Monday, June 22, 2020

The tyranny of algorithms - VI

Facebook was founded by an undergraduate with good intentions but with a flawed understanding of human nature. While it has been beneficial in general terms for individuals; improving communication with friends and relatives, and even people who we would never have hoped to keep in touch with before its arrival, Facebook has done significant damage to society as a whole. People use it for all kinds of things, many of them innocuous, but some of them absolutely pernicious. They use it to try to influence democratic elections, to threaten and harass others, to spread fake news, publish revenge porn and perform a host of other antisocial acts.

It has no effective competitors, so it’s a monopoly – and a global one at that.Facebook's strategy has been to buy potential rivals before they can get too big. Of “social networking apps”, Facebook owns the top 3 -  Facebook, Instagram, and Whats App. Mark Zuckerberg said that there is a breakdown in global communities and Facebook’s mission is to help build communities and make the world a better place. A few months later, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke showing that the personal data of Facebook users can be leaked to third parties which can be used to influence elections around the world. When your business model is built on taking the data of your users and selling  it to advertisers, you cannot build lasting communities.

Facebook derives its revenues solely by monetizing the data provided by its users – the photographs they upload, the status updates they post, the things they “like”, their friendship groups, the pages they follow, etc. This enables it to build detailed profiles of each user which can then be used for even more precisely targeted advertising. Thus the more “user engagement” there is, the better. Facebook optimists to push our emotional buttons to increase the number of ‘engagements’. This type of design ensures that the most inflammatory and sensational item will be circulated the most because they will generate the maximum engagements. It thus concentrates and amplifies our prejudices. Sober, balanced, well-researched reports don’t stand a chance. Siva Vaidyanathan says in Antisocial Media:
If you wanted to build a machine that would distribute propaganda to millions of people, distract them from important issues, energise hatred and bigotry, erode social trust, undermine journalism, foster doubts about science, and engage in  massive surveillance all at once, you would build something a lot like Facebook. 
The precise targeting of ads by Facebook (and Google) using massive surveillance to create elaborate personal dossiers is something that cannot be matched by other media companies. Thus a firm with a small advertising budget is likely to shift its ad spend towards Facebook and Google forcing reputable news organisations to lay off staff thus affecting their quality of work. The editors and publishers of these organisations spend much of their time trying to design their content to be picked up by Facebook’s algorithms. They have to feed the very monster which is killing them in order to stay alive.

When we visit the site, we scroll through updates from our friends. The machine appears to be only a neutral go-between. We do not see that Facebook's engineers can tweak its algorithms to change what we see - whether text or photos is prioritized, which newspapers appear in news feeds etc. It runs psychological experiments on its users without them being aware of it. For eg., it once sought to discover whether emotions are contagious. For one group it removed the positive words from the posts in its news feed while for another group it removed the negative words. It concluded that each group wrote posts that reflected the mood of the posts it was exposed to.

Facebook’s success, Mr. Vaidhyanthan argues, is based on two elements. The first being that Facebook is deliberately engineered to be addictive; rewarding interactions, likes, and shares, in similar ways to how casinos keep their guests playing. The second element of Facebook’s success being that it has become 'one of the most effective advertising machines in history.' Facebook knows so much about us, and offers advertisers such levels of targeting that were never before dreamed of, that it is unparalleled as a sales tool.

If you frequently click on certain sites, friends or web pages, the Facebook algorithm knows that you are highly engaged with them. So it gives you more of the stuff with which you would engage and less of the stuff you would ignore. The ability of the Facebook algorithm to predict your behavior improves over time with your willing cooperation. Thus over time, your news feed becomes narrower in perspective and you find yourself in an echo chamber as it is less likely that you will find information coming from outside the group. Thus Facebook users are unable to engage with people outside their group because they don’t share a body of truths.

The easy availability of various internet tools has led to what is called 'clictivism'. The premise behind clicktivism is that social media allows for quick and easy ways to support an organization or cause but this leads only to slactivism  -  a pejorative term for "feel-good" measures in support of an issue or social cause. The "Like" button used on Facebook is a popular slacktivist tool. Other Slacktivist activities include signing Internet petitions, joining a community organization without contributing to the organization's efforts, copying and pasting of social network statuses or messages or altering one's personal data or avatar on social network services. People can now express concern about social or political issues with nothing more than the click of a mouse since they can easily "like", "share" or "tweet" about something interesting. The sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman said in an interview 'Social media are a trap':
The question of identity has changed from being something you are born with to a task: you have to create your own community. But communities aren’t created, and you either have one or you don’t. What the social networks can create is a substitute. The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. 
You are in control of the important people to whom you relate. People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness, abandonment, is the great fear in our individualist age. But it’s so easy to add or remove friends on the internet that people fail to learn the real social skills, which you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people who you need to enter into sensible interaction with. 
Pope Francis, who is a great man, gave his first interview after being elected, to Eugenio Scalfari, an Italian journalist who is also a self-proclaimed atheist. It was a sign: real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you. Social media don’t teach us to dialogue because it is so easy to avoid controversy.   But most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face. Social media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The tyranny of algorithms - V

Book retailers, such as Barnes & Noble, negotiate “co-op,” or cooperative promotional fees, from publishers in exchange for prominent product placement. Amazon has been particularly good at squeezing this money out of publishers. They have to pay lots of money for a book to be prominently featured on the home page. Judgments about which books should be featured on the site are increasingly driven by promotional fees. In its drive for profitability, Amazon does not raise retail prices; it simply squeezes its suppliers harder. Amazon demands ever-larger co-op fees and better shipping terms; publishers know that they would stop being favored by the site’s recommendation algorithms if they don’t comply. (Few customers realize that the results generated by Amazon’s search engine are partly determined by promotional fees.)

This squeezing of co-op fees from publishers is due to one tenet of Amazon’s business philosophy: low prices are always good for customers. In addition to regularly offering bestsellers at more than 50 percent off, Amazon offers a wide range of titles for around a third off the recommended price. Such low prices have forced its competitors to follow suit. Of course, everyone loves low prices, but as with breadth of choice, the matter is more complex than it first appears. To achieve such low prices retailers must seek ever deeper discounts from publishers who have seen their revenues fall, forcing many to make cutbacks and concentrate more on lead titles, the blockbusters that are the most profitable component of their business.

Authors, too, can be added to the list of price-cutting’s victims. It is thought that the money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years; advances on what are called mid-list titles — books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring — have declined. These are the kinds of books that particularly benefit from the attention of editors and marketers, and that attract gifted people to publishing. Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects. 

Lower advances and royalties make for less well-researched books and an author pool increasingly populated by hobbyists rather than those who are good at writing. 'Writing is being outsourced, because the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere — academics, rich people, celebrities',  Colin Robinson, a veteran publisher, said. 'The real talent, the people who are writers because they happen to be really good at writing — they aren’t going to be able to afford to do it.' The accumulated effect of Amazon’s pricing policy, its massive volume and its metric-based recommendations system is, in fact, to diminish real choice for the consumer.

The manner of purchasing books is different in brick and mortar stores compared to online stores. When you  enter the Amazon virtual store, a message pops up and tells you: “I know which books you liked in the past. People with similar tastes also tend to love this or that new book.” Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able constantly to collect data on their users while they are reading books. Your Kindle can monitor which parts of a book you read quickly, and which slowly; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again, what words are looked up in Kindle's dictionary, which paragraphs are underlined most frequently, etc. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them.

If Kindle was to be upgraded with face recognition software and bio metric sensors, it would know how each sentence influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It would know what made you laugh, what made you sad, what made you angry. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, computer programs need never forget. Such data should eventually enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision. It will also allow Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to press your emotional buttons. It would enable Amazon to replace authors with algorithms that churn out books tailored precisely to suits customers' preferences.

Shopping for books on Amazon can be called 'a directed experience'. If you know the kind of book you are looking for, it can be a rewarding experience. Further recommendations by Amazon's algorithms will direct you towards books on similar topics. In brick and mortar stores, you may stumble on great books you had not heard of. The loss of serendipity that comes with not knowing exactly what one is looking for is a cost of shopping on Amazon. As ex-Amazon editor James Marcus says, 'Personalization strikes me as a mixed blessing. While it gives people what they want — or what they think they want — it also engineers spontaneity out of the picture. The happy accident, the freakish discovery, ceases to exist. And that’s a problem.'

Even the existing experience of shopping in physical book stores will be changed by Amazon. It is creating a chain of physical book stores, called Amazon Books,  to take the place of the book stores the company has destroyed. Amazon Books does not accept cash and instead lets Prime members use the Amazon app on their smartphone to pay for purchases. Non-members can use a credit or debit card. In these stores, there are no price tags at all: You scan the items with your phone and have a price delivered to you, personalized by Amazon. “Our goal with Amazon Prime, make no mistake,” says Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, “is to make sure that if you are not a Prime member, you are being irresponsible.” For eg., there is  speculation that Jeff Bezos is going to offer the COVID-19 test as part of Prime membership.

The Spanish sociologist Manuel Castell  predicted that in the networked age, more value would accrue in controlling flows of information than in controlling the content itself.  Controlling content increasingly involves autonomous, self-teaching systems that are increasingly inscrutable to humans. Gatekeepers like authors, publishers and professional reviewers are immersed in books and writing styles their whole lives and regard books as sacred objects. They have discerning eyes and separate great novels from trash more often than the average man on the street. When these old world gatekeepers are gone, only one gatekeeper will be left - Amazon with its spreadsheet maniacs. What will be the kind of books that will be available when that happens? Evgeny Morozov says in To Save Everything Click Here:

If one thinks that the goal of literature is to maximize the well-being of memes or to ensure  that all readers are satisfied (and why wouldn't they be, given that the books they read already reflect their subconscious inclinations and preferences?), then Amazon should be seen as the savior of literature. 
 But if one believes that some ideas are worse than others, that some memes should be put to rest rather than spread around, that many authors are public intellectuals who serve important civic functions that surely cannot be outsourced to algorithms, and that one of the goals of literature is to challenge and annihilate, than to appease and amplify - then there is very little to celebrate in Amazon's  fantasy world without gatekeepers.  
This is only books but Amazon's ambition extends to every other commodity on earth. To understand the depth and breadth of Jeff Bozos’ ambitions for the company he built, consider the original name he chose - 'relentless'. He still retains the domain name and if you type into your browser it  will redirect to Amazon, the company aptly, and ambitiously, nicknamed The Everything Store. He tells his shareholders that the company will act like an aggressive startup — that at Amazon, it is always Day One.  There will be many ways that Amazon can use its power and you can be sure that it will exploit them relentlessly. For eg., you may seeing different prices depending on any way that you interact with Amazon.