Category Archives: Uncategorized

Organization makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside

whiteboardmaybeThe final week of every term is always a chaotic flurry of activity. A colleague I’ve been working with has a whiteboard at home (for individual project use), but I decided to get one to help me keep track of all ongoing projects. It is incredibly freeing and helps me focus on ONE research item at a time, instead of having the vague cloud of ominous and insurmountable deadlines looming on the horizon. This will help my summer be more productive AND relaxing.

Winter Sun

This winter in Oregon has been confusing….frozen nights, then 60’s and sunny during the day.

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Heceta Head

On a side note, Black Mirror has adequately blown my mind.

 

Naked Statistics

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Just finished Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data. I was delighted that a “pop” book was so incredibly informative, especially on what can be dense subject matter. Hooray, I can actually understand and explain a standard deviation now! It doesn’t hurt that Wheelan has a sense of humor.

In a world…

Very cute little movie. Lake Bell wrote, directed and starred in it, great cast all around. Somehow I was never in any real fear for Bell’s character, but it was still an compelling and funny narrative. Made me almost miss LA. This will make me pay more attention to the narrator during trailers. Speaking of which, watch this film’s trailer here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuxApRnekWc

rating:  4 out of 5 microphones

Pariser’s Filter Bubble

            In The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser explores how personalization on the Internet is surreptitiously altering what people read and how they think. He weaves together strands of technological data, media studies theory, political and journalistic history, psychological effects, and pop culture references into an intriguing argument. In their attempt to personalize everything, Internet entities (Google, Facebook, etc.) create a “filter bubble” that is actually stunting creativity and frustrating Democracy. In this book, Pariser attempts to push back against this trend of hyper-personalization and “burst” the filter bubble. Eli Pariser is an author, political and Internet activist, chief executive at Upworthy (a website devoted to “meaningful” web content), president of MoveOn.org (a progressive public policy activist group), and co-founder of Avaaz (a global civic organization).
            Pariser begins by diagnosing the problem he calls “the filter bubble”. In a competitive race for users’ clicks and advertisers’ dollars, Internet giants have begun catering every user’s activity around that user’s online preferences and habits. But because the filter bubble is solitary (it pulls us apart), invisible (we don’t know what algorithms are working where), and involuntary (automatic participation means you must opt out, not in), the whole filtering process is largely unnoticed and therefore particularly dangerous. The aggression and analytical ambition that fuel start-up companies do not magically disappear when those companies become Internet giants that “rule the world”. (181)
            The filter bubble commodifies user data and activity for sale to the highest bidder—typically advertisers who are keen on showing their products to interested parties. In its infancy, the Internet was celebrated for its disintermediating potential, but celebrants failed to predict how the absence of a middleman would affect content and attention. For example, in the realm of journalism, it is now much easier to go to an aggregated news site that collects stories from smaller sources, all of which are relevant to you, than to spend the effort clicking around those sources directly. However, “while personalization is changing our experience of news, it’s also changing the economics that determine what stories get produce.” (69) Thus, instead of reporting on important or worthy news, news agencies have a vested interest in publishing stories that are likely to garner lots of online attention.
            Internet giants are offering us more convenience, but “in exchange for convenience, you hand over some privacy and control to the machine.” (213) As technology continues to develop, even non-Internet corporations are figuring out new ways to pursue consumers. Whether creating their own media content or augmenting your “reality” to highlight their products, these companies are coming after us with more aggression and less transparency.
            Pariser describes the delicate cognitive balance that has historically been the driving force behind human creativity and ingenuity: our brains automatically “tread a tightrope between learning too much from the past and incorporating too much new information from the present.” (84) Thus, by measuring the novel and unknown against the established and known, we can integrate useful news ideas into the canon of human knowledge. Yet, the filter bubble removes the unknown from our horizon, which lessens the impetus (and possibility) to learn and innovate. “Left to their own devices, personalization filters serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.” (15) Any cognitive dissonance or tension is flattened until a user’s Google self, Facebook self, Amazon self, etc. all become the same and any chance for serendipity or identity experimentation is nullified.
            The dangers of the filter bubble extend to the political sphere as well. As people are currently only being shown news on issues that are “relevant” to them, public issues that should be of at least marginal interest to everyone are ignored. Because the same symbol or event means different things to different people, a fragmented public is harder to lead. “Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another’s point of view, but instead we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead, we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.” (5) Citizens must be willing and able to see beyond their own narrow self-interests, but the filter bubble makes this increasingly difficult.
            Pariser concludes with a few possible solutions to the filter bubble dilemma. Consumers can try to vary their online activity, breaking habitual website patronage, and choose transparent sites like Twitter over Facebook, which is notoriously murky about its privacy policies. Companies can do their part as well. By being more transparent, giving users the option to surf through relevant or novelmaterial, they can break the over-personalization cycle. Furthermore, government can be more responsible about holding companies accountable (regarding their user’s control of privacy) instead of succumbing to their deluge of lobbyists.
            This book advances the understanding of Mass Communication in several ways. Primarily, Pariser is to be commended for bring to the public’s attention (this book is a NT Times bestseller) an issue that is universally important. This affects all of us[1], in almost every area of our lives, and whether or not you agree with Pariser’s diagnosis, the issue certainly warrants discussion. Furthermore, this book encourages people to be more conscious about what media they consume, from the mundane websites we check every day to why we vote the way we do. Few areas of electronic activity are unaffected by Pariser’s argument.
Overall, The Filter Bubble is largely successful in communicating its message, but there are some failings. Pariser neglects to acknowledge the fact that most of the entities he is criticizing (Google, Facebook, etc.) do offer users the option to turn off personalization and return pure results. It’s simply that the default settings of the programs are geared towards personalization. True, most users may never change (or even be aware of) the ability to turn these settings on or off, but the possibility bears mention.
Pariser’s argument also runs the possibility of turning on itself. Through personalization, Facebook and Google indirectly control our online experiences, so Pariser’s solution is that they should expose us to content we don’t want. This would, in fact, put then in direct control. But who decides what is important for everyone? Do we really want Google and Facebook determining what is important for us?
Furthermore, what incentives would companies have to sell their products online if they aren’t going to reach relevant customers? Pariser decries Cass Sunstein’s Republic.com for advocating a naïve “fairness doctrine” (where companies willingly sacrifice profits for a more Marxist Internet structure), but then advocates a similar set of solutions. Will companies ever spend resources on something that doesn’t contribute—and might even be detrimental—to their bottom line?
It is difficult to tell if Pariser resorts to hyperbole in order to scare the reader into agreeing with him. According to Pariser, RFID chips, ambient intelligence, DNA, and behavioral data make it possible to “run statistical regression analysis on an entire society.” (199) Whether this dystopian vision of a techno-society is a plegitimate threat or not remains to be seen, but at least Pariser’s experience in political and Internet activism make it credible enough to consider.
Pariser’s argument is strengthened with some brilliant ideas. The notion of a falsifiabilityalgorithm for Amazon—one that tries to disprove its conception of you with random genre suggestions—is simple and (more importantly) practical, since it would actually give the company a more accurate and dynamic picture of who you are. Other suggestions, like “a slider bar running from ‘only stuff I like’ to ‘stuff other people like that I’ll probably hate’” (235), are less likely to occur but noble suggestions nonetheless. His general approach to thinking about personal information “as a form of property” (240), instead of merely sacrificing it for a little convenience, is a positive step in the right direction. Pariser’s Filter Bubblemoves us toward balancing the current asymmetries of knowledge, data, and therefore power.

Pariser’s TED talk on the subject can be found here: http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html


[1]Well, all of us in the First World. But the way things are moving, the problems of the filter bubble are flowing into Third World societies as our technology does. Moreover, sites like Facebook and Google are global in scale.

World War Z

A few years ago I heard someone say that America’s current obsession with zombie mythology would eventually culminate (before its inevitable decline) with Pitt’s World War Z. Turns out he was right.

Many interesting things about this movie. I like that it is a “serious” zombie movie that isn’t afraid to throw around the word “zombie”. I like that it wasted approximately 7 seconds before throwing Brad Pitt into the fray. I like that it was a political but not heavy handed. And I liked the ending—not bleak, but not Hollywood.

I appreciated the surprise action catalysts (in a zombie film, these are usually loud noises that draw the undead whilst the heroes are sneaking around) like Gerry’s wife calling him on the phone I forgot he had, or citizens of Jerusalem rejoicing. However, there were typical predictable ones as well. How many times in a single mission can the same person “accidentally” kick a can, step on a glass bottle, and smack a filing cabinet with their crowbar? C’mon Welsh scientist.

Rating: 4 out of 6 zombies

Proposing a Return to Analog

I usually read a lot every day, so at night I need to read something completely unrelated to help me fall asleep. It needs to be theoretically interesting but packed with so much unnecessary detail so as to put me to sleep. Dyson’s tale of the simultaneous rise of atomic weaponry and digital computation does just that. He spends a lot of time on the complete genealogical backstory of every person who had anything to do with computers, so if that is your thing, this book is incredible.

Actual Drinking Buddies

What feels normal at first, starts to feel slow halfway through as you wonder when the “action” is going to happen, then near the end you realize that it has been happening all along. Good writing, good acting, great directing, and it didn’t end how I thought it would. Delightful!

Rating:
4 out of 5 pints

Present Shock

Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff is sort of like Keen’s Digital Vertigo, but a bit less disjointed. Rushkoff describes what he calls a “presentist” culture where everything is about the now. We have confused “flow” with “storage”, kairos time with chronos time, and our current anemic state is the failure to reconcile two fundamentally different levels of identity: digital, where we are spending most of our (mental) time, and analog, where we still live and must return to inevitably. We are addicted to possibility and stimulation as the digital realm provides it for us. Also, Rushkoff’s media ecologist tendencies sporadically flare up.