Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The tyranny of algorithms - IV

It is commonly assumed that algorithms mindlessly execute their programs and see patterns in the data without any biases. This view fails to acknowledge that they reflect the minds and worldviews of their creators. When we outsource thinking to machines we are actually outsourcing thinking to the organisations that run those machines. For example, both Amazon and Netflix give recommendations about books and  films respectively but the nature of their recommendations differ. Amazon will nudge you towards the types of books with which you are familiar while Netflix will direct users towards unfamiliar movies. Blockbuster movies cost more to stream and Netflix makes more profit when users watch more obscure films.

Thus the algorithms are programmed to direct users towards what benefits the corporation although the propaganda will be 'to enhance user experience'. The power to include, exclude, and rank is the power to ensure that certain public impressions become permanent, while others remain fleeting. How does Amazon decide which books to prioritize in searches? How does it identify fake or purchased reviews? Why do Facebook and Twitter highlight some political stories or sources at the expense of others? Although internet giants say their algorithms  are scientific and neutral tools, it is very difficult to verify those claims.

When the Amazon boss Jeff Bezos started  out, he said that Amazon intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers. The books would be priced close to cost in order to increase sales volume. After collecting data on millions of customers, Amazon could figure out how to sell everything else dirt cheap on the Internet. Now books are not the only business of Amazon. It also sells hardware, is a video distributor, a  production studio, a grocery deliverer. According to one publisher’s estimate, book sales in the U.S. now make up no more than seven per cent of the company’s  annual revenue. Books were going to be the way to get the names and the data, a customer-acquisition strategy.

Amazon is ruled by computer engineers and M.B.A.s who value data most and believe only in measurable truths. The vast majority of them can be classified into two or three similar categories, and Bezos is the same: introverted, detail-oriented, engineer-type personality. Not musicians, designers, salesmen. A former Amazon employee who worked in the Kindle division said that few of his colleagues in Seattle had a real interest in books: “You never heard people say, ‘Hey, what are you reading?’ Everyone there is so engineering-oriented. They don’t know how to talk to novelists.” Amazon's writers were under pressure to prove that their work produced sales. If a customer clicked on a review or an interview, then left the page without making a purchase, it was logged as a Repel. Writers had to make sure that their repulsion rate was not too high.

The customer has always been king in the Bezos ethos."Amazon gives the customers what they want: low prices, vast selection and extreme convenience," he told a shareholders’ meeting. On these terms, Amazon’s success is stellar. It has more than 2 million titles on sale; bestselling books are routinely discounted by 50 percent or more; and it ranked first in Business Week‘s "customer service champs" awards a couple of years ago. Dennis Johnson, an independent publisher, says that “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value — it’s a widget.”  Adrian Chen of said, 'Do you remember books? A book is basically thousands of tweets printed out and stapled together between pieces of cardboard.'

Recently, Amazon even started creating its own “content” — publishing books. The old print world of scarcity — with a limited number of publishers and editors selecting which manuscripts to publish, and a limited number of bookstores selecting which titles to carry — is yielding to a world of digital abundance. Amazon will say that, because an unprecedented number of titles are available in an instant, “it’s never been a better time to be a reader.” It will point to the growth of online reader networks, such as GoodReads, which Amazon owns, as a welcome development: “Suddenly, we’re not locked into hearing the opinions of a small number of reviewers in newspapers.” The elimination of the “gatekeepers,” as Bezos calls the professionals who get in the customer’s way, is one of his pet themes, thinking that it will rid the public sphere of their biases and inefficiencies.

Bezos believes that he provides an argument against elitist institutions and for “the democratization of the means of production”. “Even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation,” Bezos wrote in his 2011 letter to shareholders. “When a platform is self-service, even the improbable ideas can get tried, because there’s no expert gatekeeper ready to say ‘that will never work!’" Amazon believes that its approach encourages ever more people to tell their stories to ever more people, and turns writers into entrepreneurs; the price per unit might be cheap, but the higher number of units sold, and the accompanying royalties, will make authors wealthier. It believes that selling digital books at low prices will democratize reading.

When it comes to the books it stocks, Amazon makes no pretense of selectivity. Provided it carries an ISBN and isn’t offensive, Amazon is happy to sell any book anyone cares to publish. "We want to make every book available — the good, the bad and the ugly," Bezos once said. As Evgeny Morozov says in To Save Everything Click Here, 'Whether these books are Sudoku puzzles or Tolstoy novels doesn't matter at al, for it is all about the number of books downloaded, pages flipped, and memes created.' Many would argue that the increase in the variety of books being published that Amazon has encouraged can only be a good thing, that it enriches cultural diversity and expands choice.

But is this the whole truth? Is the method of production the only criterion to consider? Is the only goal of publishing to produce as many books as possible? Gatekeepers are barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. Ideas and artistry are important in deciding what is sold but Amazon neglects these criteria and focuses only on measurable data like sales volumes and price points provided by 'unbiased' algorithms. There is also the paradox of choice: when people are offered a narrower range of options, their selections are likely to be more diverse than if they are presented with a number of choices so vast as to be overwhelming. When consumers are overwhelmed with choices, some experts argue, they all tend to buy the same well-known thing.

Amazon has the ability -- and willingness -- to lose money in order to put competitors out of business. It views losing money as a marketing expense, the cost of acquisition of a new customer. Very few companies besides Amazon could absorb such losses without being penalized by the market. A monopoly is dangerous because it concentrates so much economic power, but in the book business the prospect of a single owner of both the means of production and the modes of distribution is especially worrisome: it would give Amazon more control over the exchange of ideas than any company in history. Some have wondered if Amazon would eventually control so much of the market that it would stop selling books at cost and raise prices to become more profitable.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The tyranny of algorithms - III

Because we focus so much on the miracles of Google, we are too often blind to the ways in which Google exerts control over its domain especially because it offers many services free. But there is an implicit non-monetary transaction between Google and its users. Google rules the Web through its power to determine which sites get noticed, and thus trafficked. It stores “cookies” in our Web browsers to track our clicks and curiosities. Google gives us Web search, e-mail, Blogger platforms, and YouTube videos. In return, Google gets information about our habits and predilections so that it can more efficiently target advertisements at us. Google’s core business is consumer profiling. It generates dossiers on many of us. Google, and our habits (trust, inertia, impatience) keep us from clicking past the first page of search results. Google understands the fact that default settings can work just as well as coercive technologies.

When confronted with questions about its dominance in certain markets, Google officials always protest that, on the Internet, barriers to entry are low, and thus any young firm with innovative services could displace Google the way Google displaced Yahoo and Alta Vista. As a Google lawyer said, “Competition is a click away.” That argument relies on the myth that Internet companies are weightless and virtual. It might be valid if Google were merely a collection of smart people and elegant computer code. Instead, Google is also a monumental collection of physical sites such as research labs, server farms, data networks, and sales offices. Replicating the vastness of Google’s processing power and server space is unimaginable for any technology company except Microsoft. The argument about user behavior could be valid if boycotting or migrating from Google did not incur significant downgrades in service by losing the advantages of integration with other Google services.

Google’s argument also ignores the “network effect” in communication markets: a service increases in value as more people use it. A telephone that is connected to only one other person has very limited value compared with one connected to 250 million people. YouTube is more valuable as a video platform because it attracts more contributors and viewers than any other comparable service. The more users it attracts, the more value each user derives from using it, and thus the more users it continues to attract. If only a few people used Google for Web searching, Google would not have the data it needs to improve the search experience. Network effects tend toward standardization and thus potential monopoly.

Google and other online vendors shy away from presenting effective ways for users to manage their privacy. An important point that Siva Vaidhyanathan makes in The Googlisation of Everything is that “celebrating freedom and user autonomy is one of the great rhetorical ploys of the global information economy … meaningful freedom implies real control over the conditions of one’s life. Merely setting up a menu with switches does not serve the interests of any but the most adept, engaged, and well-informed”.

Google sells our fancies, fetishes, predilections, and preferences to advertisers. While Google provides users with the information that they seek, seemingly for free, it collects the gigabytes of personal information and creative content that millions of Google users provide for free to the Web everyday and sells this information to advertisers of millions of products and services. Google runs an instant auction among advertisers to determine which one is placed highest on the list of ads that run across the top or down the right-hand column of the search results page.

Although Google’s contextual advertising and instant auctions often serve the interests of small firms, its freedom to set such rates at any level it desires allows it to crowd out some of the small firms that have grown to depend on Google for their most valuable advertising outlets, including small firms that are Google’s potential competitors. Another way in which Google limits its completion is by a touchy issue called cross-subsidization. Siva Vaidyanathan says in The Googlisation of Everything:
Google can use its prominence in people’s lives — the network effect — and its surplus revenues to support its other ventures — its online document business, for example. This poses a serious threat to small, creative companies that offer Web-based word processors, such as Zoho. If Google uses its profitable ventures to subsidize those activities destined to lose money, and if that practice kills off innovative potential competitors like Zoho, Google has crossed the line into shaky legal territory. 
Google refuses to acknowledge that its algorithms can malfunction sometimes and cause ethical problems. In To Save Everything Click Here, Evgeny Morozov gives the example of Google's Autocomplete feature. When you start typing your query, Google's algorithms gives four suggestions based on how other users have completed the query. It is a useful feature that saves a few seconds of the users' time. (Of course it often also limits the query to the given options because users are too lazy to complete their original query.)

Suppose in a deliberate attempt to smear your reputation, someone pays a large number of users to search for your name followed by the word 'pedophile'. Enough volume can be generated to make the term one of the search suggestions replacing a more benign term. Now everyone who searches for your name is also informed that you may be a pedophile.  You cannot appeal to the algorithms because they are supposed to be always right. Google will say, 'We believe that Google should not be held liable for terms that appear in Autocomplete as these are produced by computer algorithms based on searches from previous users, not by Google itself ' even though it knows that its algorithms can be gamed.

It cannot be ascertained for certain if Bettina Wulff, Germany's former first lady, was the victim of a hit job. In 2012, she sued Google for 'auto completing' searches for her name with terms like 'prostitute' and 'escort'. In Japan, Google was ordered to modify its Autocomplete search results after a man complained that that they linked him to crimes he did not commit. In France, Google was ordered to modify its Autocomplete search results after a man complained that they suggested that he was a 'satanist' and 'rapist'.