Quote of the day: Amplifying the addiction

When I started working in technology, my hope was to build products that brought people together in new and productive ways. I wanted to improve the world we all lived in.

Instead, the social media services that I and others have built over the past 15 years have served to tear people apart with alarming speed and intensity. At the very least, we have eroded our collective understanding—at worst, I fear we are pushing ourselves to the brink of a civil war.

— Tim Kendall, Facebook’s former director of monetization in a testimony (PDF) to the US House of Representatives.

Via The Register.

Facebook threatens to stop spreading conspiracy theories if they can’t spy on their users

Back in July, the court of justice of the European Union ruled that companies like Facebook could be prevented from sending data back to the US because they don’t have enough protections against snooping by US intelligence agencies.

The ruling didn’t immediately end all transfers, but does place a requirement on national data protection authorities to vet the sending of any new data to ensure that any personal data complies EU’s GDPR data protection rules.

And so to Ireland, where Facebook’s European operation is located and, therefore, responsible for enforcing this rule.

On Tuesday Facebook tried to strong-arm the Irish data protection commissioner by threatening to pull out of Europe if forced to comply with the law.

We live in hope.

I was going to go on a rant here, but then I noticed that the satirists at NewsThump have already been there: Facebook threatens Europe with fair elections decided by well-informed voters. What a prospect.

Of course, they’re bluffing and, by Wednesday Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for justifying Zuckerberg’s tantrums, and former UK deputy prime minister1 was frantically backpedalling.

I find his arguments (as reported) more than a little disingenuous. He’s eliding personal data (which is covered by the GDPR) and data in general (which isn’t) and claiming that having to keep up with ever changing rules (they aren’t) is impossible (it isn’t).

Realistically, Facebook isn’t going to go anywhere. They might thrash around for a bit but, ultimately, there is too much money in spreading hate speach and algorithmically promoting conspiracy theories and the Zuckerborg will comply with whatever rules are imposed.

But imagine being able to go online without being endlessly monitored, and not having ever more extreme content pushed at you.

The technology exists. It’s called RSS and Daniel Miessler thinks that it’s time to get back into RSS. Personally, I never stopped using RSS — my reader of choice is Newsblur — and I can’t imagine not having a single place to find pretty much everything I have chosen to read or watch online.

Footnote

  1. Of course Liberal politicians end up working for surveillance capitalists. It’s 2020.

Quote of the day: Prejudice engines

In the schools fiasco, the exam authorities, such as Ofqual in England and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, were apparently told that the primary concern was to prevent grade inflation. Once politicians had made that choice, then blaming the algorithm for producing the wrong political answer is little more than refusing to accept responsibility for one’s judgment.

Kenan Malik

Five Things #13

The Devil Buys Us Cheap and the Devil Buys in Bulk by M. Bennardo is a morality tale about unearned money.

Helen Claire Hart argues that we should lift the ban on asylum seekers seeking work.

Kieren McCarthy at The Register looks at the creative accounting that helps Apple get away with charging an unjustifiable mark-up on repairs while also claiming to make a loss.

Funk’s House of Geekery looks back at Tank Girl, the movie.

Susan D’Agostino talks to Barbara Liskov, the architect of modern algorithms.

Another Five Things

It isn’t easy being a troll. Hand Me Downs is a short story by Maria Haskins.

“We Handed A Loaded Weapon To 4-Year-Olds.” Developer Chris Wetherell built Twitter’s retweet button. He tells Buzzfeed why he regrets what he did to this day.

Rosie Fletcher at Den of Geek suggests the 2 hour 45 minute running time for It Chapter Two indicates that the horror genre is moving into the mainstream. And that’s a good thing.

Over at Aeon, Matthew Stanley recounts British astronomer and physicist, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington’s attempt to test Einstein’s theory of relativity. It’s worth reading not just for the challenges Stanley faced, but also the way in which he managed to craft the subsequent narrative into a symbol of post-war German-British solidarity.

And finally, Alastair Campbell has left the Labour Party and asked Jeremy Corbyn to seriously consider whether he’s really up to the challenges ahead.

The Coding Kids Fallacy

Beta Antunes thinks that children should learn to write programs. Speaking as a professional developer and father of three, I think this is utter nonsense.

I don’t want to pick on Beta specifically, but her article does contain a lot of the silver bullet thinking that makes articles like this so incoherent.

So here goes.

The article starts with the observation that software is everywhere, which is true enough. Beta also makes the obvious point that that coding skills are essential. Clearly, all of this code needs to be maintained, but the next sentence in the article strikes me as a pretty unjustified assertion:

The question that remains should not be “why?” but “how?” How can I inspire my child to learn to code, when should I start, and what are the many benefits?

There’s much to unpick here, starting with: why shouldn’t the question be “why”? Or, more to the point, what do you think you are going to achieve by pushing your kids into coding classes?

Software development is an increasingly specialised set of disciplines and being proficient in one area does not make you even competent in another. For example, I make a living from developing and maintaining interfaces between the large and often unwieldy applications large companies use to run their business, and I think I am pretty good at what I do. But you would not want to let me loose on a self-driving car. Ever.

So the fact that software is everywhere is a bit of a red-herring because most people do not look at most source code. While it is useful to have a broad understanding of how applications and how best to use them, being able to write a specific type of application using a specific set of languages and tools isn’t going to help you.

But it gets worse:

It is the parent’s job to encourage children’s interests and help them develop life skills. My personal philosophy is to start children coding early, and make it fun!

Again with the unjustified jump from the obvious to the nonsense. Of course the parents have a responsibility to encourage children’s interests and develop life skills. Writing programs is not a life skill, and since Beta is making the assertion without any justification, I shall refute it without any justification.

As we all know, learning by doing is much more impactful. Children are innately curious and love to explore. They love discovery… picking things up, examining them, smelling them, touching them, and asking why?

“Picking things up, examining them, smelling them, touching them.” Notice how these are all physical ways of interacting with the world and, therefore, completely irrelevant to the point of beta’s article.

Children are curious and it is far better to let them follow their interests. Trying to force them into following your interests is a surefire way of killing stone dead any curiosity they might have had.

And the rest of the article follows much the same pattern: A statement of the obvious followed by an unsupported assertion about the value of coding. My irony meter almost broke when I got to the claim that coding teaches logical thinking — it clearly didn’t for Beta.

I have three sons and, over the years, they have planted and grown fruit and vegetables, helped build a compost bin, chopped wood, built (Lego and Meccano) robots, helped build a chicken run, played games, watched films, talked film, read books, helped care for animals, designed games, built machines, and much more. Whenever we do something, we involve the boys, finding them things that they can and want to do, allowing them to organise tasks among themselves and encouraging them to take pride in their achievements.

By doing this, we are (hopefully) encouraging them to recognise that the world is full of interesting things — both to see and to do — and teaching them to compete gracefully, co-operate effectively and to do things well. These are skills that are transferable to pretty much any walk of life, any career and any hobby.

We are also demonstrating that some things are worth doing for their own sake, and not because there is some monetary reward attached to it.

Children are individuals and each has his or her own interests. The role of the parent is to encourage those interests, not ride roughshod over them in pursuit of some mythical panacea.

Happy Single (Digitally Speaking)

Since 2009, imec have been publishing an annual Digimeter report that attempts to assess how and to what extent digital technologies are used in Flanders. Flanders Today reports that the 2018 report is now out.

The headline news is that, this year, they have focussed on attitudes to technology and divided the region into five groups ranging from the Passionate Lover (of technology), who sees smartphones and social media as wholly wonderful, to the Distant Acquaintance, who is totally disinterested in digital media or technology.

The Dutch part of the site also links to a set of ten questions that you can use to assess your own Digimeter profile. And I can never resist a quiz.

Happy Single

You are quite happy as a bachelor with regard to technology, and at this moment you are certainly not interested in a fixed relationship with digital media. For that you are too worried about the many disadvantages that go with it: personal data that are misused, the spread of fake news, the addictive nature of the smartphone and social media…

If necessary, you can find your way into the digital world, but you can also enjoy offline forms of media.

This sounds like a reasonably fair description of me — I do have social media accounts, but I also avoid the big data mines like Facebook and Twitter and would prefer to spend my time reading a book, playing a game or watching a film. I was, however, a bit surprised to note that, elsewhere on the site, this makes me the opposite of the Passionate Lovers and a fierce opponent of technology. That strikes me as a bit of an overstatement of how I feel.

Elsewhere the report notes that, while people do feel better informed thanks to the internet, there is also an awareness of the challenges it brings, especially in the guise of fake news. Consequently, reliance on social media for news is declining (a very good thing, in my opinion), especially among 16 to 24 year olds, with people falling back on traditional news outlets and real journalists to stay informed. Social media is still heavily used, but is declining as a news source and hopefully this trend will continue.

I’ve not read the full report yet, but the site is nicely laid out allowing you to poke around whichever chapter happens to catch your interest. Although the survey was carried out in Flanders, I would assume that the Flemish are reasonably representative of Western Europe.

WordPress and walled gardens

Here’s a coincidence. Shortly after I decide to abandon my self-hosted WordPress instance for the safety of a site hosted on WordPress.com, John Beckett starts mulling over whether to leave the WordPress walled garden:

As we have seen in recent days with Tumblr, a shoe could come down one day, and change the rules that govern the existence of our words on the internet. If I choose to walk away from a hosted blogging service, am I really taking ownership though? I still won’t own or control the hardware — I still won’t own or control the connection between the hardware and the wider internet. I’ll just have moved the goal-posts a little closer to me — I won’t own them, or the ground they are planted in.

For me, there are two issues with walled gardens. Firstly, and most importantly, the owners of these networks tend to try and force people to sign up to their networks — I can’t see what someone has posted on Facebook, for example, without first signing up to Facebook. The second issue is one of exportability — once you have placed your content into the walled garden it can be difficult, if not impossible, to get it back out.

In the case of WordPress, neither of these issues apply. You don’t need a WordPress account to visit, or follow, this blog and if I do decide to self-host again at some point in the future, exporting and importing my posts is a very straightforward process.

Crucially, I do own this domain name and, if I did decide I wanted to self-host again, it would be possible to do so pretty much seamlessly. And because I can easily move the blog, I have much less desire to do so.

And by hosting the blog on WordPress, I can leave tasks like security, sizing and the rest to people who (should) know what they are doing.

WordPress may be a bit of a walled garden, but the walls are very low and the gates are wide open.

Quote of the day: The eleven percent

[I]t comes as a big surprise to almost nobody that a survey earlier this year found that 41 per cent of internet users entering personal information online tend to falsify their details. Wonderfully, only 30 per cent of respondents did so out of security concerns, which means another 11 per cent did so out of sheer unbridled mischief.

I love you, 11 per cent. You are my kind of people.

Alistair Dabbs