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It Gives Me No Pleasure to Say “I Told You So” March 21, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Well, maybe it does.  It feels like this is the beginning of the end for Facebook.  More so than Facebook simply can’t keep the promises made in its users, and it’s not at all clear that it even wants to.

So Facebook lets third parties mine its data.  That should surprise no one; that is the business they are in.  If you don’t know what the product is, then you are the product.

But when that data is passed on to others, there is a problem.  And when Facebook knows that has occurred, and doesn’t do anything about it, that is a bigger problem.  And not just a PR problem, but a legal problem too.  To make no mention of already facing class action lawsuits.

In the past, users have not been troubled by information like this.  We have implicitly accepted the fact that Facebook is mining our data, and personalizing its responses, and we seem to believe that this applies to everyone but us.

This feels different.  Facebook always says “trust us”, and users have either taken that at face value or ignored the implications entirely.  Now we seem to realize that Facebook lies to us every chance that it gets.

Let there be no mistake here: Facebook is in the business of monetizing your data.  And the ways that it does that are pretty darned intrusive, if you stopped to think about it.  Personalization in advertising is sometimes nearly indistinguishable from surveillance, and Facebook has mastered surveillance.

But it is sad, in that we have let Facebook get that far.  And you might certainly say the multi-billion dollar companies simply don’t go away.  There will always be hardcore users worldwide, who let their emotions swing like leaves in a breeze at what they see on Facebook.  Even honest users who use Facebook as a shortcut for keeping in touch with people have to be horrified at the way their data is being use.

It may seem like I am obsessed with Facebook, given the things I have written.  In fact, I’m not at all.  I have never used Facebook, and have no desire to do so.  But I am offended at how it influences people’s behavior, often negatively.  And how it uses that information against people.

Update:  Zuckerberg has finally spoken.  And not only did he imply it was an engineering problem, he came right out and said it was actually fixed years ago.  I wish I had that kind of chutzpah.


About Friction and Life Relationships February 23, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’ve written about friction in these pages in the past.  In general, it references the degree of difficulty and thought required to accomplish a particular activity.  The more difficult something is to do, the more friction it entails.

Many so-called technology innovations in recent years have revolved around reducing friction in our lives.  And that’s not by itself bad.  But it does have some unintended consequences.

Take social media networks such as Facebook and to a lesser extent LinkedIn.  It has become enormously easy to connect, or to friend (since when did that become a verb?).  We think that is a great thing; we can always stay connected with the lovely young lady (or gentleman) that we had a fun conversation with at a party last week.

Do you want to know something?  It should be difficult to stay in touch with people from our past.  The friction of doing so causes us to consider carefully who is important in our lives.  If it is as easy to stay in touch with our BFF as it is to stay in touch with someone we met once at a seminar twenty years ago, then we should view that as a serious problem.  But we don’t.  Facebook gives us the curse of not having to prioritize.

Instead, we have five thousand friends, the vast majority of whom we have never met and don’t know.  I have over 900 connections on LinkedIn, and while I have a good memory, I can’t for the life of me remember over half of them.

They are not our friends.  You don’t have five thousand friends.  You may have five hundred friends, if you are especially gregarious and optimistic on how people view you.  You probably have more like twenty friends, and maybe another twenty acquaintances who you deem of enough value to stay in touch with over time (whether or not they feel the same is a different story).

So if someone is important enough to stay in touch with, they are important enough to keep a physical and virtual address.  Not a Facebook friendship; that is nothing but fake.  If they are not, then while they have added to our life experience, they will not do so again in the future.  Deal with it.

It’s Time to Shut Down Facebook February 23, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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You heard it here first, but I suspect that the cacophony will only grow once Facebook’s, well, gross incompetence, and its embracement of that incompetence, becomes more apparent to more people.  To some people, Facebook is a benign tool for staying in touch with people (like we can’t write letters or emails anymore?).  To many more, it is an instrument for spreading hate and discord.

And Facebook very much enables the latter.  I am simply disgusted over its role in promoting fake news and hate in response to the recent school shooting.  You should be too.  Its excuses are not only hollow and without meaning, but they also deny any responsibility for the havoc it has enabled.

I get the feeling that senior Facebook executives gather around Mark Zuckerberg’s desk almost daily, cackling merrily about the latest trick that got past their algorithms.  In fact, the latest is doctored photos (paywall), which can be done by any 12-year old with Photoshop.  Or even with Microsoft Paint.

They don’t want to solve the problem.  It’s too much trouble.  And they are the smartest people in the room, so if they can’t see a solution, there isn’t one.  And Zuckerberg continues to think it is a non-problem, and that there is an engineering solution to this non-problem.  In reality, if he wants to continue in the social media business, he needs to throw away every single line of code and start over again.

That won’t happen, of course.  So we need to shut down Facebook.  To be fair, it’s not clear how that would happen.  While it is possible to imagine criminal charges or regulatory violations, the legal system moves in slow and mysterious ways.  And Zuckerberg will likely just move the whole thing offshore anyway.

So the only feasible solution is for every single person to stop using Facebook, now.  How will you keep in touch with people, you ask in horror.  Well, I have some thoughts about that, too.  In the next post.

Trick A Journalist Yourself February 3, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’m usually pretty good at distilling a story down to a single narrative, focusing on it, and writing to that narrative.

Yet here, as I try to focus, the entire narrative becomes larger, less focused, and blurred in my mind.

So, let me start with the facts.  Tech journalist (and smart tech guy) Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols recently noticed an ad on Facebook:

Trick a journalist,” said the ad in bold blue type. “Scrape the web for journalists, automatically contact them and get them writing about you. Let’s get you more suckers. There’s a journalist born every minute.”

(Disclaimer:  I have known SJVN almost since he started, and I admire his ability to continue to make what I assume to be a reasonable living writing freelance tech stories over the course of three decades.)

I will be dipped in shit.

Why, pray tell?  Is this what our society has come to?  In an era where the controlling rebuttal is “fake news”, do we as individuals feel the need to sow fake news to begin with?

Seriously, this is not funny.  And if you think it is, you need to run, not walk, to the nearest psychiatrist.  Get help, please.

Ah, but you have a business purpose?  A product to promote?  Or not yet a product, but something that will be a product later?  Do it the right way.  Tell your story.  You are allowed to be enthusiastic about it, but don’t ever try to trick your journalist.

Can a journalist be tricked?  Well, yes, just as we all can.  But to what purpose?  There doesn’t seem to be any purpose here, except as sport.  And as sport, it isn’t even sporting.

We have taken journalism and have attempted to turn it into a laughingstock, a false supposition into an uncertain story.  I suppose this was inevitable, in an era where legitimate journalists can’t earn a living, and illegitimate ones get thousands of followers.

If you are laughing now, let me ask you this: When will this happen to your profession?  Sooner than you think, I will wager.  Trick a doctor?  Trick a software engineer.  Why not?  We have opened the floodgates.  There are no facts, only the narratives that are fostered by those who shout the loudest.

I am offended.  While many stories are more complex than the reporting implies, that doesn’t make them illegitimate.  And while some journalists try to bend a storyline to fit a particular point of view, that doesn’t make the storyline false.

But to intentionally create and propagate false storylines is wrong, in a fundamental sense.  It is not calling out poor journalism.  It is not making fun of a system of communicating with others.  It is just wrong.

Solving a Management Problem with Automation is Just Plain Wrong January 18, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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This article is so fascinatingly wrong on so many levels that it is worth your time to read it.  On the surface, it may appear to offer some impartial logic, that we should automate because humans don’t perform consistently.

“At some point, every human being becomes unreliable.”  Well, yes.  Humans aren’t machines.  They have good days and bad days.  They have exceptional performances and poor performances.

Machines, on the other hand, are stunningly consistent, and least under most circumstances.  Certainly software bugs, power outages, and hardware breakdowns happen, and machines will fail to perform under many of those circumstances, but they are relatively rare.

But there is a problem here.  Actually, several problems.  The first is that machines will do exactly the same thing, every time, until the cows come home.  That’s what they are programmed to do, and they do it reasonably well.

Humans, on the other hand, experiment.  And through experimentation and inspiration come innovation, a better way of doing things.  Sometimes that better way is evolutionary, and sometimes it is revolutionary.  But that’s how society evolves and becomes better.  The machine will always do exactly the same thing, so there will never be better and innovative solutions.  We become static, and as a society old and tired.

Second, humans connect with other humans in a way machines cannot (the movie Robot and Frank notwithstanding).  This article starts with a story of a restaurant whose workers showed up when they felt like it.  Rather that addressing that problem directly, the owner implemented a largely automated (and hands off) assembly line of food.

What has happened here is that the restaurant owner has taken a management problem and attempted to solve it with the application of technology.  And by not acknowledging his own management failings, he will almost certainly fail in his technology solution too.

Except for probably fast food restaurants, people eat out in part for the experience.  We do not eat out only, and probably not even primarily, for sustenance, but rather to connect with our family and friends, and with random people we encounter.

If we cannot do that, we might as well just have glucose and nutrients pumped directly into our veins.

Tech Products That Should Never Have Been Conceived January 11, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I say that with some trepidation, for a number of reasons.  First, for the last 30 years I’ve made my living off of tech in some capacity or other.  Second, I’m all in favor of progress in technology.  It makes those of us who work in it wealthier, and it has the potential to significantly benefit society.

It’s the direction of progress that sometimes concerns me.  There are a number of things that can be invented, but probably should not be.  One is the Gita, from Boston-based Vespa subsidiary Piaggio Fast Forward.  Gita is a mobile item carrier that follows people carrying up to 44 pounds.  It simply rolls along behind you,

A close second is the auto-following suitcase.  A young WSJ writer covering CES (paywall) writes about her experiences with these, and likens having to pull your own carry-on through an airport as hiking the Oregon Trail.  Um.  She points out that it’s practical, in that you can have an iced latte in each hand, and not worry about losing your bag.  Right.

What’s even worse is the Modobag, a ridable piece of luggage.  And the images on the website show young people using it.  I am imagining playing bumper cars, so to speak, in a crowded airport concourse.

I recognize that there is a niche though possibly legitimate use for products like these.  Elderly or infirm might find them useful, although that represents a pretty small percentage of the traveling public.  And despite an occasional marketing word to the contrary, these products are clearly focused on an entirely different demographic.

And I recognize that at least a few of the articles are intended to be partly tongue-in-cheek.  But that’s no excuse to not conclude that these particular emperors have no clothes.

But we have reached an era where tech companies don’t particularly care about benefitting society.  They think they can make their fortunes on young people who think they are hip by spending thousands of dollars on the latest gadgets.

Gita was announced a year ago, and doesn’t even seem to be in beta yet, so perhaps it will never see daylight.  Good.  And most airlines have said that they will not embark motorized bags in which the battery cannot be removed.  As these bags will take up more space and weight than a conventional bag, I see this as only a half measure, but it is causing some rethinking among companies making them.

Folks, forget the stupid iced latte.  Stuff like this serves no purpose whatsoever except to make you look silly.

It is Time to Say that Uber Has No Clothes December 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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A few years ago, I remember hearing a lot about the sharing economy.  Specifically, you need to go somewhere, someone happens to be heading in that direction, Uber will match you up.  While we still hear Uber and sharing economy used in the same sentence, it is nonsensical.  You summon a driver, period.  Whatever happened to the sharing economy?  Oh, I know, it is not profitable.  Of course, neither is Uber.

Credit not me, but Alison Griswold of Quartz for getting it right.  And also credit the European Union for finally calling out the company.  If its users say, “I have summoned an Uber,” then yes, it must by definition be a transportation company.

I do credit Uber for shaking up and transforming the taxi industry, which really needed it.  It clearly met an unserved need.  The technology is generally good and needed, even if Uber’s intrusiveness into our private lives was grossly inappropriate.

But the way forward is not Uber.  I have railed against its antagonistic company culture, but this cuts right to the business model.  Uber will die, despite (or perhaps because of) its $68 billion valuation, which is highly questionable if it ever reaches the open market.

The company itself won’t see another ten years, and that is becoming increasingly clear.  I hope something good comes out of it, but for its successors.

Could There Have Been a World Where Social Media Behaved Responsibly? December 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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That is an enormous question that I cannot possibly answer.  Perhaps I can at least appropriately frame the problem.  Through the likes of Facebook (especially), Twitter, Instagram, even LinkedIn, we have enabled hate speech, grossly inappropriate comments, and in general stupidity.

So here is the question that I would like to pose to Mark Zuckerberg.  What is the value to human society of being able to connect with thousands of people that you don’t know, hundreds of people that you met once or twice in high school and college, dozens of people that you worked with in dozens of jobs, and your three most recent significant others?  Very little, I will say, and the downside is significantly greater.

I’m sure that Zuckerberg can wax poetic on connectivity, community, and interaction, and how he is bringing together the planet, but it’s all at the abstract level.  I’m pretty sure that he can’t point to more than a handful of incidents, if that, where Facebook has resulted in a win for collaboration.  It simply doesn’t exist, in real life.

And, despite my detractors in this (yes, I am talking about you, <name redacted>), it is not clear that any of this has added to our experience.  It has changed our experience, certainly, but beyond that, I call bullshit.  Some of you say that we connect with people that we are friends or colleagues with, and there is some minor convenience there, although emphatically not on Facebook, but in general, I cannot believe that we are getting the value for what we are paying.

Paying not in money, but in aggravation.  Perhaps harassment.  And certainly in time, at getting rid of those that for whatever reason, we no longer want to bother with.