”. “Our users are the heart of our company and service”, it begins,

So it was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service.

And while we try our best to be open about our business model, recent customer feedback tells me we weren’t explicit enough.

Note (i) “heartbreaking” and (ii) “recent customer feedback”. Translation: (i) disastrous; (ii) good investigative journalism by the New York Times.

Crocodile tears having been duly shed, Jojo continues:

So we need to do better for our users, and will from this point forward, with clearer messaging on our website, in our app, and in our FAQs. We will also be more clear about our data usage in our on-boarding process. The rest will remain the same: providing a killer service that gives you hours back in your day while protecting your privacy and security above all else.

I can’t stress enough the importance of your privacy. We never, ever release personal data about you. All data is completely anonymous and related to purchases only. To get a sense of what this data looks like and how it is used, check out the Slice Intelligence blog.

Thank you for being such an important part of our company. If there’s more we can be doing better, please let me know.

George Orwell would have really enjoyed this. Schmucks are “such an important part of our company”, for example. And he “can’t stress enough” the importance of said schmucks’ privacy.

But — as Charles Arthur points out — there’s nothing in Jojo’s FAQs about selling the data.

Facebook won’t fix fake news or filter bubbles for one simple reason: its business model depends on them

I’ve had a few goes at this (for example here and here) but Frederic Filloux has done an even better job:

Setting aside the need to fix its current PR nightmare, Facebook has no objective interest in fixing its fake stories problem.

In the end, it all boils down to this:

Facebook is above all an advertising machine. A fantastic one. I encourage everyone to explore its spectacular advertising interface and, even better, to spend a few bucks to boost a post, or build an ad. Its power, reach, granularity and overall efficiency are dizzying.

Facebook’s revenue system depends on a single parameter: page views. Pages views come from sharing. Which page criteria lead to the best sharing volumes?

You know the answer:

  • Emotions, preferably positive ones
  • Fun – LOLcats, listicles, cartoons,…
  • Proximity – stuff from friends and family
  • Affinities – stuff that resonates with your feelings, values and politics (and thereby locks you into your own personal filter bubble)

Sharing is key to Facebook’s business model because it leads to higher page consumption which, in turn, leads to multiple personalised advertising exposures.

It’s a great post, well worth reading in full. What I particularly enjoyed is Filloux’s takedown of young Zuckerberg’s cant about connecting everybody. This is what the lad said:

We stand for connecting every person. For a global community. For bringing people together. For giving all people a voice. For a free flow of ideas and culture across nations. And this idea of connecting the world has gotten stronger over the last century. You can now travel almost anywhere in the world in less than a day. Countries trade more openly and cooperate more easily than ever. And the Internet has enabled all of us to access and share more ideas and information than ever before. We’ve gone from a world of isolated communities to one global community, and we’re all better off for it.

Sounds good? Only problem: it’s BS. As Filloux puts it:

Facebook might have created a “global community” but its components are utterly segregated and fragmented.

Facebook is made up of dozens of millions of groups carefully designed to share the same views and opinions. Each group is protected against ideological infiltration from other cohorts. Maintaining the integrity of these walls is the primary mission of Facebook’s algorithm.

Yep. QED.

Zuckerberg, truth and ‘meaningfulness’

Wow! The controversy about fake news on Facebook during the election has finally got to the Boss. Mark Zuckerberg wrote a long status update (aka blog post) on the subject. Here’s a sample:

Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.

That said, we don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook. Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news. We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here. We have made progress, and we will continue to work on this to improve further.

This is an area where I believe we must proceed very carefully though. Identifying the “truth” is complicated. While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted. An even greater volume of stories express an opinion that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual. I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.

Well, he’s right about the elusiveness of ‘the truth’. But ‘meaningful’ ain’t it. Zuckerberg is squirming on the hook of editorial responsibility — which he desperately doesn’t want to have.

Hypocrisy on stilts: Facebook (closed) celebrating the Web (open)

This morning’s Observer column:

If there were a Nobel prize for hypocrisy, then its first recipient ought to be Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook boss. On 23 August, all his 1.7 billion users were greeted by this message: “Celebrating 25 years of connecting people. The web opened up to the world 25 years ago today! We thank Sir Tim Berners-Lee and other internet pioneers for making the world more open and connected.”

Aw, isn’t that nice? From one “pioneer” to another. What a pity, then, that it is a combination of bullshit and hypocrisy. In relation to the former, the guy who invented the web, Tim Berners-Lee, is as mystified by this “anniversary” as everyone else. “Who on earth made up 23 August?” he asked on Twitter. Good question. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out: “If Facebook had asked Berners-Lee, he’d probably have told them what he’s been telling people for years: the web’s 25th birthday already happened, two years ago.”

“In 1989, I delivered a proposal to Cern for the system that went on to become the worldwide web,” he wrote in 2014. It was that year, not this one, that he said we should celebrate as the web’s 25th birthday.

It’s not the inaccuracy that grates, however, but the hypocrisy. Zuckerberg thanks Berners-Lee for “making the world more open and connected”. So do I. What Zuck conveniently omits to mention, though, is that he is embarked upon a commercial project whose sole aim is to make the world more “connected” but less open. Facebook is what we used to call a “walled garden” and now call a silo: a controlled space in which people are allowed to do things that will amuse them while enabling Facebook to monetise their data trails. One network to rule them all. If you wanted a vision of the opposite of the open web, then Facebook is it..

Read on.

Brexit is also an elite project

The FT‘s Janan Ganesh has an acute take (behind the paywall, alas) on the Brexit campaigners. I particularly liked this bit:

“What damns the Leavers is not their belief that the Treasury forecast is wrong. It is the hint they give off that they do not really mind if it is right. They can live with a recession if they must. If others cannot, well, nobody said the path to freedom is lined with cherry blossom. Their nonchalance is all the worse for their pose as underdog yeomen, a droll routine that has cabinet members and an Etonian former mayor of London deploring the “establishment”, presumably while buffing one another’s brass necks.”

Transparency, non! (If you’re M. et Mme Piketty, that is)

Well, well. This from Frederic Filloux about the leading French public intellectual, Julia Cagé (of whom, I am ashamed to say) I had never heard.

Last year, she published a book titled Sauvez Les Medias, capitalisme, financement participatif et démocratie. The short opus collected nice reviews from journalists traumatized by the sector’s ongoing downfall and eager to cling to any glimmer of hope. Sometimes, though, the cozy entre nous review process goes awry. This was the case when star economist Thomas Piketty published a rave book review in Libération, but failed to acknowledge his marital tie to Julia Cagé. In fact, Piketty imposed the review on Libération’s editors, threatening to pull his regular column from the paper if they did not oblige, and then refused to disclose his tie to Mrs Cagé; rather troubling from intellectuals who preach ethics and transparency.

Why some software can’t be a black box

This morning’s Observer column:

For anyone interested in what is laughingly known as “corporate responsibility”, the Volkswagen emissions-fraud scandal is a gift that keeps on giving. Apart from the company’s Nazi past, its high status in German life, its hitherto exalted reputation for technical excellence and quality control, and its peculiarly dysfunctional governance, there is also the shock to consumers of discovering that while its vehicles are made from steel and composite materials, they are actually controlled by software. We are already close to the point where that software may be more valuable than all the physical materials that make up the vehicle, and, if Apple and Google have their way, that imbalance is set to grow.

Volkswagen’s chicanery was discovered by good, old-fashioned analogue detective work…

Read on