The perniciousness of ‘personalisation’

Interesting Scientific American article by Brett Frischmann and Devan Desai on how — paradoxically — personalised stimuli can produce homogenous responses:

This personalized-input-to-homogenous-output (“PIHO”) dynamic is quite common in the digital networked environment. What type of homogenous output would digital tech companies like to produce? Often, companies describe their objective as “engagement,” and that sounds quite nice, as if users are participating actively in very important activities. But what they mean is much narrower. Engagement usually refers to a narrow set of practices that generate data and revenues for the company, directly or via its network of side agreements with advertisers, data brokers, app developers, AI trainers, governments and so on.

For example, Facebook offers highly personalized services on a platform optimized to produce and reinforce a set of simple responses — scrolling the feed, clicking an ad, posting content, liking or sharing a post. These actions generate data, ad revenue, and sustained attention. It’s not that people always perform the same action; that degree of homogeneity and social control is neither necessary for Facebook’s interests nor our concerns. Rather, for many people much of the time, patterns of behavior conform to “engagement” scripts engineered by Facebook.

The point about what the companies actually regard as ‘user engagement’ is a useful reminder of how tech companies have become consummately adept at Orwellian doublespeak and euphemism. “In our time”, Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language”, “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” Well, in our time, we have strategic euphemisms like “the sharing economy”, “user engagement” and “connecting people”.


There’s nothing quite like a “strong and stable” leader for helping one jump off a cliff. This is the cartoon in today’s Financial Times.

So, referendum results are sacred? Except when they’re not

Wow! Here, courtesy of the Economist, is something I hadn’t remembered:

A second issue is the nature of British democracy, and in particular how badly equipped it is to cope with referendums. Other countries that use them, such as Switzerland or Ireland, have constitutional provisions laying down when and how to do so. But the unwritten British constitution confers total sovereignty on Parliament, as the epitome of a representative rather than a direct democracy. This sits uncomfortably with the notion of asking voters to make policy choices, as David Cameron did when putting Britain’s EU membership to a referendum in June 2016.

Despite this, Britain has in recent years made extensive use of referendums. Indeed, if one includes regional ones, in the past 20 years it has had more of them than it has had general elections. But the idea that they can settle contentious issues has been repeatedly disproved. The 1975 referendum on membership of the European Economic Community produced a decisive two-to-one result for staying in. Yet within eight years the Labour Party promised to pull out of the EEC without even consulting voters again.

A more recent example is more embarrassing for Mrs May. This week she argued that the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum must be honoured by all, because a 1997 referendum narrowly backing the creation of a Welsh assembly had been similarly accepted. Yet this overlooked the awkward truth that, along with her Tory colleagues, she had voted against the assembly, despite the referendum. What’s more, eight years later the Tories were campaigning for a second referendum with the option of overturning the result of the first—something she has explicitly ruled out for Brexit.

The end of The End of History man?

From a scarifying review by Stephen Holmes of Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Identity: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment:

Fukuyama is right to reject criticism that his first book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), was an expression of liberal triumphalism. Its gloomy insistence on the spiritual meaninglessness likely to befall late capitalist societies, in which atheist consumers have nothing serious to live for, rules out such breezy optimism. But he did imply, paradoxically, that after the wholly unanticipated collapse of communism there would be no more surprises about “the default form of government for much of the world, at least in aspiration.” What he now sees, but could not have foreseen at the time, was that the high tide of liberal democracy would last a mere fifteen years: “Beginning in the mid-2000s, the momentum toward an increasingly open and liberal world order began to falter, then went into reverse.” Identity politics, he has now concluded, explains why liberal democracy has ceased to impress much of the world as the ideal form of political and social organization.

Fukuyama’s analysis, says Holmes,

is flawed in several ways. Three decades ago, he argued that the human desire for respect and recognition was the driving force behind the universal embrace of liberal democracy. Today, he depicts the human desire for respect and recognition as the driving force behind the repudiation of liberal democracy. The reader’s hope for some account, or even mention, of this extraordinary volte face goes unfulfilled. Nor does Fukuyama squarely address the impossibility of explaining recent ups and downs in the prestige of liberal democracy by invoking an eternal longing of the human soul. What’s more, he fails to consider the possibility that after 1989 the obligation for ex-Communist countries to imitate the West, which was how his End-of-History thesis was put into practice, might itself have been experienced in countries like Hungary and Poland as a source of humiliation and subordination destined to excite antiliberal resentment and an aggressive reassertion of nationalism.

Wow! Great review..

How did disaster become the default option for a mature democracy?

Sobering view from the Economist which argues that, for procedural reasons, a no-deal Brexit has become, in effect, “the default option”:

As Cathy Haddon of the Institute for Government, a think-tank, puts it, “Parliament can vote for any number of motions, resolutions and amendments to bills, but none of these on their own is enough to stop no deal.” Only three things, she says, can do that: passing an agreed Brexit deal; seeking an extension of Article 50, which needs the unanimous approval of 27 other EU governments, some of which will be reluctant; or revoking the original Article 50 letter, which can be done unilaterally up to March 29th but would be hugely embarrassing for Mrs May.

A Green New Deal?

Interesting NYT column by Tom Friedman:

Clean energy is a problem of scale. If you don’t have scale, you have a hobby. I like hobbies. I used to build model airplanes. But you can’t mitigate climate change as a hobby. The reason I called for a Green New Deal was first and foremost to convey that this undertaking required a massive, urgent response commensurate with the scale and time frame posed by accelerating disruptive climate.

For too long, he continues, “green” was viewed as a synonym for a project that was “boutique, uneconomical, liberal, sissy and vaguely French”.

I wanted to recast green as geostrategic, capitalistic, economical, innovative and patriotic. My motto was, “Green is the new red, white and blue.” I did not believe in being a “nice” green. I believed in being a mean green. I believed greens should be as brassy, bold, big sky and in-your-face as any oil and gas executive.

Corbyn parts company with his own party

Splendid Observer column by Andrew Rawnsley:

What would Mr Corbyn do when he and his members desired something contradictory? How would he act when they had fundamentally different worldviews? Would he put aside his own preferences in deference to the sovereignty of the Labour people? Or would he behave just like the “establishment” politicians he has spent a lifetime condemning and seek to subordinate the will of the members to his own opinions?

We now know. The Brexit blowtorch has burnt away many fantasises. One of the items on the bonfire of illusions is the notion that the Labour leader is in some way a special one, so different to all other politicians as to be almost not a politician at all. It turns out that he is just another manoeuvring, equivocating hack when he wants one thing and his members want the opposite.

This split is not a slight difference of opinion on a low-order issue. We are talking about something a bit more important than how to regulate the provision of manhole covers. This is about the most significant question to face Britain for decades. Some 73% of people currently identifying as Labour supporters think that the UK was wrong to vote to leave the EU. That rises to a whopping 89% among Labour members. As you might expect to follow, most Labour members and most Labour voters want the party to come out in full support of another referendum on Brexit, a move that would transform the chances of the country being given a fresh choice.

The bottom line, as Rawnsley observes, is that sometimes, the simplest explanations for human behaviour are the best ones. The Labour leader is not making any effort to prevent Brexit because he doesn’t want to prevent Brexit. So if Labour supporters want another referendum (and we now know, courtesy of Tim Bales’s research that they do), they will have to learn from their leader’s time-honoured practice and rebel against him.

Tyler Cowen on the impossibility of regulating speech on Internet platforms

From his latest Bloomberg column:

I’d like to suggest a simple trilemma. When it comes to private platforms and speech regulation, you can choose two of three: scalability, effectiveness and consistency. You cannot have all three. Furthermore, this trilemma suggests that we — whether as users, citizens or indeed managers of the platforms themselves — won’t ever be happy with how speech is regulated on the internet.

One view, which may appear cynical, is that the platforms are worth having, so they should appease us by at least trying to regulate effectively, even though both of us know they won’t really succeed. Circa 2019, I don’t see a better solution. Another view is that we’d be better off with how things were a few years ago, when platform regulation of speech was not such a big issue. After all, we Americans don’t flip out when we learn that Amazon sells copies of “Mein Kampf.”

The problem is that once you learn about what you can’t have — speech regulation that is scalable, consistent and hostile to bad agents — it is hard to get used to that fact. Going forward, we’re likely to see platform companies trying harder and harder, and their critics getting louder and louder.

I like his ‘trilemma’ idea. It reminds me of Dani Rodrik’s one, which says that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full.

How companies are addressing machine learning

From an O’Reilly newsletter:

In a recent O’Reilly survey, we found that the skills gap remains one of the key challenges holding back the adoption of machine learning. The demand for data skills (“the sexiest job of the 21st century”) hasn’t dissipated—LinkedIn recently found that demand for data scientists in the US is “off the charts,” and our survey indicated that the demand for data scientists and data engineers is strong not just in the US but globally.

With the average shelf life of a skill today at less than five years and the cost to replace an employee estimated at between six and nine months of the position’s salary, there’s increasing pressure on tech leaders to retain and upskill rather than replace their employees in order to keep data projects (such as machine learning implementations) on track. We’re also seeing more training programs aimed at executives and decision makers, who need to understand how these new ML technologies can impact their current operations and products.

Beyond investments in narrowing the skills gap, companies are beginning to put processes in place for their data science projects, for example creating analytics centers of excellence that centralize capabilities and share best practices. Some companies are also actively maintaining a portfolio of use cases and opportunities for ML.

Note the average shelf-life of a skill and then ponder why the UK government is not boosting the Open University.