Jaron Lanier is convinced that social media is toxic, making us sadder, angrier and more isolated

The Guardian reports:

Many of the ideas in Jaron Lanier’s new book start off pretty familiar – at least, if you are active on social media. Yet in every chapter there is a principle so elegant, so neat, sometimes even so beautiful, that what is billed as straight polemic becomes something much more profound.

The concept of random reinforcement, for example: addiction fed not by reward but by never knowing whether or when the reward will come, is well known. But Lanier puts it like this: “The algorithm is trying to capture the perfect parameters for manipulating a brain, while the brain, in order to seek out deeper meaning, is changing in response to the algorithm’s experiments … Because the stimuli from the algorithm doesn’t mean anything, because they genuinely are random, the brain isn’t responding to anything real, but to a fiction. That process – of becoming hooked on an elusive mirage – is addiction.”

The restless scrolling, the clammy self-reproach afterwards … we could recognise that as addiction quite easily, but the mathematical mechanism for having created it makes horrible sense (Lanier isn’t that interested in culprits, though he finds all of Silicon Valley pretty callow).

He wears his tech credentials lightly, as he can afford to, having been there for the creation of the internet; he was chief scientist of the engineering office of Internet2 and there in the very first chat-rooms, whence he draws the conclusion that I found the least convincing: even at its incipience, online communication tended towards the hostile. “Sometimes, out of nowhere, I would get into a fight with someone … It was so weird. We’d start insulting each other, trying to score points.” Since this all predated algorithmic manipulation, and cannot be blamed on Facebook, he concludes that we have pack behaviours and solitary behaviours: in a pack, we become locked in internecine competition; on our own “we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also more capable of joy.” [Continue reading…]

Facebook and Google hit with $8.8 billion in lawsuits on day one of GDPR

The Verge reports:

On the first day of GDPR enforcement, Facebook and Google have been hit with a raft of lawsuits accusing the companies of coercing users into sharing personal data. The lawsuits, which seek to fine Facebook 3.9 billion and Google 3.7 billion euro (roughly $8.8 billion in dollars), were filed by Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems, a longtime critic of the companies’ data collection practices.

GDPR requires clear consent and justification for any personal data collected from users, and these guidelines have pushed companies across the internet to revise their privacy policies and collection practices. But there is still widespread uncertainty over how European regulators will treat the requirements, and many companies are still unprepared for enforcement.

Both Google and Facebook have rolled out new policies and products to comply with GDPR, but Schrems’ complaints argue those policies don’t go far enough. In particular, the complaint singles out the way companies obtain consent for the privacy policies, asking users to check a box in order to access services. It’s a widespread practice for online services, but the complaints argue that it forces users into an all-or-nothing choice, a violation of the GDPR’s provisions around particularized consent. [Continue reading…]

Human society is unprepared for the rise of artificial intelligence

Henry Kissinger writes:

The internet age in which we already live prefigures some of the questions and issues that AI will only make more acute. The Enlightenment sought to submit traditional verities to a liberated, analytic human reason. The internet’s purpose is to ratify knowledge through the accumulation and manipulation of ever expanding data. Human cognition loses its personal character. Individuals turn into data, and data become regnant.

Users of the internet emphasize retrieving and manipulating information over contextualizing or conceptualizing its meaning. They rarely interrogate history or philosophy; as a rule, they demand information relevant to their immediate practical needs. In the process, search-engine algorithms acquire the capacity to predict the preferences of individual clients, enabling the algorithms to personalize results and make them available to other parties for political or commercial purposes. Truth becomes relative. Information threatens to overwhelm wisdom.

Inundated via social media with the opinions of multitudes, users are diverted from introspection; in truth many technophiles use the internet to avoid the solitude they dread. All of these pressures weaken the fortitude required to develop and sustain convictions that can be implemented only by traveling a lonely road, which is the essence of creativity.

The impact of internet technology on politics is particularly pronounced. The ability to target micro-groups has broken up the previous consensus on priorities by permitting a focus on specialized purposes or grievances. Political leaders, overwhelmed by niche pressures, are deprived of time to think or reflect on context, contracting the space available for them to develop vision.

The digital world’s emphasis on speed inhibits reflection; its incentive empowers the radical over the thoughtful; its values are shaped by subgroup consensus, not by introspection. For all its achievements, it runs the risk of turning on itself as its impositions overwhelm its conveniences. [Continue reading…]

Data centers, the factories of the digital age, emit as much CO2 as the airline industry

Yale Environment 360 reports:

The cloud is coming back to Earth with a bump. That ethereal place where we store our data, stream our movies, and email the world has a physical presence – in hundreds of giant data centers that are taking a growing toll on the planet.

Data centers are the factories of the digital age. These mostly windowless, featureless boxes are scattered across the globe – from Las Vegas to Bangalore, and Des Moines to Reykjavik. They run the planet’s digital services. Their construction alone costs around $20 billion a year worldwide.

The biggest, covering a million square feet or more, consume as much power as a city of a million people. In total, they eat up more than 2 percent of the world’s electricity and emit roughly as much CO2 as the airline industry. And with global data traffic more than doubling every four years, they are growing fast.

Yet if there is a data center near you, the chances are you don’t know about it. And you still have no way of knowing which center delivers your Netflix download, nor whether it runs on renewable energy using processors cooled by Arctic air, or runs on coal power and sits in desert heat, cooled by gigantically inefficient banks of refrigerators.

We are often told that the world’s economy is dematerializing – that physical analog stuff is being replaced by digital data, and that this data has minimal ecological footprint. But not so fast. If the global IT industry were a country, only China and the United States would contribute more to climate change, according to a Greenpeace report investigating “the race to build a green internet,” published last year. [Continue reading…]

The fake news Russians hear at home

Anne Applebaum writes:

Because it touches us, because it involves the U.S. president, and because it has produced a lot of headlines, the strategy and tactics of Russian government disinformation in the West have lately been big news. Because it’s far away, and because it happens in a different language, we’ve thought a lot less about Russian government propaganda in Russia. But it will eventually matter to us — maybe sooner than we think.

The transformation of Russian media hasn’t happened overnight. Back in 2010, the Internet in Russia was a relatively vibrant place, where people with different kinds of ideas argued things out, at least some of the time. Independent media had some traction, and independent voices were heard. There were negative stories about the Western world, but positive ones, too. Eight years later — following Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, and a sharp change in government information policy — the situation is different.

This isn’t because Russia has become the Soviet Union, or a totalitarian state with one newspaper. Russia now has multiple sources of information: different television channels, many with high-quality entertainment programs; a range of newspapers, some very professional; both highbrow and lowbrow magazines and websites. But the appearance of variety is deceptive. Though the styles are very different, the vast majority of media is owned by the state or state-linked companies, and the stories are often remarkably alike. On television, which is where most Russians get their news, much of what they see about the West is overwhelmingly dark and negative. [Continue reading…]

Say goodbye to the information age — it’s all about reputation now

By Gloria Origgi, Aeon

There is an underappreciated paradox of knowledge that plays a pivotal role in our advanced hyper-connected liberal democracies: the greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it. What makes this paradoxical is that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.

We are experiencing a fundamental paradigm shift in our relationship to knowledge. From the ‘information age’, we are moving towards the ‘reputation age’, in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others. Seen in this light, reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today. It is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by others. The way in which the authority of knowledge is now constructed makes us reliant on what are the inevitably biased judgments of other people, most of whom we do not know.

Let me give some examples of this paradox. If you are asked why you believe that big changes in the climate are occurring and can dramatically harm future life on Earth, the most reasonable answer you’re likely to provide is that you trust the reputation of the sources of information to which you usually turn for acquiring information about the state of the planet. In the best-case scenario, you trust the reputation of scientific research and believe that peer-review is a reasonable way of sifting out ‘truths’ from false hypotheses and complete ‘bullshit’ about nature. In the average-case scenario, you trust newspapers, magazines or TV channels that endorse a political view which supports scientific research to summarise its findings for you. In this latter case, you are twice-removed from the sources: you trust other people’s trust in reputable science.

[Read more…]

How merchants use Facebook to flood Amazon with fake reviews

The Washington Post reports:

On Amazon, customer comments can help a product surge in popularity. The online retail giant says that more than 99 percent of its reviews are legitimate because they are written by real shoppers who aren’t paid for them.

But a Washington Post examination found that for some popular product categories, such as Bluetooth headphones and speakers, the vast majority of reviews appear to violate Amazon’s prohibition on paid reviews. Such reviews have certain characteristics, such as repetitive wording that people probably cut and paste in.

Many of these fraudulent reviews originate on Facebook, where sellers seek shoppers on dozens of networks, including Amazon Review Club and Amazon Reviewers Group, to give glowing feedback in exchange for money or other compensation. The practice artificially inflates the ranking of thousands of products, experts say, misleading consumers.

Amazon.com banned paying for reviews a year and a half ago because of research it conducted showing that consumers distrust paid reviews. Every once in a while, including this month, Amazon purges shoppers from its site whom it accuses of breaking its policies.

But the ban, sellers and experts say, merely pushed an activity that used to take place openly into dispersed and harder-to-track online communities. [Continue reading…]

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The internet promised utopia and instead gave us Trump

Noah Kulwin writes:

To keep the internet free — while becoming richer, faster, than anyone in history — the technological elite needed something to attract billions of users to the ads they were selling. And that something, it turns out, was outrage. As Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality, points out, anger is the emotion most effective at driving “engagement” — which also makes it, in a market for attention, the most profitable one. By creating a self-perpetuating loop of shock and recrimination, social media further polarized what had already seemed, during the Obama years, an impossibly and irredeemably polarized country.

The advertising model of the internet was different from anything that came before. Whatever you might say about broadcast advertising, it drew you into a kind of community, even if it was a community of consumers. The culture of the social-media era, by contrast, doesn’t draw you anywhere. It meets you exactly where you are, with your preferences and prejudices — at least as best as an algorithm can intuit them. “Microtargeting” is nothing more than a fancy term for social atomization — a business logic that promises community while promoting its opposite.

Why, over the past year, has Silicon Valley begun to regret the foundational elements of its own success? The obvious answer is November 8, 2016. For all that he represented a contravention of its lofty ideals, Donald Trump was elected, in no small part, by the internet itself. [Continue reading…]

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It’s time to regulate the internet

Franklin Foer writes:

As Facebook’s scandals have unfolded, the backlash against Big Tech has accelerated at a dizzying pace. Anger, however, has outpaced thinking. The most fully drawn and enthusiastically backed proposal now circulating through Congress would regulate political ads that can appear on the platform, a law that hardly curbs the company’s power or profits. And, it should be said, a law that does nothing to attack the core of the problem: the absence of governmental protections for personal data.

The defining fact of digital life is that the web was created in the libertarian frenzy of the 1990s. As we privatized the net, releasing it from the hands of the government agencies that cultivated it, we suspended our inherited civic instincts. Instead of treating the web like the financial system or aviation or agriculture, we refrained from creating the robust rules that would ensure safety and enforce our constitutional values.

This weakness has long been apparent to activists toiling on the fringes of debate—and the dangers might even have been apparent to most users of Facebook. But it’s one thing to abstractly understand the rampant exploitation of data; it’s another to graphically see how our data can be weaponized against us. And that’s the awakening occasioned by the rolling revelation of Facebook’s complicity in the debacle of the last presidential campaign. The fact that Facebook seems unwilling to fully own up to its role casts further suspicion on its motives and methods. And in the course of watching the horrific reports, the public may soon arrive at the realization that it is the weakness of our laws that has provided the basis for Facebook’s tremendous success. [Continue reading…]

Russia has ability to shut off power in the U.S.

The New York Times reports:

The Trump administration accused Russia on Thursday of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, and could have sabotaged or shut power plants off at will.

United States officials and private security firms saw the attacks as a signal by Moscow that it could disrupt the West’s critical facilities in the event of a conflict.

They said the strikes accelerated in late 2015, at the same time the Russian interference in the American election was underway. The attackers had successfully compromised some operators in North America and Europe by spring 2017, after President Trump was inaugurated.

In the following months, according to a Department of Homeland Security report issued on Thursday, Russian hackers made their way to machines with access to critical control systems at power plants that were not identified. The hackers never went so far as to sabotage or shut down the computer systems that guide the operations of the plants.

Still, new computer screenshots released by the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday made clear that Russian state hackers had the foothold they would have needed to manipulate or shut down power plants.

“We now have evidence they’re sitting on the machines, connected to industrial control infrastructure, that allow them to effectively turn the power off or effect sabotage,” said Eric Chien, a security technology director at Symantec, a digital security firm.

“From what we can see, they were there. They have the ability to shut the power off. All that’s missing is some political motivation,” Mr. Chien said.

American intelligence agencies were aware of the attacks for the past year and a half, and the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. first issued urgent warnings to utility companies in June. On Thursday, both agencies offered new details as the Trump administration imposed sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations it accused of election meddling and “malicious cyberattacks.”

It was the first time the administration officially named Russia as the perpetrator of the assaults. And it marked the third time in recent months that the White House, departing from its usual reluctance to publicly reveal intelligence, blamed foreign government forces for attacks on infrastructure in the United States. [Continue reading…]

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