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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.

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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.

Are Engineering and Ethics Orthogonal Concepts? November 18, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Technology and Culture.
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Let me explain through example.  Facebook has a “fake news” problem.  Users sign up for a free account, then post, well, just about anything.  If it violates Facebook’s rules, the platform generally relies on users to report, although Facebook also has teams of editors and is increasingly using machine learning techniques to try to (emphasis on try) be proactive about flagging content.

(Developing machine learning algorithms is a capital expense, after all, while employing people is an operational one.  But I digress.)

But something can be clearly false while not violating Facebook guidelines.  Facebook is in the very early stages of attempting to authenticate the veracity of news (it will take many years, if it can be done at all), but it almost certainly won’t remove that content.  It will be flagged as possibly false, but still available for those who want to consume it.

It used to be that we as a society confined our fake news to outlets such as The Globe or the National Inquirer, tabloid papers typically sold at check-out lines at supermarkets.  Content was mostly about entertainment personalities, and consumption was limited to those that bothered to purchase it.

Now, however, anyone can be a publisher*.  And can publish anything.  Even at reputable news sources, copy editors and fact checkers have gone the way of the dodo bird.

It gets worse.  Now entire companies exist to write and publish fake news and outrageous views online.  Thanks to Google’s ad placement strategy, the more successful ones may actually get paid by Google to do so.

By orthogonal, I don’t mean contradictory.  At the fundamental level, orthogonal means “at right angles to.”  Variables that are orthogonal are statistically independent, in that changes in one don’t at all affect the other.

So let’s translate that to my point here.  Facebook, Google, and the others don’t see this as a societal problem, which is difficult and messy.  Rather they see it entirely as an engineering problem, solvable with the appropriate application of high technology.

At best, it’s both.  At worst, it is entirely a societal problem, to be solved with an appropriate (and messy) application of understanding, negotiation, and compromise.  That’s not Silicon Valley’s strong suit.

So they try to address it with their strength, rather than acknowledging that their societal skills as they exist today are inadequate to the immense task.  I would be happy to wait, if Silicon Valley showed any inclination to acknowledge this and try to develop those skills, but all I hear is crickets chirping.

These are very smart people, certainly smarter than me.  One can hope that age and wisdom will help them recognize and overcome their blind spots.  One can hope, can’t one?

*(Disclaimer:  I mostly publish my opinions on my blog.  When I use a fact, I try to verify it.  However, as I don’t make any money from this blog, I may occasionally cite something I believe to be a fact, but is actually wrong.  I apologize.)

Facebook, Fake News and Accounts, and Where Do We Go From Here? October 31, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Those of you who read me know that I am no fan of Facebook, for a wide variety of reasons.  I am not a member, and will never be one, even though it may hurt me professionally.  In short, I believe that Mark Zuckerberg is a megalomaniac who fancies Facebook as a modern religion, and himself as god, or at least the living prophet.

And regrettably, he may be right.  Because Facebook is far more than the “personal-ad-in-your-face” that I thought when I presented past objections.  Over the past 10 months, it has become pretty clear that Facebook is allowing itself to be used for purposes of influencing elections and sowing strife, sometimes violently.

The fact of the matter is that Zuckerberg and Facebook worship at the altar of the dollar, and everything else be damned.

Worse, from a technology standpoint, Facebook treats its probably-fatal flaws as mere software bugs, an inconvenience that it may fix if they rise up too far in the priority queue.

Still worse, the public-facing response is “We can’t be expected to police everything that happens on our site, can we?”

Well, yes, you can.  It is not “We can fix this,” or “We don’t think this is a problem.”  It is “You are at fault.”

In an earlier era of media (like, 10 years ago), publishers used to examine and vet every single advertisement.  Today it’s too hard?  That’s what Zuckerberg says.  That is the ultimate cop-out.  And that sick attitude is a side effect of worshiping at the altar of the dollar.

On Facebook, we are hearing louder echoes of our own voices.  Not different opinions.  And Facebook will not change that, because it will hurt their revenue.  And that is wrong in the most fundamental way.

So where do we go from here?  I would like to argue for people to stop using Facebook completely, but I know that’s not going to happen.  Maybe we should just be using Facebook to keep in touch with friends, as was originally intended.  We really don’t have ten thousand friends; I have about 900 connections on LinkedIn, and probably don’t even remember half of them.  And I don’t read news from them.

Can we possibly cool the addiction that millions of people seem to have to Facebook?  I don’t know, but for the sake of our future I think we need to try.

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.

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.