Google drops “don’t be evil”

Interesting. Gizmodo reports that the high-minded motto disappeared from the company’s corporate code of conduct sometime between April 21 and May 4. Here’s the updated version:

The Google Code of Conduct is one of the ways we put Google’s values into practice. It’s built around the recognition that everything we do in connection with our work at Google will be, and should be, measured against the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct. We set the bar that high for practical as well as aspirational reasons: Our commitment to the highest standards helps us hire great people, build great products, and attract loyal users. Respect for our users, for the opportunity, and for each other are foundational to our success, and are something we need to support every day.

Aw, shucks.

Facebook’s sudden attack of modesty

One of the most illuminating things you can do as a researcher is to go into Facebook not as a schmuck (i.e. user) but as an advertiser — just like your average Russian agent. Upon entering, you quickly begin to appreciate the amazing ingenuity and comprehensiveness of the machine that Zuckerberg & Co have constructed. It’s utterly brilliant, with a great user interface and lots of automated advice and help for choosing your targeted audience.

When doing this a while back — a few months after Trump’s election — I noticed that there was a list of case studies of different industries showing how effective a given targeting strategy could be in a particular application. One of those ‘industries’ was “Government and Politics” and among the case studies was a story of how a Facebook campaign had proved instrumental in helping a congressional candidate to win against considerable odds. I meant to grab some screenshots of this uplifting tale, but of course forget to do so. When I went back later, the case study had, well, disappeared.

Luckily, someone else had the presence of mind to grab a screenshot. The Intercept, bless it, has the before-and-after comparison shown in the image above. They are Facebook screenshots from (left) June 2017 and (right) March 2018.

Interesting, ne c’est pas?

‘Complexity’: ontology or just an epistemological tactic?

I’m reading Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. In Chapter 1 he reflects on the curious fact that nothing much changed as a result. “The strangest thing”, he writes,

was that instead of leading to a collapse of the right-wing neoliberalism that had enabled the catastrophe to happen, the crisis actually seemed to strengthen the Right. It took a rare degree of self-confidence or fortitude not to gasp dumbfounded at the roaring resurgence of the right so soon after the most catastrophic global economic collapse after the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Incongruity” seems too polite a term to describe the unfolding of events; “contradiction” seems too outmoded. Austerity became the watchword in almost every country; governments everywhere became the scapegoats for dissatisfaction of every stripe, including that provoked by austerity. In the name of probity, the working class was attacked from all sides, even by nominal “socialist” parties… The pervasive dominance of neoliberal doctrines and right-wing parties worldwide from Europe to North America to Asia has flummoxed left parties that, just a few short years ago, had been confident they had been finally making headway after decades of neoliberal encroachment. Brazenly, in many cases parties on the left were unceremoniously voted out because they had struggled to contain the worst fallout from the crisis. By contrast, the financial institutions that had precipitated the crisis and had been rescued by governmental action were doing just fine — nay, prospering at pre-crisis rates — and in a bald display of uninflected ingratitude, were intently bankrolling the resurgent right. Indeed, the astounding recovery of corporate profits practically guaranteed the luxuriant post-crisis exfoliation of Think Tank Pontification. nationalist proto-fascist movements sprouted in the most unlikely places, and propounded arguments bereft of a scintilla of sense. “Nightmare” did not register as hyperbolic; it was the banjax of the vanities.

That’s just about the most succinct expression of the bewilderment that most of us felt — or certainly that I felt as I watched the UK post-crisis, Tory-led coalition government blaming the populace (or its Labour predecessor) for the debacle, and imposing ‘austerity’ as the punishment for popular irresponsibility rather than as the price of forcing the public to shoulder the costs of bankers’ greed and recklessness. And it’s why I always thought that, eventually, the penny would drop with electorates, and why the current ways of populist anger towards ‘elites’ comes as no surprise. In fact the only surprising thing about it is that it took so long to materialise.

Mirowski also picks up the strange inability of the left to pin the blame where it belonged: the financial services industry and the feeble regulatory regimes under which the madness and greed of the sector burgeoned. Here, for example, is Ezra Klein reviewing Inside Job, a documentary that made an admirable stab at naming names and fingering culprits. What made the financial crisis so scary, Klein wrote, was that

The complexity of the system far exceeded the capacity of the participants, experts and watchdogs. Even after the crisis happened, it was devilishly hard to understand what was going on. Some people managed to connect the right dots, in the right ways and at the right times, but not so many; and not through such reproducible methods, that it’s clear how we can make their success the norm. But it is clear that our key systems are going to continue growing more complex, and we’re not getting any smarter.

The fact that (as Mirowski points out) some commentators normally seen as left-of-centre felt obliged to attack the documentary is itself significant. It’s a symptom of how far the ice of neoliberalism has penetrated the radical soul. Less abstractly, it confirms my own working definition of ‘ideology’ as the force that determines how you think even when you don’t know you’re thinking. Klein’s hapless defeatism also echoes the feeble answer eventually provided by the British Academy to the question posed by the Queen to the luminaries of the LSE at the height of the crisis: why had none of those besuited, learned gents in the receiving line seen the catastrophe coming?

But against those who warned, most were convinced that banks knew what they were doing. They believed that the financial wizards had found new and clever ways of managing risks. Indeed, some claimed to have so dispersed them through an array of novel financial instruments that they had virtually removed them. It is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris. There was a firm belief, too, that financial markets had changed. And politicians of all types were charmed by the market. These views were abetted by financial and economic models that were good at predicting the short-term and small risks, but few were equipped to say what would happen when things went wrong as they have. People trusted the banks whose boards and senior executives were packed with globally recruited talent and their non-executive directors included those with proven track records in public life. Nobody wanted to believe that their judgement could be faulty or that they were unable competently to scrutinise the risks in the organisations that they managed. A generation of bankers and financiers deceived themselves and those who thought that they were the pace-making engineers of advanced economies.

All this exposed the difficulties of slowing the progression of such developments in the presence of a general ‘feel-good’ factor. Households benefited from low unemployment, cheap consumer goods and ready credit. Businesses benefited from lower borrowing costs. Bankers were earning bumper bonuses and expanding their business around the world. The government benefited from high tax revenues enabling them to increase public spending on schools and hospitals. This was bound to create a psychology of denial. It was a cycle fuelled, in significant measure, not by virtue but by delusion.

Among the authorities charged with managing these risks, there were difficulties too. Some say that their job should have been ‘to take away the punch bowl when the party was in full swing’. But that assumes that they had the instruments needed to do this. General pressure was for more lax regulation – a light touch. The City of London (and the Financial Services Authority) was praised as a paragon of global financial regulation for this reason.

Translation: It was all very complex, Ma’am. QED.

This is the resort to ‘complexity’ as an epistemological or ideological device. It’s a way of saying that some things are beyond analysis or explanation. Sometimes this is true: complex systems exist and they are inherently unpredictable and sometimes intrinsically incomprehensible. But a banking system run as a racket does not fall into that category.

Like father, like daughter

On Sunday NBC News’ Peter Alexander asked Ivanka Trump a simple question: “Do you believe your father’s accusers?” Trump responded: “I think it’s a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter if she believes the accusers of her father when he’s affirmatively stated there’s no truth to it.”

Jack Shafer is (rightly) having none of this evasiveness.

Trump pleads for recusal from the question, though, not because the question itself is wrong to ask. She pleads for recusal because she thinks it’s wrong for the press to ask a daughter such a question after her father has issued his denials. Do daughters of presidents who are also assistants to the president really get to wave such a flag of privilege? No way. No journalists can make any public official answer a question, so if Ivanka Trump wants to say “no comment,” she should help herself. But to declare a question illegitimate requires more explanation that she volunteers.

Having planted her flag, Trump pours some quick-drying cement at the flagpole’s shaft with her next comment.

“I don’t think that’s a question you would ask many other daughters,” she said.

How to unpack?! Obviously the press won’t ask many other daughters the question because not many other daughters have a father whose alleged paramours have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their silence. Not many daughters have a father who was caught bragging about his sexual assaults on a live mic and then publicly apologized. Not many fathers have been accused of sexual misconduct by at least a dozen women. For those fathers who have such a reputation, it would be reasonable to ask their daughters such questions if they worked for their fathers in government.

Yep. One of the curious by-products of the Trump presidency is its illustration of the power of norms in governing behaviour. There are no laws — as far as I know — explicitly prohibiting a president from exploiting his office for private gain. It was just a norm that presidents didn’t do that. Trump’s great advantage is that he doesn’t do norms. As far as he is concerned, they’re there to be flouted. And like father, like daughter.

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.