tech

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The feed.

For any of you that may have ever perused a pornography website, you may have noticed the scenarios getting increasingly preposterous over the years. Multiple partners and medically improbable appendages are the base case. I am cognizant that the situations presented are not representative of ‘real life’. They are not representative of typical sexual relations. I’m sure the scenarios presented on porn sites really do happen sometimes, but they’re highly exaggerated outliers.

I’ve been a tech platform cassandra for my non media+tech friends for a few years now, but trying to explain how ad-based business models and algorithms combine to create a completely distorted understanding of reality has been difficult. The one thing that almost instantly breaks through is to equate the reality presented in a social feed to porn. Yes, the things you are presented with are real and do exist, but they are not representative of the mundane nature of everyday life. Again, highly exaggerated outliers.

In the same way none of us are going to pornhub and searching “suburban pudgy 40something couple missionary” (maybe you are and kudos to you) the algorithm does not promote the uninteresting and the unstimulating. If there is any censorship on these platforms, it’s of the tedious and routine elements of life.

To look at your Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter feed as representative of reality is to look at Pornhub and think “this is how most people have sex”.

Ranjan Roy on outliers.

Kind of an aside, but as someone who’s porn consumption is pretty much limited to fanfic, I would point out that “pudgy 40something couple missionary” is indeed very popular, and the only reason I’m removing the “suburban” part is that it’s difficult to apply when you’re dealing with, like. People on spaceships or imaginary military bases or fantasy medieval castles or whatever. There’s even an entire fic term for this genre; “established relationship”, particularly when coupled with other tags like “domestic fluff”. Possibly unsurprisingly, it seems—at least in the fandoms I’ve been reading—to’ve gotten a huge boot in popularity in 2020, along with all the other related “soft (◕ω◕✿)” tropes.

(Incidentally, this doesn’t even detract from Roy’s point, because one of the reasons I… don’t particularly gel with a lot of fic in this genre is even it tends to present weirdly unrealistic versions of its otherwise allegedly mundane scenarios. Ref. for e.g. the hugely popular “The Avengers cuddle and watch Disney movie marathons in Avengers Tower” genre which I just… I get the appeal of intellectually but as someone to whom this scenario is pretty much the antithesis of my id, I just cannot get over the fact that, like. Half these people are, like. Middle aged men, man. They just… are not. Doing that. Highly exaggerated outliers, indeed.)

2020-11-16T10:24:46+11:0025th November, 2020|Tags: , , |

Microfiction.

In 2019, [theDutch public broadcaster] ran an experiment with 10 different advertisers, including American Express, to compare the performance of [online] ads shown to users who opted in or out of being tracked. On the most important metric, conversions—the share of people who ended up taking the action the advertiser cared about, whether it was adding an item to their cart or signing up for a subscription or credit card—contextual ads did as well or better than microtargeted ones.

“When do people want to buy a Snickers?” said van Bentheim, recalling a conversation he had with someone who worked at an ad agency. “It’s not because someone is in a specific age or in a specific region or has a high income; it’s because they are hungry and they are looking at food at that moment.”

Lies my Google Ads sales rep told me.

The issue at hand is which model of advertising works better: micro-targeted (advertising to individuals because The Algorithm has determined them to be in a certain demographic segment), or contextual (advertising based on what an an ad will be seen next to). For going on two decades now, Google and, later, Facebook have been pushing the former at the expense of the latter, primarily because they’re the data gatekeepers that make the former “work”… and also because neither company really has any way of making money outside of this.

There’s only one problem: micro-targeted advertising fails to produce substantial conversion gains (i.e. how many people click on an ad) pretty much consistently every time it’s studied. Where it does show gains they’re in the single digits, and are arguably offset by all the downsides to targeted advertising, which run the gamut from “annoying” (remember Tumblr ads?) to “destroying democracy as we know it maybe?” (erosion of privacy, clickbait’s negative influence on journalism).

The upside to all of this, is that the slow-but-inexorable hand of change is on its way; everything from browsers nixing third-party cookies to jurisdictions like the EU tightening privacy regulations. The days of open-slather back channel data sales are (hopefully) coming to a close, though don’t expect Google and Facebook to go down without a fight…

2020-11-16T07:45:51+11:0018th November, 2020|Tags: , , , |

Big and small.

[Jane] Jacobs’s perspective was that urban life happens at street level, and that access to a wide range of other people on the sidewalks of a city allow for an emergent culture that is unpredictable and messy, vital and communal. On the other hand, [Robert] Moses’s idea of progress involved sweeping away the mess and unpredictability, creating regimented highways and high-rises that would allow for urban life to be planned, and therefore improved. In many ways the contrast is also about scale — for Jacobs, the city should work at the scale and speed of the pedestrian, whereas Moses believed a modern city should reflect the scale and speed of the automobile.

Today, most urban planning theory has evolved to reflect Jacobs’s thinking, as Moses’s initiatives failed on many levels — far from ushering in the utopia he imagined, his housing projects became even worse than the slums he sought to remedy, and his highways destroyed neighborhoods and disenfranchised those without automobiles.

The current conversations about what our digital ecosystems should be and who they are for almost exactly mirrors these tensions.

Alexis Lloyd on space.

This is about platform-based social media versus indie/open web communities, though while we’re on the subject of comparing online to offline spaces, it’s also worth remembering Robert Moses was pretty demonstrably racist, and his urban planning reflected that.

2021-01-11T09:23:14+11:002nd November, 2020|Tags: , , |

Consequences.

Almost any moment of the four-hour hearing offered a stunning illustration of the extent of the bad behavior by these corporations. Take Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, often seemed off-balance and unaware of his corporation’s own practices. Congresswoman Lucy McBath played audio of a seller on Amazon tearfully describing how her business and livelihood was arbitrarily destroyed by Amazon restricting sales of their product, for no reason the seller could discern. Bezos acted surprised, as he often did. Representative Jamie Raskin presented an email from Bezos saying about one acquisition that: “We’re buying market position not technology.” Bezos then admitted Amazon buys companies purely because of their “market position”, demonstrating that many of hundreds of acquisitions these tech companies have made were probably illegal.

Mark Zuckerberg had to confront his own emails in which he noted that Facebook’s purchase of Instagram was done to buy out a competitor. His response was that he didn’t remember, but that he imagined he was probably joking when he wrote that. [Congresswoman Val Demings] asked Zuckerberg why he restricted Facebook’s tools for competitors like Pinterest, but not for non-competitors like Netflix. He had no answer. Congressman David Cicilline asked about Facebook promoting incendiary speech and making money off advertising sold next to that speech. Zuckerberg pivoted to free speech talking points, and Cicilline cut him off, “This isn’t a speech issue, it’s about your business model.”

Big tech’s dominance has serious consequences. America has lost thousands of media outlets because of the concentration of ad revenue in the hands of Google and Facebook; two-thirds of American counties now have no daily newspaper. The nation lost 100,000 independent businesses from 2000 to 2015, a drop of 40%, many due to Amazon’s exploitation of legal advantages from the avoidance of sales tax to its apparent violation of antitrust laws in underpricing rivals. Hundreds of thousands of merchants now depend on Amazon’s platform to sell goods, and Amazon has systemically hiked fees on them. Just a few years ago these third-party merchants paid 19% of their revenue to Amazon, now it’s up to 30%, which is, coincidentally, the amount Apple demands from hundreds of thousands of app makers who have to reach iPhone users. It’s no secret why small business formation has collapsed since the last financial crisis; these giant platforms tax innovation.

Matt Stoller on the platform age.

It’s worth endlessly repeating that a large number of the business practices companies like Facebook and Amazon use to secure power, particularly the acquisition of rivals, are likely already illegal. It’s just the laws haven’t been enforced for, like, nearly two decades, basically as a direct result of neoliberal US government policies. And now… this.

2020-10-21T10:44:25+11:0030th October, 2020|Tags: |

Protocol.

Moving to a world where protocols and not proprietary platforms dominate would solve many issues currently facing the internet today. Rather than relying on a few giant platforms to police speech online, there could be widespread competition, in which anyone could design their own interfaces, filters, and additional services, allowing whichever ones work best to succeed, without having to resort to outright censorship for certain voices. It would allow end users to determine their own tolerances for different types of speech but make it much easier for most people to avoid the most problematic speech, without silencing anyone entirely or having the platforms themselves make the decisions about who is allowed to speak.

In short, it would push the power and decision making out to the ends of the network, rather than keeping it centralized among a small group of very powerful companies.

At the same time, it would likely lead to new, more innovative features as well as better end-user control over their own data. Finally, it could help usher in a series of new business models that don’t focus exclusively on monetizing user data.

Mike Masnick on future directions.

2020-10-20T08:27:27+11:0028th October, 2020|Tags: |

Monopoly power.

I know on the one hand this just seems like a “lol tech amirite?” sort of headline… but it’s actually about Microsoft’s monopoly power in the productivity software space and how it’s meant we’ve had to deal with absolute garbage fucking applications like Excel and Word for decades without realizing that, y’know. There’s no reason software has to be that terrible.

2020-10-20T08:09:12+11:0027th October, 2020|Tags: |

Regulated infrastructure.

Internet communications platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — are crucial in today’s society. They’re how we communicate with one another. They’re how our elected leaders communicate with us. They are essential infrastructure. Yet they are run by for-profit companies with little government oversight. This is simply no longer sustainable. Twitter and companies like it are essential to our national dialogue, to our economy, and to our democracy. We need to start treating them that way, and that means both requiring them to do a better job on security and breaking them up. […]

There are many security technologies companies like Twitter can implement to better protect themselves and their users; that’s not the issue. The problem is economic, and fixing it requires doing two things. One is regulating these companies, and requiring them to spend more money on security. The second is reducing their monopoly power.

The security regulations for banks are complex and detailed. If a low-level banking employee were caught messing around with people’s accounts, or if she mistakenly gave her log-in credentials to someone else, the bank would be severely fined. Depending on the details of the incident, senior banking executives could be held personally liable. The threat of these actions helps keep our money safe. Yes, it costs banks money; sometimes it severely cuts into their profits. But the banks have no choice.

The opposite is true for these tech giants. They get to decide what level of security you have on your accounts, and you have no say in the matter. If you are offered security and privacy options, it’s because they decided you can have them. There is no regulation. There is no accountability. There isn’t even any transparency. Do you know how secure your data is on Facebook, or in Apple’s iCloud, or anywhere? You don’t. No one except those companies do. Yet they’re crucial to the country’s national security. And they’re the rare consumer product or service allowed to operate without significant government oversight.

Bruce Schneier on regulation.

It’s almost like two generations of pro-corporatist propaganda have been intentionally designed to get people to “forget” all the industries governments have and do successfully regulate on behalf of their citizens…

2020-10-20T07:24:43+11:0024th October, 2020|Tags: |
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