Tag Archives: Facebook

Escalating Ignorance in the Information Age

Oxymoronic?  Perhaps, but true.  The more ‘information’ that we have produced in the past forty years of networked information systems and the internet, the less we seem to know or trust. We are in an era of information entropy in which more is less.

I remember six years ago when an acquaintance of mine mentioned that she did not have cable t.v.  I wondered how she could possibly keep informed of current events.  Two years later, I dropped it myself, never regretting my ‘loss’.  Subsequently, I have become progressively more selective in my reading, particularly on the web, finding  that much of what I have consumed provides less insight.

The information age has provided a wealth of data, but not a corresponding wealth of insight. Why is that? Let’s review.

  1.  Reality is changing at warp speed. Yesterday’s facts and truisms are being rapidly  rendered obsolete. This ain’t your granddaddy’s nothin’!
  2.  We are producing mountains of data, but proportionately less ‘information’ (remember: data and information are not the same) .
  3.  The information that we do produce from the data  is often without meaningful context or perspective, and therefore of limited utility, relevance or reliability in a world where context can change as quickly as facts, and perspectives proliferate.
  4.  The institutions and information intermediaries (the press, government, academia, science, professions , unprofessional organizations such as Facebook and Google) that we depend upon for reliable and trustworthy information have almost all been diminished by scandals as they have become ‘monetized’, or otherwise compromised directly or indirectly by economic forces which have bent their values to serve other objectives.
  5. Concerted efforts to distort or undermine or repudiate otherwise valid information have been refined and deployed with devastating effectiveness.
  6. We have become conditioned, if not programmed, to suspend, if not avoid, critical thinking in preference to simple or comforting dogmas, also known as ‘thought on auto-pilot’.  We have willingly become prisoners of our own illusions, or those which too many are willing to sell us, in a world where there are now too many factoids to make sense of very much for very long.

One of the interesting consequences of all this is that in many subtle ways we take more time to do things that once seemed so simple, or to make decisions that are now more difficult in an increasingly complex world. I remember standing in the soap isle of the local supermarket gazing at the various offerings of dishwasher detergent.  There before me was New and Improved, Extra New, Super Improved, and You Won’t Believe Your Eyes, all in similar but different containers by the same manufacturer, all at nearly the same price. Along came a lady who engaged in the same exercise as I.  After a few minutes, we looked at each other and asked ‘What’s the difference?’.  I could just grab one off the shelf and be done, but I’ve been programed to optimize; best value for the price. Ultimately, I just grabbed one off the shelf.  Now multiply this simple example across the plethora of shopping transactions. Recognize that this phenomenon applies to information as much as dishwasher soap. The default for decision gridlock is snap judgment which often leads to the unintended consequence of buyer’s remorse, and the oft resultant lament: ‘What was/were I/they thinking?’

At a higher level of consequence, business and governmental decisions become similarly captive of a world that is devolving from long assumed perceptions of homogeneity to ever more complex and finite sub-groups, sub-cultures, sub-markets, sub divisions; each with their peculiarities and potential risks to the unwary, and few of which we really understand.  Middle east peace? Climate Change? Healthcare policies? Renewable energy strategies? Transportation strategy? Tax reform? Nuclear energy?

So here we are at the pinnacle of the data-pile at which our economic elite, blessed with all the raw data and algorithms they possess, are risk averse to investing their parked trillions for fear of risks they cannot effectively define, and therefore cannot effectively hedge.

And our ‘intelligence services’ with their army of server farms cannot pro-act with reliability; only react once the threat has manifested itself.  You don’t need big data to set up a sting for the witless.  But all their data isn’t helping them to preempt the wily.

And government, which is more reactive than proactive by nature, works on old and fragmented systems evolved from  the vastness of its enterprise and the granularity of its operations as defined by ever more complex regulations; systems which are too big, too complex to upgrade, but too critical to let die.  This also applies to large corporations, which are bureaucratically not too far removed from government.

I do not consider myself an information Luddite.  By virtue of the very nature of my profession, I love good data; I crave good data; I pine for good data; but I also distrust all data until its reliability can be proven.  More is not necessarily better.

Our data and its infrastructure is steadily holding us captive while we perpetuate the delusion that it is setting us free.  Unwilling to accept this possibility, we double down on our bet on artificial intelligence (AI) as the means to master the data-pile and set us free. No doubt, AI will bring many advantages.

But it also holds the risk that in seeking to outsource our thinking and judgements to so-called sentient machines, we are inviting a concentration of power (think Amazon, Facebook and Google) and a potential for manipulation that enslaves rather than liberates us.  Given our own individual and collective imperfections as citizens, professionals and societies, is it reasonably plausible that we can create AI that transcends our manifest imperfections and biases, but is vastly more capable of the harm we can already do without AI’s assistance? Stated more simply, can imperfect humans create perfect machines, or merely machines more capable of leveraging our imperfections to greater consequence?

We need not look far to preview the risks. Darkness is descending as the Trump administration seizes the reins of power and systematically draws the shades on the windows of government.  Today it seeks to withhold information; to render us less informed. Today, as it has for the past two years, it perpetrates blatant lies, increasingly devoid of any subtlety, to propagate its world view.  Imagine what it might do once it has implanted its partisans where all the levers of information creation or influence are located.  Consider a modification of the adage: ‘To err is human; to really screw up takes a computer’.

The possibilities are exponential.

Happy Presidents’ Day.  Better ones are coming. Hopefully.




Data Tyranny – Through the Looking Glass

At the end of a long week last week, I needed a spark of humor to get me over the Friday afternoon finish line.  And here it is:

It was reported that Mark Zuckerberg has taken President Obama to task over governmental spying and subversion of privacy on the internet. Either the lad’s brain is hermetically sealed in his own fantasy world of ‘specialness’, or he has single-handedly recalibrated the dimensions of chutzpah.  Frankly, I think that he is such an exceptional personage that he is fully capable of both. As are so many of his peers in the Enchanted Valley.

Honestly, would you buy a used car from Mark, or Eric Schmidt over at the other Data Death Star?  Or a new car, for that matter? Think about Google’s track record of ‘experimenting’ with new services only to drop them in an instant once some child genius gets bored.  Imagine yourself tooling down the boulevard in your auto-piloted Google-mobile, having an otherwise delightful conversation with Siri (or not, from what I’m told), when all of a sudden the Google mother-ship decides to do an app tweak on the autopilot.  Ooooops.

But I digress.  The real focus of this rant is the issue of data and personal privacy in the age of Mad Max and the self-styled buccaneers of free enterprise.

Am I worried, as a citizen, about the NSA?  Yeah.

Do I fear institution of a totalitarian regime by my government?  Not tomorrow morning, and probably not next week; but its excesses could conceivably lead to such, if not for its own apparent incompetence.  An organization with such loose internal security is a diminished threat in its capacity to effectively project AND sustain tyranny.

Does the NSA require greater transparency? No, stupid! It’s a spy agency!

Does the NSA require greater oversight and checks and balances?  Absolutely!

And how about Facebook and Google?  Yeah, them too. And let’s throw in Amazon and Apple and Yahoo while we’re at it.  Because these various data pimps and the galaxy of private sector John’s they service (insurance, finance, employment and recruiting, retail) can and do support a subtle tyranny of manipulation and exclusion that is perhaps more immediate and pervasive and subversively disruptive to the greater society than anything that is likely to emanate from Fort Meade any time in the foreseeable future.

But what oversight do we have on them? What oversight SHOULD we have on them?  If Google and Facebook are the data-mart of choice for our esteemed NSA for ‘shoplifting’, what does it offer its paying customers, whose profit driven endorphins seek the same data for more predatory purposes? Let’s have that conversation too, Mr. Mark.

Big Data and its twin, Analytics, most definitely have a place in our evolving society. We have a lot to learn about ourselves and our world for positive outcome. But the Googles and Facebooks are not being driven by the search of insight and wisdom.  They are being driven by the search for profits, which is not, in itself, a bad thing.  But at what expense and whose expense do they derive their profits and to what end?

If Facebook and Google, et al, are data pimps, and the various buyers are Johns, who are the prostitutes in this analogy?  You guessed it.  You and me.  We aren’t even selling anything.  We’re givin’ it away for free.  For free information, free music, free video, free books, free porn, soft and hard, and not thinking twice about who’s looking back at us from behind the screen, and with what intent.

The truly amusing part of this is that we have no concept of the potential consequences of data tyranny, although we should by now.  We simplistically think ‘I know everything there is to know about me. I’ve got nothing to hide’.  But that’s not how it will work.

Big data may store and regurgitate the bits and bytes of your digital life on demand for the select few (who are willing to pay) to see.  But then the fun begins with the ANALytics.

Analytics are tools that theoretically enable us to compile big data into big insights. They can assemble huge amounts of data never before possible, and present it in various dimensions and perspectives. They can slice and dice the mountain in ways we might not achieve in a couple of lifetimes.

But Analytics are not simply about compiling data.  Analysis is ultimately about perspective (how you choose to approach it) and judgment (what you deem relevant and important).  Perspective and importance are ultimately the system designer’s choice; not the machine’s. Therein lies the potential for good and evil.  It’s not merely the factoids of our lives; its the perspective and value judgements applied to them by people or institutions in positions of power.

Analytics become ANALytics when we use these tools to substitute for critical thinking, to ‘cut to the chase’ as we love to say in business, to bang through the ‘clutter’ and get to the market’s ‘sweet spot’, and ya-di-ya-di-ya. ANALytics are when lazy people in positions of influence let the machine do the thinking for them. There are an incredible number of highly paid, lazy people in positions of influence.

I’ve watched ANALytics at work on a modest scale in the medical field as a casual observer.  In three family situations over three decades, I’ve watched medical science throw barrages of tests at patients, only to come up empty of useful insights. In many cases, it took an exceptional doctor to look beyond what the test data was telling her/him for what it was NOT telling hem, and then make an informed judgment (guess) as to what course of action might be productive.  In the most troubling of instances, a doctor, operating on the ‘big data’ of his time, made a judgment that the life in question was probably not worth the surgery that was necessary. Fortunately, other doctors who stuck their necks and their careers out as a matter of principle and humanity, chose not to write off that life based on ‘the odds’.  There were too many other unknowns to be so glib and callous.

Thirty years later, the same profession contemplates investing in a simple surgery with potentially devastating consequences and costs to prolong a life that by all reasonable measures was nearing its inevitable conclusion. What was lacking was not data, but perspective. Ultimately, judgment was exercised which required more perspective than data, and the patient was spared one week of agony to pass in relative peace to a place that was destined; a place that too may medical folks fear to accept.  Data does not always = Reality.

But these are matters of life and death.  What relevance to the everyday mundane world of marketing, employment, credit, access to services, access to get back in the country?

If the NSA and Homeland Security can access the Facebook and Google factoid factories and draw erroneous conclusions from data viewed under a distorted lens of dubious values, why can’t all other more anonymous, but no less consequential, johns in the information data-mart do the same with similar consequences?  What prevents the trolls in the political arena from cherry picking a wealth of factoids and mis-representing them into another swift-boating assault on an otherwise worthy candidate for public office.  The original Swift-boaters were a bunch of unsophisticated hacks.  Imagine what you could do with the benefit of DATA and a dossier built on factoids carefully cherry-picked and cooked to perfection.

And what might stop a high-powered executive from digitally knee-capping a competitor for the corner suite with the same dis-information campaign?  Or an academic for that prized Chair. (As Kissinger correctly noted, few can fight so hard for so little as academics.)

Whereas Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckenberg and Princess Marissa would like you to believe that their messianic quest to order the world in their vision will be a force for good, it is in fact far more dangerous than the NSA. In their universes, there is no presumption of democratic rule and oversight.  Just their whim of the moment, and the opportunities of their market place, in which you and I ARE NOT the buyers or sellers.

The age of information tyranny, institutional and freelance, has arrived.  And its implementation will be so subtle, the redneck devotees of the NRA won’t know who to shoot.



The Price of ‘Free’

Hi, my name is Sid. I’m a technological Neanderthal.

I have an iPhone 4, and I’m not likely to trade it in for the latest, not even if Apple’s new Marketing wiz comes out with a new model in Burberry plaid.

I don’t have an iPad because the form factor isn’t worth the price of a good laptop when I’m more about information creation than information consumption.

And now I read that Apple has a new Microsoft Killer strategy to give away software because ‘it’s all about the hardware’. A lot of media Toadies appear eager to peddle this nonsense as the new received wisdom.  After some contemplation and a reasonable period of gestation to allow appropriate fermentation in my primitive brain, my considered response is: ‘You people are on CRACK!’ But that’s just my personal opinion.

Actually, it may be the case that the real news is that Apple has finally priced a product for what it is worth in the case of iWorks: nothing. But Apple’s give-aways and their implications for Microsoft are not the real story.  The more interesting one is the battle between hardware and software, and another story, the Price of ‘Free’.

The hardware vs. software story goes back to the late 70s when IBM’s dominance in Big Iron was coming under question. Two things were occurring in tandem.  Mini-computers were arising from the technological primordial slime to challenge the Big Blue Boxes behind the glass walls.  As these less powerful but tactically more relevant platforms made their way into the hands of mere mortals, software packages evolved that were closer to needs of end users.  IBM, which was known for its less than engaging software (think of it as the Microsoft of its time), was beginning to feel the pain. But it adapted, because its dominance was eroding.  IBM may have been big and clumsy, but it wasn’t dumb. It entered and survived and ultimately dominated the mini-computer field.  And with time and patience and the arrival of the Web, IBM lived to see the return of what it knew and loved most: Big Iron.  But gradually, IBM, being a learning organization, realized that a computer is just a dumb, expensive box. It’s only worth what it can do. And software defines what it can do more than hardware. It’s the software, Stupid!

It’s next flash of insight was to sell not just software but service, the gift that keeps on giving. Kind of like a blood transfusion in reverse.  Steadies the revenue stream and keeps the i.v. line open for injection of new services and extraction of new revenues.  This model has now made its way to Microsoft and Adobe who offer subscription software with automatic updates in place of ‘buy and bye’.

I thought that IBM was crazy to sell its PC business, which it was never fond of from the beginning. But it was actually smart. It foresaw the PC business becoming a commodity business, and didn’t want any part of that.

So when I see Microsoft now entering the personal information appliance hardware business in competition with Apple and Samsung and LG and whomever, I wonder if it hasn’t lost its way.  Google and Amazon are peddling cheap devices to hook you into their services; similar strategies for different reasons. Google wants all your information so they can pimp your profile to the world for profit. Amazon wants to install that reverse i.v. so they can suck every possible sale out of your aspirational little soul.

Apple has similar aspirations to Amazon, but not nearly on as grand a scale.  It’s all about entertaining you.  Making you feel empowered and special. And the hardware does that just fine.  And the software does that o.k. because Apple has trained you to not be too demanding.  That wouldn’t be cool! And because it extracts a hefty price for its very sleek hardware with its modest software that makes you feel good,  now it’s giving you the software free out of the goodness of its corporate heart.

So the notion that Apple’s free iWorks et al is going to be a Microsoft killer is about as dumb as the notion that tablets and smartphones are going to kill desktops and laptops.  There is a place for desktops and laptops where people do work. Tablets are accessory to them in the workplace, and have more value in personal information consumption: PIMs on steroids. The current turnover in sales is more a product of marketing once again convincing us that we need the newest of something we already have because we need the newest for our self-esteem.  (Logic would posit that I still have an iPhone 4 as proof that I have no self-esteem. Whatever!)

*  *  *

Let us conclude with ‘free’.  ‘Free’ is a pricing and marketing gimmick.  Always has been. Always will be.  Everything costs, and somebody has to pay. Somehow. We have been brainwashed to expect free without considering the price. In a supposedly sophisticated society we are programmed to salivate at the sight of ‘Sale’ in the Pavlovian fashion.

The demise of Penney’s campaign to replace false sales with low prices speaks to the degree of our social programing in ways that we do not seem to appreciate or want to confront. And as I write this, we are just one month away from our annual celebration of human debasement known as Black Friday.  It will be interesting to see what kind of firepower manifests at the mall on November 29th, particularly in Florida where ‘stand your ground’ still lives and dies. ‘Black Friday’ may take on another meaning. (What we need are more ‘good guys with guns at the Mall’, the NRA will say).

Everything has a price, a cost and a value. Price is supposed to reflect value, and does not always suggest cost.

When the price is free, what does that say of the value?

When the price is free, who’s really bearing the cost? And what is it?  Ask Google, and Facebook, and Amazon, and Apple and Yahoo. They know.

By the way, what would you pay for an Apple roadster in Burberry?  How ’bout with autopilot software thrown in for ‘free’? It’s all about the hardware.



Surveillance: A Dollar for your Thoughts

You’ve probably heard more than you want by now about the government’s various nefarious programs to stockpile all the information they might ever need to know in case any of us choose to go to the Dark Side.

You’ve also likely heard that the conduits of much of their information are the various information intermediaries that are becoming ever more entwined in our daily lives in great detail: Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, banks, the various phone companies, the beleaguered Postal Service, etc.etc.etc.

If you’re anywhere on the political spectrum between liberal and libertarian, you’re probably concerned about this invasion of privacy which really hasn’t been revealed to us suddenly. It’s been progressing for twelve years before our eyes and under our nose, but we’ve remained mute, or indifferent.  Mostly indifferent, I believe, because we do not yet feel personally threatened by this growing government power.

Now the pieces of the puzzle are coalescing into a more coherent picture, and we’re having an OMG moment.

I would be less concerned about this growing agglomeration of government power if I believed that there is a system of checks and balances in place that assures that its application is effectively overseen.  But there is no rational basis for such belief, and therefore every reason for concern.

I am less concerned about the data than I am about Guantanamo, and renditions, and water-boarding and the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and private for-profit prisons, which say something profound about our political value system and commitment to justice and due process; and none of which require Big Data to perpetrate tyranny.  The data is just icing on the cake.

The risk of Government tyranny is real.  If perpetrated, it could be great in scope, but most likely will be more narrowly targeted to real or perceived security threats.  It was a greater concern to me during the Bush/Cheney regime which specialized in bypassing due process and checks and balances.  But it is disturbing that the Obama administration has done so little to reverse those excesses, and has apparently added to the infrastructure.

The greatest safety against the threat of broad scope government tyranny is the government’s own apparent ineptitude to conduct large-scale security operations (border security) and intelligence operations to effect.  I imagine that if the government really tried to institute large-scale repression in this country, it would find itself confronted with various levels of resistance that would make Egypt look like an Easter Egg hunt.  Further, in a highly complex society such as ours, a government that would turn against its people would depend on an infrastructure far more vulnerable than its supply chain in Af-Pakistan.  And I would like to believe that there are still people in government who are smart enough to understand this and tread lightly.

But here’s my bigger concern in the realm of surveillance.  My bigger concern is with the intermediaries the Government relies so heavily on for so much of their data: the Googles and Facebooks, and Amazons and Apples and banks and telcos.  The Government is presumably focused on maintaining power and security.  But these intermediaries have a much different motive in collecting all the data they do in their own impressive data farms…Profit.  The quest for profit, as we should know by now, has no bounds. Certainly no ethical or moral bounds.

We have at least the illusion of a system of checks and balances and legal limits relating to government operations.  But in the US, what checks and balances exist over these private sector intermediaries in selling whatever of our relinquished data to whomever for whatever purposes. If these intermediaries are unwilling servants of the government in the security realm, they are willing pushers to other economic parasites in the private sector for clear economic gain.  We barely get insight into these relationships, and have little sense of our vulnerabilities and avenues of recourse.

For example, we know that businesses use algorithms to determine which customers can be better fleeced with price adjustments. What data sources feed those algorithms? We know that some insurance policies rate you on more than your driving record.  We don’t know how much information, from what sources, and with what degree of accuracy, may be gathered by a prospective or current employer in evaluating your suitability for employment, promotion, or retention.  What freedom-of-information processes apply? What due process exists for wrongful denial of service or employment or other opportunity apply. There is, in this realm of Private Dark Data, a potential tyranny far more immediate and impactful on personal liberty and well-being than the more likely scenarios of  NSA, CIA and FBI drones and data mining. Private Sector Surveillance is the more immediate and pervasive threat to the average citizen.

A dollar for your thoughts.

Oh, but I forgot to mention. you don’t get the dollar.

Every virtue has within it the potential of deception and tyranny. And every clever tyranny gains ground with the appearance of virtue.

Take the opportunity to kill the power on your cellphone and tablet every so often while in transit.  Drop off the Radar for a day. Make ’em wonder what you’re up to.

It’ll freak ’em, Man!