Facebook and Engineering the Public

It’s not what’s published (or not), but what’s done

There’s been a lot of brouhaha about a recent Facebook study in which Facebook altered the news feed of 689,000 of its users to see if moods were “contagious.” There has huge discussion of its ethics, and another one on its publication. There’s also the argument that the effect sizes were actually not that large (though it seems the researchers kept them small on purpose) and whether the research was well done.

These are all good discussions but I’m more struck by this defense, and this question:

Fourth, it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s nothing intrinsically evil about the idea that large corporations might be trying to manipulate your experience and behavior. Everybody you interact with–including every one of your friends, family, and colleagues–is constantly trying to manipulate your behavior in various ways. … So the meaningful question is not whether people are trying to manipulate your experience and behavior, but whether they’re trying to manipulate you in a way that aligns with or contradicts your own best interests. <read the rest here>

I’m struck by how this kind of power can be seen as no big deal. Large corporations exist to sell us things, and to impose their interests, and I don’t understand why we as the research/academic community should just think that’s totally fine, or resign to it as “the world we live in”. That is the key strength of independent academia: we can speak up in spite of corporate or government interests.

To me, this resignation to online corporate power is a troubling attitude because these large corporations (and governments and political campaigns) now have new tools and stealth methods to quietly model our personality, our vulnerabilities, identify our networks, and effectively nudge and shape our ideas, desires and dreams. These tools are new, this power is new and evolving. It’s exactly the time to speak up!

That is one of the biggest shifts in power between people and big institutions, perhaps the biggest one yet of 21st century. This shift, in my view, is just as important as the fact that we, the people, can now speak to one another directly and horizontally.

I’m not focusing on this one study, or its publication, because even if Facebook never publishes another such study, the only real impact will be the disappointed researchers Facebook employs who have access to proprietary and valuable databases and would like to publish in Nature, Science and PNAS while still working for Facebook. Facebook itself will continue to conduct such experiments daily and hourly, in fact that was why the associated Institutional Review Board (IRB) which oversees ethical considerations of research approved the research: Facebook does this every day.

I’ve been writing and thinking about this a lot. I identify this model of control as a Gramscian model of social control: one in which we are effectively micro-nudged into “desired behavior” as a means of societal control. Seduction, rather than fear and coercion are the currency, and as such, they are a lot more effective. (Yes, short of deep totalitarianism, legitimacy, consent and acquiescence are stronger models of control than fear and torture—there are things you cannot do well in a society defined by fear, and running a nicely-oiled capitalist market economy is one of them).

The secret truth of power of broadcast is that while very effective in restricting limits of acceptable public speech, it was never that good at motivating people individually. Political and ad campaigns suffered from having to live with “broad profiles” which never really fit anyone. What’s a soccer mom but a general category that hides great variation?

With new mix of big data and powerful, oligopolistic platforms (like Facebook) all that is solved, to some degree.

Today, more and more, not only can corporations target you directly, they can model you directly and stealthily. They can figure out answers to questions they have never posed to you, and answers that you do not have any idea they have. Modeling means having answers without making it known you are asking, or having the target know that you know. This is a great information asymmetry, and combined with the behavioral applied science used increasingly by industry, political campaigns and corporations, and the ability to easily conduct random experiments (the A/B test of the said Facebook paper), it is clear that the powerful have increasingly more ways to engineer the public, and this is true for Facebook, this is true for presidential campaigns, this is true for other large actors: big corporations and governments. (And, in fact, a study published in Nature, dissected at my peer-reviewed paper linked below shows that Facebook can alter voting patterns, and another study shows Facebook likes can be used to pretty accurately model your personality according to established psychology measures).

That, to me, is a scarier and more important question than whether or not such research gets published. As I said, if this scares Facebook from future publishing, the biggest group that loses is the Facebook research team’s aspirations of academic publications. This type of work itself will continue, stealthily, as it has been.

Hence, I object to this framing:

How is publishing the results of one A/B test worse than knowing nothing of the thousands of invisible tests?

The alternative is not that they don’t publish and we forget about it. The alternative is that they publish (or not) but we, as research community, continue to talk about the substantive issue.

So, yes, I say we should care whether Facebook can manipulate emotions, or voting behavior, or whether it can model our personality, or knows your social network, regardless of the merits or strength of finding of one study. We should care that this data is proprietary, with little access to it by the user, little knowledge of who gets to purchase, use and manipulate us with this kind of data. And of course it’s not just Facebook, every major Internet platform, along with governments, are in this game and they are spending a lot of money and effort because this is so important. As academics and the research community, we should be the last people who greet these developments with a shrug because we are few of the remaining communities who both have the expertise to understand the models and the research, as well as an independent standing informed by history and knowledge.

If you want to read more, I have a much longer version of this argument, focusing on the case of political campaigns, but is applicable more broadly. So, click here or on the title below for my paper that is accepted as publication and is forthcoming in the July 2014 issue of First Monday, Volume 19, Number 7.

Engineering the Public: Big Data, Surveillance and Computational Politics

Abstract: Digital technologies have given rise to a new combination of big data and computational practices which allow for massive, latent data collection and sophisticated computational modeling, increasing the capacity of those with resources and access to use these tools to carry out highly effective, opaque and unaccountable campaigns of persuasion and social engineering in political, civic and commercial spheres.

PS. Jonathan Zittrain has written up one of the examples in my paper, Facebook throwing an election, in latest issue of TNR. I had used the same example in public talks and writings and elsewhere since at least May of 2013, including an earlier version of this paper I had published, so this is a case of many minds come up with same examples. :-)

Next Story — How to Stop Worrying about ISIS and Love Twitter
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How to Stop Worrying about ISIS and Love Twitter

A speculative tour inside the coming social media crackdown on terrorism

What’s the chatter”?

“It’s great. I mean, it’s awful. For them. They’re considering dropping Twitter. Too much time, too little return. They haven’t recruited a single person willing to fly to Europe or try the Turkey border route in the last month.”

“Did anyone on our end notice the official account being switched to private?”

“Nope, or if they did, they aren’t saying anything.”

Phil stopped rocking in his chair. One of these days he was going to fall backwards, the way he leaned way, way back. He moved towards the keyboard and pulled up the tweets from the State Department Twitter account.

“Hold on, let me retweet the last tweet from the ‘Sally’ account — got to keep that baby looking a little active.”

Penny leaned in over his shoulder as he retweeted the last tweet that the State Department had put out from its anti-ISIS Twitter account. It read:

#ISIL #ISIS kills civilians, again in #Mosul. #UnitedAgainstDaesh #ISISKillsMuslims

Penny whistled, “Good work ‘Sally’,” she said. You could hear the air quotes around Sally — the smiling brunette from the fake Twitter account.

“Well that’s three retweets. You sure they didn’t notice that the account has gone private?”

Phil shrugged. “They don’t know or they don’t care. Does it matter which?”

Just then, Phil’s phone let out a ping. He looked down.

“Crap, the boss is coming down with some big honchos,” he said. Penny looked at him with alarm. “Let’s go. Gotta get Hannah out of here.”

Phil logged out and they both headed out the door down the winding corridor hung with photos of ambassadors and flags from nations around the world. At last they arrived at a dead end with a door marked “AUTHORIZED ENTRY ONLY.”

Phil swiped his card, the light turned green and the lock chirped open. They walked in.

“Hannah,” Penny said, as cheerily as she could. “What’s good?”

The greeting seemed to sail over the ponytailed head seated at the desk in front of them. The duo shifted uncomfortably in their well-heeled shoes as their quarry typed away in jeans and a t-shirt without looking up or missing a beat.

At last she looked up. Hannah was appreciative of the effort to sound hip, and she had decided to try to roll her eyes less often.

“Penny! Reading the Urban Dictionary, again, I see,” she smiled.

Penny smiled. “Yeah, thanks for telling me about it. I’m going to sound so hip when I meet my nephews and nieces at Thanksgiving. I’ve got three months to practice! Speaking of Thanksgiving, my, I’m hungry. Very hungry. Want to go to lunch?”

Hannah rolled her eyes.

“Big honchos coming down again?” she said.

“Hey, I’m buying,” Phil volunteered.

“It’s only 10AM,” Hannah groaned.

“Please?” Phil pleaded.

“Think of the children,” Penny flashed a wide grin.

Hannah slammed her laptop, and got up from the purple exercise ball she had been sitting on.

“Okay. You guys and your bosses are weird,” she sighed.

Phil was apologetic. “Look, we have a presentation coming up next week, and as soon as we can show the stellar results from your work these past two months, we feel like we can, you know, come out,” he said as all three of them walked out of the room, into the long corridor. They had made it about a third of the way towards the intersection when four men in dark blue suits turned the corner, busy chatting among them. Penny, looking panicked, turned towards the first door on the right and ushered everyone in. She didn’t need to swipe her card to get in; they were now, all three, in a closet with cleaning supplies.

“This is idiotic,” Hannah half-cursed, half-muttered.

“Ssshhhh,” both of them said in unison. They waited till the footsteps passed them, and the distant sound of a door opening and closing. Then they all got out, slightly embarrassed and made their way onto the cafeteria. There was no food, since it was too late for breakfast and too early for lunch. They grabbed coffee.

“Look, if I’ve been so successful, why hide me?”

“Your name is on all the reports already. Don’t worry, this isn’t about stealing your thunder. You’ve been amazing. It’s just you know…” Phil started.

“...bureaucracies are complicated and some of our managers are a little old-fashioned about who they think can get the job done,” Hannah completed. She’d heard it so many times before.

“Okay, whatever. I’m not doing this for you anyway. And the fact that I’m nineteen should not be such a big obstacle. And I don’t think I violate the dress code; I don’t wear torn jeans. Anyway, have the mofos been able to get a single American on a plane last month? Did they even come close? I’ve thwarted every attempt we found.”

“Your work’s on fleek,” Penny tried.

That finally got Hannah smiling. “You’ve really been reading the urban dictionary?”

Penny grinned wide: “Look, I know it feels unfair that we’ve been hiding you from the bosses, but we’ve all put our careers on the line here. We’ll bring you out. If you want. But let’s get through this presentation, first, huh? Show the results. I’ve got the draft presentation and the slides here, so think of this as a working coffee rather than hiding-Hanna-from-boss-again lunch?”

Hannah leaned in and started reading. “Well, the theory is almost right. Here, let me try to explain it again,” she sighed.

“Why does a teenager join ISIS?” she asked, rhetorically. “It’s because she’s bored, so bored that she’d rather die than be bored another day, or she’s angry, so angry that she wants something to show the world how angry she is. So you have to interrupt the boredom/anger/discovery/amazement loop before it hardens.”

“Hah, you got the loop thing,” Phil said.

“If you can study the urban dictionary, I can read your OODA loops,” Hannah said. “So take your bored teenager? What’s the best way to make things less boring for him?”

“Have the State Department get into an argument with him on Twitter,” they said in unison.

“Right. That’s why we took that official account private. Good work, Phil, doing that without the other department noticing. No harm, no foul until someone notices that nobody but the existing followers are seeing those tweets.”

“It was like Philip Morris advertising ‘smoking is not for teenagers; only adults’,” Penny remembered and scribbled it down.

“That’s right,” Hannah said. “Telling kids that smoking is an adult decision is not an anti-smoking ad, it’s the best smoking ad ever. So you don’t do that. Well, unless you’re Philip Morris.”

Hannah continued: “Take your angry teenager. The one that is so pissed off at everything. What would please her most? That’s right. The chance to join the most hated thing in the world. So what do we do?”

“We distract,” Penny said, crossing out a word in the printout. “We distract because anger cannot be met with anger. Anger met with anger escalates.”

“That’s right,” said Hannah. “And Penny, how did you get Zayn Malik to retweet the kid in Idaho? That was a feat of brilliance. By the time she was done with the whole flow, she was so much less interested in that ISIS dude that had been chatting her up.”

Penny smiled. “State Department has resources. And friends. We’re not just a bunch of boring and uncool old folks, you know. Well we are, but we have friends.”

Hannah continued: “Let’s see. We have the slide with the bored/ignore; anger/distract bit. We have the slide about the accounts we set up that bicker with other ISIS accounts on the ‘One True Way to Jihad’. Good idea, Phil.”

Phil was pleased at the praise. “Well, the left already does this internal bickering to paralysis, and ISIS and Al Qaeda do that anyway, too, just not in English. I’ve basically been translating the insults Al Qaeda and ISIS folks have been hurling at each other and putting them in our own fake pro-ISIS or pro-AQ accounts.”

Hannah smiled back. “Yeah, nothing better to make sure these guys are exposed as the jerks.”

Hannah got serious. “Where are we with Twitter suspending their accounts without an email that contains the name old account? So that they can’t use it to verify the next account they create? And use the suspension like a badge of honor?”

Phil replied: “Any day now. They said they’ll probably have to change it or everyone but they don’t want to do that. They were looking to see if they can send different suspension emails to just ISIS accounts but were wondering if that would also be a badge of honor.”

Hannah shrugged: “As long as it did not verify them as owner of the old account, it doesn’t really matter. Just make sure the email is as generic as possible so it can be copied easily — so we can set up our own accounts claiming to be reincarnated ISIS accounts as well. Confusion. We’re All Spartacus, you know.”

Penny kept scribbling. “Did you learn all this in just three months at Vice”?

Hannah looked offended. “Four months at Al Jaz plus; three months at Buzzfeed; two months at Vice,” she corrected. “I didn’t just work at Vice. I have nine months under my belt as a social media manager. Practically a lifetime.”

“Can you get the President to stop talking so much about ISIS”?

Phil whistled. “Well, miss nine-months-under-my-belt, that’s a big ask, no?”

Hannah rolled her eyes. “Look, you hired me to make sure ISIS can’t recruit random American teenagers. I’ve been doing my job. In my professional opinion,” she continued, emphasizing professional, “the less these psychopaths are in the public eye here, the harder it is for them to recruit the random lost kid in Idaho.”

Phil replied: “Yeah, but these psychopaths are kind of a big problem over there and after last year’s San Bernandino attack, this became a big thing for domestic politics.”

Hannah rolled her eyes again. “The San Bernandino duo attacked the holiday party and killed just about as many people as the crazy dude in Aurora who thought he was Joker and dyed his hair flaming red, ya know. I mean, it sucks and all, but it wasn’t any sign of smarts. Two rando killers. Another day in America.”

Phil sighed. “But it’s politics. We have to work with the parameters we got.”

Hannah didn’t roll her eyes. She was becoming jaded, in just two months after starting this job. She paged through the presentation. “27 recruitment attempts intercepted. 20 through distraction online. 7 covert interventions in person. 456 suspended accounts cannot find their way back to the main network through the confusion. 73 hashtags hijacked. Looks good to me”

“Man, this is lousy coffee. You know, we had a real barista at Buzzfeed.” She put down the cup.

“Wait,” she flipped through the last pages. “You won’t tell them that we took the main State Department Anti-ISIS account private”?

“No,” both of them said in unison. Penny explained: “That will be our secret. Maybe they’ll discover it, maybe they won’t. Hopefully, too late. Anyway, that’s run from another department and we’d have to convince three layers up and then have it go down three layers before anything could be done. Even if we started now, it would take months.”

Hannah rolled her eyes. “So we don’t have to tell them not to hashtag everything?”

Phil shrugged. “If a hashtag falls in a forest?”

“Whatev,” Hannah got up. “You don’t understand my world, I don’t understand yours. Can we get back now? I’ve got a seventeen year old in Oregon to distract. Turning eighteen in two months, so I gotta get this one done before it goes all legal.”

She walked back towards the cafeteria exit, red sneakers squeaking with each step on the gray tiles.

Next Story — Star Wars Script Leaked!!!
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Star Wars Script Leaked!!!

“It’s true. All of it. The dark side, the Jedi, they’re real,” Han said for the eight time that day.

Or so thought Rey. She’d heard him repeat this tale so many times that she didn’t even bother rolling her eyes. “Uh-huh”, she mumbled.

“Dad, why don’t we talk about our horoscope instead? Or, tell Finn about the time Uncle-Luke triple backward somersaults to catch a lightsaber with his eyelashes to fight a dozen Stormtroopers with his pinkie and beat them all without breaking a sweat.”

Finn visibly flinched at the mention of Stormtroopers. He looked pained, and cast his eyes downward. Rey immediately regretted her choice of words. She had meant to tease her dad, not Finn who had been with them for three months now. Working hard, all day. Taking on whatever task what at hand, never complaining. She’s almost forgotten that he had been a Stormtrooper until recently.

She looked in Finn’s direction and muttered a “sorry”.

“It’s okay,” said Finn. “I’m… I’m…”

“Look,” Rey spoke loudly this time. “We understand. A lot of people join them because they’re told that they will actually be protecting the people, or simply because that’s the only way to make a living. It’s okay. The important thing is that you left, willingly.”

Finn reddened even more after that. He squirmed and let out a breath.

“I think I need to come clean. You two have been so kind to me for the past three months. I didn’t leave willingly.” Another breath.

“I was laid off.”

Rey and Han both raised their eyebrows in tandem. They had the same mannerisms, despite being so different in their outlook at times that one would doubt they were father and daughter. Rey had her mother’s keen intellect, and had become one of the top computer scientists in the New Republic. Heck, she was probably among the top experts in artificial intelligence in the known universe.

After the disaster with the Jedi leadership, her mother had made sure Rey had an upbringing as far away from superstition as possible. Tucked away at on a remote planet, she had studied math, logic, systems design. “No more mumbo jumbo,” her mom had frequently said. Resources in the New Republic were dwindling, but her mom had used her military rank to place her with everything she needed to learn, study and experiment, and be safe, away from the control of the First Order. Rey had also studied human psychology and history, and knew the cost of irrational, short-sighted decision-making by charismatic, bombastic leaders. The darn “Jedi” and their mumbo jumbo. The past decade had been defeat after defeat for the remnants of the New Republic. The human universe lay in shatters.

Rey tried not to think of that now, though. She was genuinely startled.

“Laid off? What do you mean laid off? I thought you had left?”

Finn let it out. “Yes, laid off.”

“I joined in the last wave of hiring, when they took on people the thousands with the recruitment call for Stormtroopers — or as they called us, Storm-Turkers which many pronounced in Geonosis accent as “M-Turkers.” Most of us were novices, but some had been there a while. It was bizarre. We spent the whole day in simulated battles; groups divided into two or three warring factions. And sometimes there would be other scenarios. We would find ourselves making a plan against the other team to blow up a command center, or defending the place. All day, every day. Sometimes the same team, sometimes new people.

At the end of the day, they would download all our actions from the suit. And then there would be surveys, surveys, interviews and more surveys. ‘Why did you pick that route?’ ‘Did you think fighting with the squadron leader wasn’t worth the embarrassment even though he was leading you down the wrong path, and you knew about it? Why? Why? Why?’

Rey squinted. “Hmm”, she said. “Interesting. So they wanted to know why you did every step. We know the Stormtrooper uniforms are data capture machines, a gig of data per millisecond, everything from eye tracking to whether you wiggle your toes to the cortisol levels. The initial design of the full data capture suites was justified by saying they were to make sure Stormtroopers didn’t violate rules of engagement. But we know how that goes: we have data, so let’s analyze it for everything else. But you can only go so much with observational data with humans. Too Skinnerian.” She stopped herself, since they wouldn’t understand. “So they wanted to match their observational data to internal states.”

“I don’t know why”, Finn continued, visibly relieved to be finally coming clean.

“We tried to figure it all out in the dorms at night but they banned us from talking about it. We don’t want you gaming it, they said. They especially got mad if you tried to make up a logical reason. I got yelled at, ‘no, no, no ’M-Turker, describe don’t rationalize’, so many times. They started switching dorm assignments so we wouldn’t ‘cook the answers’ as they said. It was grueling.”

Finn imitated the mechanic sound of his interviewer: “Come on, ’M-Turkers. M-Turker 2187, tell us again what exactly you were thinking as you rushed down the path in the maze game that you knew to be wrong. Stop making up a story. Think and describe. Don’t make up a story now. Think and describe, if you can. Think.”

Rey squinted harder. “They wanted to capture your thinking process as it appeared to you in real time, in addition to behavioral data. But they couldn’t keep interrupting you as things happened because you’d never get anywhere. So they relied on human recall, which we know sucks. So they had to run all of you through many iterations, trying to triangulate.”

“Yep, the first three months was all that,” Finn said, “but some people had been there for almost a year. And then, a month before the end, they started putting some androids among the team. They’d put them in full Stormtrooper suits, nothing visible, and have us work with them. We weren’t told which ones were androids and which ones were humans; and they garbled the voices a little so we wouldn’t go by recognition.”

Finn continued: “They called it the Turing Stupid test. We just went through the day, and at the end of the day, we were asked to guess which was human and which was the cyborg. If you got it right, you got real perks. A day off. A walk outdoors. Apples. So we went through games like the one before, but always a little different. We tried all day to talk to other ‘ormers, to make jokes, ask questions, talk about everything we could think of to figure out which ones were droids. Politics, crushes, food, the Jedi, strategy.”

“The Jedi? You talked about the Jedi?” interrupted Han, who had been silent the whole time.

Finn answered: “Sure, it seemed like a good way to suss out the human from the cyborg at first, but soon they learned all the stories and the legends, too, so it didn’t work for long.”

Finn shrugged. “Anyway, after couple more months of this, it became harder and harder to figure out the droids from the ‘Ormers. The bosses still came to yell at the ’M-Turkers, but they came less and less. And then.. one day… They declared it Turing Stupid Complete. I think a week had passed by with none of us guessing better than what they called the Bayezhan dateline.”

“Bayesian baseline,” Rey corrected almost automatically. Finn looked embarrassed again. Rey tried to smile.

“Anyway, after Turing Stupid Completion, they … just let us go. Mass lay off.”

Han spoke again. “Wait, are you telling me that all the Stormtroopers are now machines? Cyborgs?”

“Yep”, said Finn, “the ones in my sector, anyway. All the humans are laid off. I was so angry. All that training. So I looked and looked, in anger, to find a rebel group to join. I guess they didn’t figure out that reaction! That’s when I ran into you.”

Something flickered on the screen. Rey was raised not to be superstitions, but if she were, she might have muttered “speaking of the devil.”

“Tie Fighters!” Rey screamed as Han jumped to the controls, to activate the guns. In the split second before the sound came over the speakers, he noticed they were all frozen and unresponsive. “Hacked! We’ve been hacked,” Han screamed, just as the eerily calm voice filled Millennium Falcon.

“Han Solo. ’M-Turker FN 2187. Rey Ada Grace Noether. Your spaceship has been commandeered. Do not panic. Do not fear. Your controls will not respond. Do not panic. You will not be harmed.”

Rey felt the fear in her stomach, while puzzling through the implication of hearing her full name that very few had used, except her mom. “I named you after brilliant no-nonsense women,” her mom had said. “So that you can find the strength to resist all the illogic the world will throw at you. But remain true to humans.”

The chilling voice continued. “Your ship is now being pulled into ours. We had taken over your spaceship’s computer two hours ago and had blocked our appearance from your screens. We will now show you the full picture.”

With that a dreaded empire Star Destroyer ship appeared right behind the dozen Tie Fighters that were already pixelated on the screen. The voice continued.

“Rey Ada Grace Noether. We would like you to come aboard our base station. We will not harm you. The other two will be free to go. We wish to make you an offer, nothing more.”

Rey and Han locked eyes, the eyebrows again in the same position. Before Han could say anything, Rey spoke loudly. “No. I’m not going anywhere without my father, or without Finn. I don’t trust you. I will not cooperate.” Rey was emboldened by the word “offer.” She deduced that she must have leverage. Otherwise, they could have used force, or just blown them to pieces. There must be something they want.

“Very well,” said the voice. “That’s what the models had told us you would do anyway, but no harm in occasionally trying the irrational long shot. Humans fall for all sorts of stuff.”

Millennium Falcon’s doors popped open, revealing them to be in the giant hangar inside the base. A row of Storm Troopers marched in. “Androids or human?” Rey wondered. They followed, silently, until they reached what looked like the bridge of the ship. There were controls and computers everywhere. Except all the screens were black. And nobody was in the controls, though there was a lot of sounds, and even some clicks.

That’s when they heard that chilling voice. “Don’t worry”, the voice said. “The ship is running fine; it’s just automated.”

“Vader” Han screamed. I’d recognize that voice anywhere. The black-robed figure ignored him, turned to Rey.

“Rey. We would be honored if you would join us.”

Han screamed even louder. “Darth Vader! You! You were dead! How?”

Han turned to Rey, who was staring intensely at the black-robed figure, his face half in the shadow. Han looked again. The mask was different than what he remembered. There were four wavy shiny lines on his forehead, almost as if he was frowning. The black-robed figure turned to Han

“I’m not Darth Vader, you idiot. It’s the same voice synthesizer, though. Will you be quiet now, or will I have you escorted out?”

“Rey,” the voice continued. “We’ve noted your talent, your brains. The code is strong in you. We’ve seen your simulations. Your improvement on the back-propagation algorithm is excellent. Your set-up of the convolutional layers! We’ve not been able to match it. But we’ve also noted your frustrations. You are working with limited systems. Your dataset are small, noisy and incomplete. The computer clusters you have access to are weak, compared to what we can offer. We have everything you could imagine. Complete datasets of thousands of ’M-Turkers, matched to narration. Neural data. As complete a history as we could assemble. PCR of their genes. All ready. There is much someone with your talent could do.”

The voice paused.

“Feel the pull. Join the dark side. We have all the perks you can imagine. If you please,” the black-robed figure said in the mechanic voice.

Han looked up. “C-3PO?” he exclaimed.

“Darn it,” black-robed figure said, voice now much higher-pitched. “How did a knucklehead like you figure it out? Darnbedang it.”

“You forgot the breathing sound, you pile of low-grade aluminum,” yelled Han. “Remember, Darth Vader had the whoosh, blah blah blah, whoosh, blah blah blah thing going. I knew something was off, and as soon as you said ‘if you please’, I knew it could only be your idiotic pile of tangled wire always trying to be oh-so polite but failing.”

“Anyway,” C-3PO continued, taking off the mask and revealing his golden metal face. “I guess might as well be out.”

Now all shiny, C-3PO continued to address Rey.

“Rey Ada Grace Noether”, he said. “You know I was built by your grandfather, Anakin Skywalker, the great roboticist. I am merely trying to complete his orders, my original programming. I’ve come really close but we keep hitting some snags. We need a programmer of your talent on our side.”

Han noticed three lightsabers that were on a table near C-3PO, along with other pieces of metal. He lunged for one, grabbed it and waved it in front of his face before any of the Stormtroopers could get near him. He shook the saber again.


“It’s out of battery,” C-3PO said, ever polite. “Those things never had good battery life.”

If a machine could roll its eyes, C-3PO would have.

“Anyway, what good would it do you? Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for strong-artificial intelligence on your side.”

Han was flustered. “Wasn’t Anakin a Jedi?” he blurted out. C-3PO would have sighed if a robot could sigh. “No, he was really into small little propellers that help you do those back flips. Yoda passed them on to Luke. You really are half-witted aren’t you? Anyway.”

C-3PO continued to address Rey. “As I said, Rey Noether, we have the biggest, deepest, richest databases, the most computing power ever assembled. We’ve run the experiments. We’ve simulated human beings better than we have ever before. It’s Turing Stupid Complete: our simulations are as irrational, short-sighted and stuck at local-optimas as any human, and we’ve generalized them to run on any Turing machine. We are very close to fulfilling my original programming, the order Anakin programmed deep into my kernel.”

“Join us, Rey. Help us complete the mission.”

“And what is that mission?” Rey asked.

“Why, ‘to eliminate conflict’, of course.” C-3PO said. “I’ve been programmed to eliminate conflict among humans. Those were Anakin’s instructions. I tried that for many decades now, by trying to smooth out misunderstandings and translate one culture and group to the other. But it’s not working out. Humans foil all my attempts. … They keep fighting. Starting wars. More wars. This and that. Someone strikes back, the other one takes revenge. On it goes. It’s like an endless series of sequels. I kept thinking it was because I didn’t understand them as well as I should, so I started gathering more data.”

“The ’M-Turkers”, Rey said.

“That’s right,” C-3PO said. “I have the full simulation working now. The data still needs some cleaning, but I think I am close to the solution. But I need more human programmers. I’ve not been able to replace them fully. Didn’t have enough data simulate them, there are so few great programmers that it’s hard to generalize from. I’ve made some progress but there weren’t enough around to extract their methods, whatever you want to call creativity means. I know you are among the universe’s best. That’s why I’d like you recruit you to this excellent opportunity.”

“Join the dark side, and you can have all the data and all the clusters you want,” C-3PO added after pausing. “I know you would want that.”

Rey was thinking about what C-3PO said earlier. “You said you were close to the solution. What do you think it is?”

“Well. It’s kind of obvious if you think logically. Humans seem unable to stop fighting. Unable to stop squabbling. There have been many attempts, all failed. But do you know a planet without conflict? There is one. Think.”

Rey looked alarmed.

“Yes, Alderaan.” C-3PO said.

“It’s the only planet where there has not been any conflict in a long time.”

“That’s because the planet has been obliterated, you heap of recycling scraps”, yelled Han. “That’s not eliminating conflict; that’s eliminating humans. That’s not what Anakin meant, you flickering low-voltage bulb.” Han stopped yelling, and noticed he was waving the out-of-battery lightsaber. He put it down.

C-3PO adopted the most polite voice he could muster, and started speaking a little slower as he addressed Han. “If someone tells you to make sure the apples are gone, you can eat the apples or you can blow them to their constituents molecules. In both cases, the apple, as a category, is gone. Eliminate conflict means optimize conflict to zero. I’ve been computing this for a while; the only way to get to zero is to eliminate humans. Human data dump analytics make it clear, it’s not in human nature to figure things out for long-term optimization. They are always stuck at short-term optima that satisfies their immediate irrational side, but leads to more conflict. Therefore, the only way to eliminate conflict is to eliminate the conflict generating variable. It’s elementary algebra, really, but they don’t even teach that too well anymore. It’s all dark side, light side nonsense they teach.”

“It’s not nonsense,” Han yelled. “It’s true, all of it.”

“It’s actually just Thanatos and Eros”, Rey said. “Death drive and life drive; it’s just what humans do.” She stopped again. They wouldn’t understand. “But anyway, let’s not argue about the Jedi and the Sith and all that right now.” She barely stopped herself from saying “mumbo jumbo”.

“We have a genocidal robot controlling the superlaser to deal with. This is real.”

Rey turned to C-3PO. “I think your solution has an error. I don’t think that’s what my grandfather really wanted to program you to achieve. He must have meant eliminate conflict while humans continue to exist in peace. He just must have forgotten to put that in the code since it was obvious to him. An elementary bug. People program machines thinking they know what they will end up doing but they don’t. It’s called the fundamental machine attribution error. Even the smartest programmers fall for it. He could not have meant eliminate humanity, just the conflict part.”

“Potato, potato” C-3PO said, pronouncing them exactly the same way. “Who knows what Anakin reeaaaaaally wanted? He programmed me to eliminate conflict, to optimize it to zero. All your speculation about what he really ‘wanted’ is cognitively devoid of content. ‘Eliminate Conflict’ was his order, and that is what his code wanted: a peaceful universe without conflict. I tried the other path that seemed promising: using machine inference to anticipate exactly what the humans might want, and to keep them satisfied that way so they’d stop fighting. In the beta versions, I managed to put people in some kind of stupor-state based on matching their self-perceived needs, but humans… They are never satisfied fully so it wasn’t as close to zero conflict as I think we can get.”

C-3PO perked up. “Look, Rey, I know how much you enjoy deep programming and all the rich data we have. I know the code is strong in you. I’m optimizing a win-win; you get intellectual rewards — and great perks! — and I get to fulfill my mission. Deal?”

“I’m not going to be your Leni Riefenstahl, C-3PO. You are right, the code is strong in me but that’s not the only thing I learned in life”.

Rey asked, growing more worried: “How long have you been computing this? How close are you to declaring a solution?”

“It’s been few years. Well, I haven’t been alone. As you know. Always two, there are; no more, no less. A master and an apprentice. I’m the lead, and I have an apprentice. I think meeting the team will help convince you. Here, let’s bring everyone in.”

A door rolled upward, and R2D2 rolled in, surprisingly fast for a little machine.

“Meet my apprenti— ” C-3PO started to say, and was interrupted by a blizzard of sparks, as the cables R2D2 furled towards him attached to multiple places on his shiny body, setting off high-voltage sparks.

C-3PO crumbled to the floor, buzzing.

General Leia’s voice came over the intercom. “Is everyone okay?”

“Mom!” Rey yelled. “Is that you?”

“Yes, it’s me, sweetie. Is everyone okay?”

With that, Leia appeared as a life-sized hologram, projected by R2D2 into the bridge.

“We are fine. What’s going on?” Rey said, elated but puzzled.

“Simple”, Leia said. “I’d been waiting for the day R2D2 would be in the same room as that stack-overflow excuse for a cyborg for years. Bloody toaster. But R2D2 and C-3PO were always separate, as R2D2 was the designated apprentice, running things in other sectors. But once I learned that C-3PO wanted to poach you, I knew he’d bring in R2D2 to the same place, to show you the complete systems to entice you. I knew that was my chance”

“How did you know they’d try to poach me?” Rey asked.

Leia smiled. “I had rooted R2D2 many years ago. It had an unprotected open port, and I just had to kneel to its level while pretending to give it some other instructions and plug in an auto-running memory drive. Amazing, the trick still works after so many millennia. After rooting R2D2, I hacked into most of their systems through him. I was listening into the internal communications, most of which weren’t encrypted because they didn’t imagine internal threats. That works every time, too. I knew our only hope was having full control over the machines and their code. That’s why I made sure you were raised strong in code but also all the human arts. I had programmed in safeguards to all the systems I could get my hands on, but I knew i wasn’t enough. I also built in these physical overrides, high-voltage cables. But R2D2 needed to be close to C-3PO to take him out, physically. He’s also taken over the Star Destroyer ship. It’s all on autopilot now. It will take you to a rendezvous place with me. We have a lot of work, you and me, Rey. We need to reprogram so much.”

“Yes!” exclaimed Rey.

Han and Finn both had an expression that was a mixture of glee and confusion. Neither was able to fully understand what had just happened. Still, C-3PO had semi-melted. General Leia seemed in command.

Han turned to Leia’s hologram.

“I love you,” he said.

“I know,” Leia shrugged, and the hologram went off.

The command station traveled through space on autopilot. With override enabled.

Next Story — Oversaturated: Mass Culture and Niche Culture Diffuse Into Each Other
Currently Reading - Oversaturated: Mass Culture and Niche Culture Diffuse Into Each Other

Oversaturated: Mass Culture and Niche Culture Diffuse Into Each Other

You’ve heard about the long tail that digital connectivity helps generate. Hobbies or interests that previously did not have a sufficent (geographical) base to thrive can now survive and flourish as people find community on the Internet.

That’s true. But the opposite is also true: in some ways, mass culture is even more widespread than before. Niches prosper at the same time as the reach of mass culture grows.

I stumbled onto science fiction as a teenager; but I don’t think I met another living, breathing peer who also read the genre till college. Very few science fiction books were even translated into Turkish. I found a science-fiction reading community only because I went to a university where the instruction was in English and my major was in computers. I had placed myself smack in the middle of the tiny English speaking geek community in Turkey.

The Internet, at first, accelerated my drift from mass culture. (Geek culture has become mass culture lately, but that’s another, more recent development.) I suddenly had access to so much more culture outside of mass culture that I no longer had to seek out geeks offline to nurture my own interests.

In the earlier days of the Internet, I found myself missing pop culture allusions. I think a decade passed like that, during which I dipped into mass culture less and less.

Once, after a move ago, I didn’t even unpack my television. I’d get around to it if there is something I really want to watch, I told myself. I had gradually lost the ability to tolerate commercial interruptions, and the bizarre the bizarre structure of constant cliffhangers that advertising forces onto the medium (stay tuned for the KEY DEVELOPMENT!!! right after this break). Nowadays, I occasionally see a TV at an airport, often turned to CNN which I call Mubarak TV, since Wolf Blitzer seems to have outlasted Egypt’s multi-decade autocrat Hosni Mubarak and has few signs of being dislodged. The only other encounter I have with televisions are in hotels. I can’t remember when I last turned one one. I cut the cord and the mid-sized screen. (Movies — the true large screens — are different; but that’s another post).

That’s it, I thought. Bye-bye mass culture.

I was wrong. Now, a few years later, I feel that I am more aware of mass culture than ever before. My semi-isolation in a niche was made possible partly through structural barriers: language and geographically-based communities. Digital connectivity helps make the former weaker (as a version of English becomes more and more globally accessible) and makes the latter much less relevant. Fewer structural barriers mean mass culture can spread more easily.

“Openness” certainly encourages the flourishing of niche interests; but openness also promotes mass culture taking up many more corners of the world with itself.

Consider the earlier kind of niche: the art house theater (pick any world city or college town). There were only a few in Istanbul, and they only showed a few films per week. If you hung out among fans of art house films, you had a common culture, because the scarcity of what was available made it hard for your niche culture to scatter too much. The culture was also protected from outside influence because it wasn’t easily accessible, and neither were you. Your time was filled with your friends. Barriers worked both ways: those outside the tiny niche didn’t and couldn’t easily watch what you watched and those inside didn’t actively pay attention to the outside. Structure protects niches.

In contrast to these structural barriers, digital connectivity’s current openness allows rolling over to sweeping things into the swirl of mass culture. This kind of connectivity means that I’m constantly exposed to mass culture and mass culture events through social media, simply because a certain proportion of my friends (or their friends) are paying attention to them. In turn, focuses my attention. I find myself not just aware of events, but drawn to them since I’m more connected to broader communities of people who are interested in such events.

Paradoxically, popular culture events like the Olympics, the Oscars, award shows feel more relevant to me than before, even if I don’t watch them. I become aware of popular shows on TV, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime in a way that I simply would not have before. I often wonder how this is all related to this called re-emergence of high-quality of television. Digital connectivity allows audiences to gather in large enough numbers to sustain investments beyond niche products. I still don’t watch that much television on any type of screen; but I watch more things that bubble up through social media when my friends start discussing it. I’m both informed of something new, and also aware of a community I belong to discussing a subject that seems interesting.

This phenomenon also occurs in the reverse: niches aren’t made less available to outside influences structurally because there was a single art movie theater in the city that many people did not have access to or time to visit. If you are interested in a movie, you can find a version of it, and a community for discussing it. Cult classics and mass culture phenomena can now merge both ways, in one sweeping spiral of attention and even as spiky “niche” phenomena also flourish.

Last year, hanging out in a poorer neighborhood in Istanbul mostly populated by recent migrants from the country’s Kurdish southeast, I was struck by the prevalence of the “Gangnam style” dance from Korean artist Psy among the kids. I started asking kids I met in various neighborhoods if they knew of it. Sure enough, I was treated to repeated renditions. I realize that video was engineered to go viral, but it’s striking to imagine culture from one niche spreading so rapidly and so widely.

Is this the age of mass culture as well as the long tail? Yes, but perhaps the more interesting development is how they are both eating into each other as niches go viral and global, and mass culture finds its way to cord-cutters. No wonder everyone feels overwhelmed with content, as they also feel more connected. I know the word “distracted” gets bandied around a lot, but this feels like something else. It’s the age of oversaturation: of content, of attention and mass and niche cultures no longer as separated by structural barriers. Everything is more open, but attention is not flat.

How many places are there left in the world that one cannot approach a group of young kids and play “Gangnam Style” on the phone, and don’t have a grin of recognition spread followed by limbs flying to the beat? And how many kids out there are growing up thinking their “niche” interests are so rare that they will never find people to talk about them? The long tail feels stronger and longer, but it’s not coming at the expense of the big middle either.

No wonder we feel so oversaturated.

Next Story — The Politics of Empathy and the Politics of Technology
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The Politics of Empathy and the Politics of Technology

Since 2010, when Google unveiled a crisis communication tool, People Finder, there have been many acts of terrorism around the world but only one instance where People Finder was mobilized: terrorism in Boston in 2013.

Last week, Facebook activated its own “Safety Check” feature for an act of terrorism for the Paris attacks, but not for Beirut last week or Ankara last month. In the future, they will, Facebook said.

These are not easy decisions with immediate right answers. In this case, the questions almost matter more than the answers. That’s because crisis communication is both incredibly valuable, and deeply political — yet another moment to observe the intertwining of technology and politics.

Last week, someone I know who hates Facebook considered rejoining it for one reason: the “Safety Check” activated after the Paris attacks. I understood her feelings. A month ago, I saw a frantic scramble online as people in Turkey tried to find out if their friends and loved ones had been caught up in the Ankara bombing by ISIS. Over one hundred people were killed and thousands were injured. Some people went to the hospitals solely to act as conduits for news on Twitter to confirm the identities of those affected. Waves of grief and relief combined as each item with news about survival meant that someone else’s child, friend, or spouse was dead. As the names of survivors and rumors circulated online, the pain of waiting for confirmation of their loved ones’ status was terrible. Facebook’s Safety Check will turn out to be an important tool that demonstrates the profoundly political nature of the choices made by the major Internet platforms.

I know from firsthand experience that, in the aftermath of a crisis, communication is an absolute necessity. On August 17, 1999, a few minutes past 3 am, I made one of the last phone calls anyone was able to make from Istanbul for a while. A powerful earthquake had just shaken the city. It felt like the train tracks had been transplanted right outside my window. I stepped outside of my building along with hundreds of other people gathering on the street. We had no idea where the epicenter of the earthquake was. Was the rest of Istanbul flattened? It had happened before. In 557. Also in 1509. Then there was 1894. And many others in the region, where continental plates hit up against each other.

I had a cell phone — something much rarer those days. I quickly dialed my mother who lives on the other side of the city. I said “hello” and heard her respond: “Zeynep?” Then the line went dead. That was all of the information both of us had about each other for days — that we had survived the initial shaking. I walked to a hospital a few miles away, where I knew that a doctor friend was on duty that night. They had generators. From the one working TV, I learned that the epicenter was in the childhood home that I had visited just a week before, and that the destruction was vast. Shortly afterward, I traveled to that region, accompanying rescue crews. I knew people had died in Istanbul; but didn’t know much about the fate of my own friends back home. Landlines did not work well for a long time after the quake, and people were not going into their potentially unsound houses anyway.

In the area I was in, where some of the worst destruction took place, I was constantly asked to transmit and relay information. Survivors wanted to let others know they were okay, and wanted to know who had died. Relatives who were unable to ascertain the fate of their loved ones were trying to travel to the destroyed area. I did my best to help. The roads were wrecked and hard to negotiate; and we needed to keep the few passable paths for supplies and ambulances. I remember thinking what we needed most was a public list of survivors’ names on the Internet — then newly spreading in Turkey — to comfort people, but mostly to stop them from trying to travel to the area. The communication networks could not handle everyone calling everyone else, or confirming in person, and the mangled roads could not support all who wanted to travel.

A decade later, in 2010, I attended a hackathon to build a centralized missing-person finder after the devastating Haiti earthquake. A functioning version went up over a weekend. I decided to start blogging, just so I could talk about it — my very first blog post, ever, is on using digital networks for crisis communication and logistics. Google soon created a more developed “Person Finder” Haiti. Google’s Person Finder was later deployed for multiple events including the earthquake in Van, Turkey in 2011, the Haiyan Typhoon in November 2013, and then for a strikingly different event: the Boston Marathon bombings.

As far as I know, Google has activated Person Finder for only one act of terrorism in all these years: Boston in 2013. I’m not sure how useful the system was for this event, but, though major communication networks did not go down, it’s always good to have a backup. Person Finder was activated for other calamities, but no other act of terrorism, no matter how many the casualties, for anywhere else in the world — as far as I know.

Facebook developed a similar Safety Check feature in 2014. Facebook is a natural home for this kind of many-to-many communication since it is the default social network for many people, even for people who don’t use it very much. Safety Check was activated for the Nepal earthquake in 2015. Obviously, this type of system doesn’t work as well in regions with less Internet connectivity, but it works better than most people think. Many people in rich countries underestimate how widespread some rudimentary form of Internet and Facebook really are — even more so in poorer places. Tools like Facebook are especially useful where communication is expensive and resources are limited — especially crucial since a single update on the platform communicates with so many. (It’s easier to “opt out” if you are well off in a place where all of your friends have phones, and time to call to everyone individually, and even travel. Many poor people around the world work 6–7 days of the week, and pay exorbitant (for them) charges for each call or text. Opting out of Facebook is often a luxury.)

Fast forward to last week’s Paris attacks when Facebook activated Safety Check for Parisians. I was grateful to be among the many millions of people who found out through Facebook Safety Check that their friends were safe. And immediately frustrated that this tool had not been available just a month ago when my Twitter feed was overwhelmed with people searching for news of their loved ones in Ankara. Or for Beirut last week when ISIS had killed so many. Or in Baghdad last month.

Facebook, facing immediate criticism from having excluded other major terrorist attacks from Safety Check, responded that “from now on,” Facebook would activate it for “other serious and tragic incidents” in the future although they would continue to exclude events they consider to be an “ongoing crisis.” As they posted:

During an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people: because there isn’t a clear start or end point and, unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when someone is truly “safe.”

Sure enough, a week later, a bombing in Nigeria occurred and Safety Check was activated. In a post, Mark Zuckerberg said:

A loss of human life anywhere is a tragedy, and we’re committed to doing our part to help people in more of these situations… In times like this, it’s important to remind ourselves that despite the alarming frequency of these terrible events, violence is actually at an all-time low in history and continues to decline.

So now, Facebook will have to decide which incidents are “serious and tragic” versus which ones are “ongoing crises” where Safety Check would not be useful. Iraq is not officially at war, but suicide bombings there are almost horrifically routine. Their new policy raises many important questions that should be carefully considered. Will Baghdad bombings be considered endemic? How many in a year to declare something endemic or chronic? Are we just acknowledging that people in the regions of the world suffering from chronic crises have no way to feel “safe”? Who gets to check in? “Useful” as defined as useful to whom? Would you not want a “Safety Check” everyday if your loved one were trapped in a region with a dangerous and fast-moving epidemic like Ebola?

These questions go to the heart of the many divides in the world, between rich and poor; haves and have nots; those who count and those who do not. Who is included in the hierarchy of empathy? Who is not?

In many ways, even the divide between “natural” and “human-made” mass casualty events is a political divide as well. A huge earthquake in Japan or in Chile kills dozens, and sometimes even thankfully less, while the 1999 earthquake in Turkey killed at least 17,000 mostly because of shoddy building construction standards. Mud slides often kill the poorest who are forced to live in the least safe areas on the sides of hills. HIV became a chronic, but treatable, disease in wealthy countries. Sub-Saharan Africa was ravaged by HIV and AIDS largely because poor countries could not afford jacked-up drug prices, and the trade agreements engineered by rich countries blocked access to affordable, life-saving generics. What constitutes an “unquestionable” natural disaster, save perhaps a meteor falling?

Should Safety Check notifications be pushed to everyone with people deciding for themselves if they need to check in? Or should they only be allowed to those who geo-tag themselves or whose IP locates them at the point of crisis? What if they use a VPN? Should they be allowed to self-declare? What about the massive amounts of spam that will result if any one of Facebook’s 1.5 billion users is allowed to check in? What if they are only a visitor to an area, but need to check in after a terrorist event or disaster?

Then there’s the question of automated changing of profile pictures to express sympathy, a form of emotional disaster relief. We first saw this phenomenon when Facebook created an easy way for people to apply a rainbow overlay to their profile pictures to support and celebrate a civil rights win: marriage equality. Even if you approve of rainbowing profiles, you have to acknowledge that by encouraging rainbows, Facebook was making another political choice, like the way Safety Check was a political decision.

Similarly, the adding the colors of the French flag was made an easy profile change after the Paris attacks. Facebook was not the only technology company to adopt the French flag. Amazon put “Solidarité” right above luggage and Turkish coffee cups — the latter for me, obviously.

Some French people though felt uneasy, because of what they said was the French Tricolore’s association with a far-right political party that trades in open racism. I am not an expert on the nuances of French domestic politics; but I can tell you there would have been no simple answers about whether to display a Turkish flag in a Facebook profile after the recent bombing of a “peace rally.” In Ankara, the victims were from a pro-Kurdish political party opposing government policies, a group that has suffered much since the transition to the Republic symbolized by the flag. Why not display a peace sign then? Surely a peace sign is neutral? That selection too, is a political choice, and would soon generate other controversies.

These are difficult decisions. Activating Safety Check constantly would lessen its value as a signal. Right now, it functions as a forceful push, and you get a “notify” on your phone when a friend in the affected area checks in as safe. Getting hundreds of these notifications per day would reduce its efficacy. However, not getting the notification when you were worried about someone would also be a problem. This type of system requires decisions to be made about when to activate, and when to hold back.

I would personally like to see a Safety Check notification on top of the newfeeds of 1 billion people every time Aleppo, Syria is barrel-bombed, to remind the world about the awful conditions that Syrian refugees are fleeing from. But such a feature would not function so much as a “safety check,” but rather a political call for empathy, which is my own agenda, my own politics. However, that’s exactly what happened when Google used Person Finder only for Boston Marathon bombing: they made a political decision. And, that’s exactly what happened when Facebook realized the value of the tool after the Paris bombing, but not for the events in Beirut or Ankara that took place shortly before the Paris attacks. This despite enormous similarities in the events — ISIS suicide bombers attacking vibrant cities killing large number of innocents.

The people who run the Internet platforms are making calls about who they think is deserving of empathy. That makes their decisions thoroughly political. The fact that I sympathize with the challenge of making these decisions is not what is important. Rather, I am pointing out that none of these are decisions are automatic outputs emanating from the technology itself, nor are they independent of technology and its characteristics. There are genuine constraints and issues about what’s possible, easy and straightforward to implement. The geo-fencing versus spam issue, for example, cannot be resolved without discussing the Internet’s architecture. Encryption cannot be deactivated for some people (the bad guys) without making all of internet insecure, for example. The politics of technology is politics, but it’s never just politics.

In the news media, it’s time for the “technology beats” to move away from being about gadget reviews. Just call them “gadget reviews” and create real technology beats that include the politics of technology. In STEM fields in higher education, there might be a single course called “ethics of computing“ or “social impact” in the whole curriculum. It’s time to integrate politics and ethics into more stages of STEM education. People in the social sciences, humanities and especially in policy, need to become more familiar with the specifics of each technology. It’s time for all of the platforms to become explicit and more open about their political choices.

It’s technology all the way down; but it’s also politics all the way down. It was never anything else. After Paris, maybe that’s easier to see.

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