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I Am Disgusted with Tech February 23, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Well, no, not really, especially since it pays me well to do what I do. But I seem to be surprised and amazed (in a negative sense) daily with their behavior, both on the public stage and behind the scenes.

But Uber seems to be bound and determined to support its bro culture and its combative approach to opening new markets. “We’re hurting.”  Seriously?  This is about as juvenile as it gets, and for a company that’s purportedly worth north of $60 billion, is completely uncalled for.  And oh by the way, let’s attack by name the woman who had the courage, and the evidence, to speak out against that culture.

And getting former assistant attorney general (and current revolving door ambulance chaser) Eric Holder to investigate them is like getting the fox to investigate why chickens have disappeared. I can write his report right now:  “This company is the paragon of virtue, although it does have random pockets of sexism and racism.  They don’t really have to do anything about that, because they are so good otherwise.”  If Uber pays Holder enough money, CEO Travis Kalanick won’t even be required to do a public mea culpa.

Uber has done some good, upending an industry that needed to be upended. But it has done so in a way that has created an entirely new class of working poor drivers, and a class of upper-income users who sadly don’t actually have to talk to anyone to get a ride.  Or tip anyone (I am sorry, the Uber drivers work for a living, and deserve courteous treatment.  Instead, Uber continues to not include a tip function on their app.)

Sadly, I don’t think that Facebook has done any good whatsoever. It has created a mass worldwide addiction that can never be satiated.  I see no innovation or value there.  And Zuckerberg?  He continues to deny what Facebook is and has become, all the while bringing in billions in market value for himself.  And uses it to buy his privacy, which he denies Facebook users.

Uber and Facebook, if you are looked upon as the adult supervision of Silicon Valley, then I can’t imagine what is happening elsewhere. It does not have to be like this, but this is what you wanted, and it is so very wrong.

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Maybe I Should Just Give In to the Facebook Juggernaut January 13, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Despite the fact that Facebook keeps active a live stream of a 12-year old committing suicide, yet pulls down a Pulitzer Prize winning historical photograph, the vast majority of the US, and the world in general, seem copasetic with the decisions that Facebook makes about our lives.

I have serious reservations about Facebook, but even more about founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is reported to be looking into a run for the US Presidency in the next election. Someone who publically says that we don’t want privacy in our lives, yet spends millions of dollars in property and legal fees to attempt build a wall around his house, clearly talks out of both sides of his mouth.  It is a classic case of “do what I say, not what I do.”  I’ll actually take that one step further.  Zuckerberg is telling the world that “I want my privacy.  And I can afford it.  You don’t, and you can’t.”

I have yet to ever sign up for Facebook, even though an increasing number of web properties are requiring Facebook user IDs to access their content. And of course, an increasing amount of interesting content is being posted exclusively on Facebook, available only to members.  I still decline, but who am I against two billion other people?

I confess that my flabber is ghasted. Is it just me?  Does no one else see what a heinous effect that Facebook is having on our interactions with other people?  What is it, really?  I am starting to doubt my own judgment that Facebook is something that I can rail against, and achieve some modicum of, well, at least acknowledgement.

I’m asking, no begging. Can someone please explain the almost universal fascination with Facebook?  And if we are concerned about Donald Trump as the US President, we should be horrified at the prospect that Mark Zuckerberg may succeed him.  Imagine a world where we are all required to have Facebook accounts, and to post required information about ourselves.

I would like to think that I have many more years of my life in front of me. Yet I cannot see value in them in the world of Facebook.

Once Again, Zuckerberg Demonstrates That He is Evil September 9, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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Those of you who know me also know that I have made it a point to never join Facebook. A large part of that is driven by an instinctive need to keep my professional side separate and distinct from my personal side.  You may know who I am, but it’s likely you know little about me (to be fair, it’s probably not like you care all that much, either).

But further, I disagree strongly with the arbitrary power that Facebook wields, in advertising, in shaping societal mores, and in editorial. This latter was never more evident than this week, where Facebook peremptorily and unilaterally, without any semblance of discussion or debate, removed a world-renown, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (and accompanying article) of the Vietnam War from a newspaper’s Facebook page.

The Norwegian newspaper that published the article and photo, and even the Norwegian Prime Minister, raged publicly about the action. To its (miniscule) credit, several hours after the story became public, Facebook agreed to repost the photo and article “sometime in the coming days.”  Until then, Facebook insisted that the iconic photo violated its user standards.  Facebook claims that it is a technology company, not a publisher, but when it can decide what a billion or more people can see, it is by far the largest publisher in the world.

In a larger sense, it bothers me because Zuckerberg’s actions, even (or especially) the stupid ones, cause increasing harm as Facebook becomes still more ubiquitous. And because Zuckerberg, still in his early 30s, is set to do harm for several decades ahead.

Over half a century ago, US Secretary of Defense and former CEO of General Motors Charles Wilson was quoted as saying, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”  (That quote, while well-known, is slightly bastardized; it is really the slightly less offensive “I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.  There was no difference.”)

I fear that Zuckerberg has taken this false maxim several steps further. I think that Zuckerberg feels strongly that whatever Facebook does is leading the world into a better place.  Thanks to business success, Zuckerberg and Facebook wield enormous power, and bear an equally enormous responsibility to use that power wisely.  Instead, we get gross stupidity.

I know he is wrong in the most fundamental way. And I refuse to be a party to it.

I Think the Written Word Can Take Care of Itself June 14, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Facebook thinks that the written word is dead, to be replaced in its entirety by videos.  It claims that videos convey more information.

Well, maybe. I am no longer willing to bet against Facebook, even as it gets even more asinine every year.  I am a mere human, while it is an unstoppable force.  And it is correct from a simple number-of-bits standpoint.

But information is more than bits and bytes. Video is art, too, but blending words in the right ways lets people use their imagination to build alternative realities.  It exercises our minds in ways that video cannot.

To be fair, I am the one that laughs at people who still cling desperately to the printed word on paper. I have heard “I just like the feel of paper in my hands,” which seems to me nonsensical.  But the written word, apart from defining in world history what is means to be human, is something that stimulates us to imagine very different things, something that video is ill-equipped to do.

We may go all the way to a video society, although I hope not. I am reminded of an old speculative fiction story by the late great Isaac Asimov that envisions a future society in which mathematics is done entirely by calculator, and pencil and paper (or mental) mathematics is a long forgotten art.  So when someone brings it back, that person is looked upon with both wonder and suspicion.

It frightens me, though, to think that Facebook actually has the wherewithal to make this happens, if it furthers the company’s business goals. We should not give up the written word just because Facebook says we should.

I don’t think this comes as any surprise to anyone, but Facebook is shallow.  Its fundamental problem is that it also promotes shallowness as communication.  If we succumb to Facebook, we fail to connect as humans.

Facebook and Foundations of Psychology Experimentation July 2, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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By now most of us are familiar with the study done by Facebook in 2012 in which about 700,000 users were unwittingly subject to more emotionally negative content in order to determine if that content had any influence on their moods (based on the published results, the answer seems to be “no”). This became public when Facebook published an academic paper on the topic, and the principal researcher expressed misgivings in a blog post.

One of the more notorious psychological experiments was conducted by Stanley Milgram, circa 1963. Milgram described it as a learning experiment in which purported subjects (actually confederates) were given fake electrical shocks by the actual subjects as punishment for incorrect answers. Under the urging of the experimenter, many of those administering the electric shock applied the maximum amount of voltage.

I would like to think I know something of psychology, with a couple of university degrees in the subject and my own (very modest) human experiments during that time. Many psychology studies use deception in order to measure aspects of behavior that the subject isn’t cognizant of. If subjects were aware of the true purpose of an experiment, that knowledge would almost certainly influence their behaviors, rendering any results useless.

But all subjects in all legitimate psychological studies are aware that they are part of an experiment with a defined beginning and end. That is truly where Facebook fell down. The catch-all Facebook terms of use is clearly inadequate in this regard; no one should expect that they can be an experimental subject at any time.

This means that at any time you are on Facebook, you are subject to being, well, a subject. Will that change how you interact with Facebook or other social media site? Well, maybe, and that could once again render any results useless.

Universities have ethics committees that evaluate prospective studies and determine whether or not they meet published ethics guidelines. While I won’t say that such committees make appropriate decisions in all cases, these processes are relatively transparent and well understood. It’s difficult to make the same case for any ethics decisions made by Facebook (my snark causes me to add “if any”).

Moreover, I have to ask what the purpose of such a study was. In academia (I was also a tenure-track academic for five years), researchers conduct experiments to generally advance the human body of knowledge (yes, and to get published, and obtain tenure, etc.). At Facebook, these studies must out of necessity be viewed with much more of a profit motive. Now there is truly an arresting thought.

Just what the heck is Facebook up to?