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  • Doug Belshaw 10:12 am on November 24, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ADL, Sacha Baron Cohen, technology   

    Sacha Baron Cohen's ADL speech 

    Sacha Baron Cohen’s Keynote Address at ADL’s 2019 Never Is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate. Backup version on archive.org

    I don’t often watch videos of this length, preferring instead to listen to the audio. Baron Cohen doesn’t use any visuals to accompany his message.

    This is a really powerful speech. Obviously meticulously rehearsed, Baron Cohen rips into what he calls the ‘Silicon Six’:

    Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, at its parent company Alphabet, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Brin’s ex-sister-in-law, Susan Wojcicki at YouTube and Jack Dorsey at Twitter. 

    He goes on to also make six points, which I’ll summarise in my own words using the occasional direct quotation:

    1. “Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach” — new laws and regulations aren’t limiting freedom of expression, they’re a way to prevent giving bigots and paedophiles a way to “amplify their views and target their victims”.
    2. “We’re not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society.” — internet companies have “every legal right and a moral obligation” to kick nazis off their services.
    3. “Elected representatives, voted for by the people… [should] have at least some say” in deciding the fate of the world — the ‘Silicon Six’ pursue “ideological imperialism” and “care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy”.
    4. “There is such a thing as objective truth. Facts do exist.” — technology companies should be employing more people to monitor content posted on social media, and take it down before lies are spread.
    5. Internet companies are “the largest publishers in history”, and should be regulated as such — Facebook should be fact-checking political adverts before they run them, and in general we should slow down. Not everything has to be available immediately to everyone.
    6. We should regulate internet companies — “In every other industry, a company can be held liable when their product is defective… It only seems fair to say to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter: your product is defective, you are obliged to fix it, no matter how much it costs and no matter how many moderators you need to employ.”

    I don’t disagree with Baron Cohen but, by deconstructing his speech in the above way, you can see that this is quite a conservative argument in favour of governmental intervention. While he has to explain things in ways people understand, it also seems somewhat technically naive. The internet is not like a restaurant, nor are digital communications like the factories of the Industrial Revolution

    Online hate speech and the spread of conspiracy theories and propaganda can be the proximal cause of violence. But, to my mind, they are fundamentally a symptom of deeper issues. There are other approaches, including three I’d like to highlight.

    The first is financial: let’s get to the root causes of why and how companies become monopolies. A recent podcast episode by Seth Godin explains this better than I could. We can have free markets without (venture) capitalism.

    Second, while this is not an easy problem to solve, returning to the decentralised nature of the early web would eliminate some of the problematic network effects we see. Local moderation on instances of decentralised social networks like Mastodon is a lot easier to do than trying to apply a single policy on a centralised platform for the entire world.

    And then, third, vendor lock-in on social networks is a real thing. When a single organisation owns the social graph of which you are a part, you can’t take your connections and contacts elsewhere. Again, this is possible on decentralised, federated systems. We can pass laws to force interoperability and the right to import and export data.

    I see this speech, and supporting work by organisations such as Amnesty International, as providing an inflection point. To be honest, I don’t think social media in 2024 is going to be anything like it is in 2019. Whether that’s for the better or worse, I’m not sure. What is certain is that we can’t continue as we are and still live within functioning democracies.

  • Doug Belshaw 9:11 pm on August 25, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Ellen Ullman, technology   

    Asynchronous communication 

    I’m reading Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: a personal history of technology at the moment.

    In this section (written in 1994!) she talks about how users, and consequently society, are shaped by the approaches and assumptions of the people who make technological systems.

    Ullman goes on to discuss how asynchronous communication, preferred by programmers, becomes something normalised to users. It’s interesting: I noticed on holiday how many people were having conversations via recorded WhatsApp messages instead of synchronous phone conversations.

  • Doug Belshaw 1:47 pm on August 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , technology   

    Technologies — which are generally considered as non-ideological props in our lives — are designed objects, built with a populated world in mind. Behind their shiny machinery are designers with histories, blinders, and agendas. Even the simplest team task tool is contrived around a social schema of how businesses are structured, people interact, and what is more or less important. Tools have opinions. Tools have biases. And just as with people, being aware of a bias doesn’t counter it. Although gaining that awareness is a necessary first step to sidestepping bias. Our necessary next step is to realize tools are biased, not impartial or objective, and to select or build tools that push us to where we want to go, and away from what we want to leave behind.

    Stowe Boyd
  • Doug Belshaw 1:46 pm on August 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , technology   

    We’d like to believe — and we are intensely sold on — the notion that if we use better tools for communication, coordination, and cooperation then we will be more productive, more engaged, and more personally fulfilled. This is what I call techism. It’s odd that although we are using work technologies more than ever our productivity has slowed in the past 10 years or so, after an initial surge following the emergence of the internet. So the thesis of techism is unproven. And of course, these technologies are wildly different, and don’t necessarily play nicely with each other. Maybe we have too many tools, and a smaller number of dominant ones — like email in the early days of the Internet — could make things easier, if not better in some deeper sense?

    Stowe Boyd
  • Doug Belshaw 5:33 pm on August 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: censorship, ideology, technology   

    Be careful what you wish for 

    Protesters topple Confederate soldier statue in Durham, NC

    After years of not intervening because of their ‘neutral’ stance, all of a sudden tech companies are shutting down access to white supremacist online content. For example, GoFundMe has shut down attempted crowdfunding campaigns for the man accused of driving a car into protesters at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville at the weekend, Discord has banned servers that promote Nazi ideology, and GoDaddy (and then Google) washed their hands of hosting a white supremacist website.

    I’m not a white supremacist, and as an historian find neo-Nazisism abhorrent. However, I can’t help thinking that knee-jerk reactions like these are unhelpful. By denying space on the web to ideologies with which we disagree, we’re applying technical ‘solutions’ to social ‘problems’ —  much as we’ve tried to to with Islamic terrorism. It doesn’t work. Or, at least, it doesn’t work by itself, but should instead be part of a wider, more nuanced approach.

    In addition, I can’t help but think that it sets a dangerous precedent. After all, what happens when the tech giants decide that your way of thinking should be censored? These aren’t democratic processes; you can’t vote tech companies out after four years. To use a recent example, when things are going well and who you like is in charge of the country (Obama) and tech companies have your back (LGBT rights), everything looks great. A bit of ‘harmless’ state and corporate surveillance looks reasonable. But then what happens when someone else comes along (Trump) and we realise that we’ve built a surveillance state? All hell breaks loose. We tear down statues and call for everything we find abhorrent to be immediately banned.

    So, I can’t help but think we should be careful about the tactics and approaches we normalise. We can and should respond to specific events, but we shouldn’t do it in the compressed timelines that social media demands. And I certainly don’t think it’s tech companies that should decide these things on our behalf. At the end of the day, I don’t want to end up a world that feels like Black Mirror. Perhaps we’d do well to heed what Audrey Watters has to say about teaching history as well as ‘love’, and Mike Caulfield writes about teaching facts and skills.

    • Aaron Smith 6:11 pm on August 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply

      In the specific case of the Discord server, Discord pointed out that inciting violence is a TOS violation. They don’t monitor servers for content, but if reported, they investigate and take action.

      Several users on Twitter tried the “OK are you going to shut down all the anti-fascist servers now?” line of reasoning, but were unhappy that the same burden of proof was required.

      It’s not so much that corporate entities have our backs. It’s that if you decide to be a horrible person, regardless of your politics, chances are corporations will eventually show you the door. Turns out you get to do more business when you’re not seen as a safe haven for extremists.

  • Doug Belshaw 10:54 am on May 10, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Offscreen Dispatch, optimism, platform co-operativism, technology   

    In what ways does the web and new technology make you feel optimistic and hopeful about the future? 

    Offscreen Dispatch

    In the [latest issue](http://mailchi.mp/offscreenmag/14-1123541?e=5781ca718b) of the wonderful Offscreen Dispatch newsletter, readers are asked the above question. Click through to [the form](https://brizk.typeform.com/to/bWcxxv) which collects responses, there a few follow-up questions:

    *Are there specific technologies or developments that make you optimistic? If so which ones and why? Can you already see these development having a positive effect?*

    Responses are supposed to be under 220 characters! I guess they want a wide range of snippets for the next print magazine.

    It’s a tough one. In fact, most of the answers I gave in a research interview for the [Innovation Unit](http://www.innovationunit.org) yesterday focused on how royally shafted we are right now. Dai and I discussed some of the reasons for this in the [latest episode of our podcast](http://tidepodcast.org/?name=2017-05-10_tide_81.mp3) last night.

    OK, so positives? Here goes (in <220 characters):   > I’m particularly optimistic about the rise of [platform co-operativism](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platform_cooperative) as an alternative to platform capitalism. There’s a groundswell of people looking for alternative ways of working together for the good of society.

    There we go. I’ve submitted mine. What would *you* say?

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