Facebook doesn’t have a mind-control problem, it has a corruption problem. Cambridge Analytica didn’t convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters.
Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018
Tuesday, June 26th, 2018
Prompted by his time at Clearleft’s AI gathering in Juvet, Chris has been delving deep into the stories we tell about artificial intelligence …and what stories are missing.
And here we are at the eponymous answer to the question that I first asked at Juvet around 7 months ago: What stories aren’t we telling ourselves about AI?
Tuesday, June 19th, 2018
What’s happening right now at the US border is heartbreaking and inexcusable. We’re donating 25% of all profits today and tomorrow (June 19 & 20) to RAICES, to help reunite detained immigrant parents and children.
Saturday, April 28th, 2018
A hand-wringing, finger-pointing litany of hindsight, published with 11 tracking scripts attached.
- Start With Hippie Good Intentions …
- … Then mix in capitalism on steroids.
- The arrival of Wall Streeters didn’t help …
- … And we paid a high price for keeping it free.
- Everything was designed to be really, really addictive.
- At first, it worked — almost too well.
- No one from Silicon Valley was held accountable …
- … Even as social networks became dangerous and toxic.
- … And even as they invaded our privacy.
- Then came 2016.
- Employees are starting to revolt.
- To fix it, we’ll need a new business model …
- … And some tough regulation.
- Maybe nothing will change.
- … Unless, at the very least, some new people are in charge.
Monday, April 23rd, 2018
During the Industrial Revolution, as new machines were invented to increase output, business owners often dreamed of an entirely automated workforce—of a factory without workers. I assume their workers had different dreams.
Ethan thinks through the ethical implications of increasing automation and efficiency über alles:
I can’t stop thinking about how much automation has changed our industry already. And I know the rate of automation is only going to accelerate from here.
At the very least, maybe it’s worth asking ourselves what might happen next.
Saturday, April 21st, 2018
A smart look back at historical examples of regulation and what we can learn from them today, by Justine Leblanc:
- Railways in the UK: Public interest as a trigger for regulation
- Engineering in Canada: Accountability as a trigger for regulation
- The automotive industry in the USA: Public outrage as a trigger for regulation
Tuesday, April 10th, 2018
The transcript of a terrific talk by Paul, calling for a more thoughtful, questioning approach to digital design. It covers the issues I’ve raised about Booking.com’s dark patterns and a post I linked to a while back about the shifting priorities of designers working at scale.
Drawing inspiration from architectural practice, its successes and failures, I question the role of design in a world being eaten by software. When the prevailing technocratic culture permits the creation of products that undermine and exploit users, who will protect citizens within the digital spaces they now inhabit?
Sunday, March 25th, 2018
The word “leak” is right. Our sense of control over our own destinies is being challenged by these leaks. Giant internet platforms are poisoning the commons. They’ve automated it.
Wednesday, March 21st, 2018
I’d love to see some change, and some introspection. A culture of first, do no harm. A recognition that there are huge dangers if you just do what’s possible, or build a macho “fail fast” culture that promotes endangerment. It’s about building teams that know they’ll make mistakes but also recognize the difference between great businesses opportunities and gigantic, universe-sized fuck ups.
Monday, March 5th, 2018
I recently received this very instruction about speaking at an upcoming event. I honestly don’t know how I could talk about universality, progressive enhancement, and user experience without it being political. So I interpreted the request to be about partisanship rather than politics:
Sometimes when people hear the term “political,” they understand it as “partisan.” To be political is to acknowledge the lived experiences of people outside of yourself. To be partisan is to advocate for the beliefs or propaganda of a specific party affiliation.
Thursday, March 1st, 2018
Ethan adds his thoughts to my post about corporations using their power to influence the direction of the web.
Heck, one could even argue the creation of AMP isn’t just Google’s failure, but our failure. More specifically, perhaps it’s pointing to a failure of governance of our little industry. Absent a shared, collective vision for what we want the web to be—and with decent regulatory mechanisms to defend that vision—it’s unsurprising that corporate actors would step into that vacuum, and address the issues they find. And once they do, the solutions they design will inevitably benefit themselves first—and then, after that, the rest of us.
If at all.
Tuesday, February 27th, 2018
A catalogue of design decisions that have had harmful effects on users. This is a call for more inclusive design, but also a warning on the fetishisation of seamlessness:
The focus on details and delight can be traced to manifestos like Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, which propose a dogmatic adherence to cognitive obviousness and celebrates frictionless interaction as the ultimate design accomplishment.
Monday, February 26th, 2018
Ends and means
The latest edition of the excellent History Of The Web newsletter is called The Day(s) The Web Fought Back. It recounts the first time that websites stood up against bad legislation in the form of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), and goes to recount the even more effective use of blackout protests against SOPA and PIPA.
I remember feeling very heartened to see WikiPedia, Google and others take a stand on January 18th, 2012. But I also remember feeling uneasy. In this particular case, companies were lobbying for a cause I agreed with. But what if they were lobbying for a cause I didn’t agree with? Large corporations using their power to influence politics seems like a very bad idea. Isn’t it still a bad idea, even if I happen to agree with the cause?
Cloudflare quite rightly kicked The Daily Stormer off their roster of customers. Then the CEO of Cloudflare quite rightly wrote this in a company-wide memo:
Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.
There’s an uncomfortable tension here. When do the ends justify the means? Isn’t the whole point of having principles that they hold true even in the direst circumstances? Why even claim that corporations shouldn’t influence politics if you’re going to make an exception for net neutrality? Why even claim that free speech is sacrosanct if you make an exception for nazi scum?
Those two examples are pretty extreme and I can easily justify the exceptions to myself. Net neutrality is too important. Stopping fascism is too important. But where do I draw the line? At what point does something become “too important?”
There are more subtle examples of corporations wielding their power. Google are constantly using their monopoly position in search and browser marketshare to exert influence over website-builders. In theory, that’s bad. But in practice, I find myself agreeing with specific instances. Prioritising mobile-friendly sites? Sounds good to me. Penalising intrusive ads? Again, that seems okey-dokey to me. But surely that’s not the point. So what if I happen to agree with the ends being pursued? The fact that a company the size and power of Google is using their monopoly for any influence is worrying, regardless of whether I agree with the specific instances. But I kept my mouth shut.
Now I see Google abusing their monopoly again, this time with AMP. They may call the preferential treatment of Google-hosted AMP-formatted pages a “carrot”, but let’s be honest, it’s an abuse of power, plain and simple.
By the way, I have no doubt that the engineers working on AMP have the best of intentions. We are all pursuing the same ends. We all want a faster web. But we disagree on the means. If Google search results gave preferential treatment to any fast web pages, that would be fine. But by only giving preferential treatment to pages written in a format that they created, and hosted on their own servers, they are effectively forcing everyone to use AMP. I know for a fact that there are plenty of publications who are producing AMP content, not because they are sold on the benefits of the technology, but because they feel strong-armed into doing it in order to compete.
If the ends justify the means, then it’s easy to write off Google’s abuse of power. Those well-intentioned AMP engineers honestly think that they have the best interests of the web at heart:
We were worried about the web not existing anymore due to native apps and walled gardens killing it off. We wanted to make the web competitive. We saw a sense of urgency and thus we decided to build on the extensible web to build AMP instead of waiting for standard and browsers and websites to catch up. I stand behind this process. I’m a practical guy.
There’s real hubris and audacity in thinking that one company should be able to tackle fixing the whole web. I think the AMP team are genuinely upset and hurt that people aren’t cheering them on. Perhaps they will dismiss the criticisms as outpourings of “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But that would be a mistake. The many thoughtful people who are extremely critical of AMP are on the same side as the AMP team when it comes the end-goal of better, faster websites. But burning the web to save it? No thanks.
: seriously, just give me a bloody opt-out from this knock-off web— Alex Russell (@slightlylate) January 14, 2017
Ben Thompson goes into more detail on the tension between the ends and the means in The Aggregator Paradox:
The problem with Google’s actions should be obvious: the company is leveraging its monopoly in search to push the AMP format, and the company is leveraging its dominant position in browsers to punish sites with bad ads. That seems bad!
And yet, from a user perspective, the options I presented at the beginning — fast loading web pages with responsive designs that look great on mobile and the elimination of pop-up ads, ad overlays, and autoplaying videos with sounds — sounds pretty appealing!
From that perspective, there’s a moral argument to be made for wielding monopoly power like Google is doing. No doubt the AMP team feel it would be morally wrong for Google not to use its influence in search to give preferential treatment to AMP pages.
Going back to the opening examples of online blackouts, was it morally wrong for companies to use their power to influence politics? Or would it have been morally wrong for them not to have used their influence?
When do the ends justify the means?
Here’s a more subtle example than Google AMP, but one which has me just as worried for the future of the web. Mozilla announced that any new web features they add to their browser will require HTTPS.
This is a step too far. Again, I am in total agreement that we should be encouraging everyone to switch to HTTPS. But requiring HTTPS in order to use CSS? The ends don’t justify the means.
If there were valid security reasons for making HTTPS a requirement, I would be all for enforcing this. But these are two totally separate areas. Enforcing HTTPS by withholding CSS support is no different to enforcing AMP by withholding search placement. In some ways, I think it might actually be worse.
There’s an assumption in this decision that websites are being made by professionals who will know how to switch to HTTPS. But the web is for everyone. Not just for everyone to use. It’s for everyone to build.
One of my greatest fears for the web is that building it becomes the domain of a professional priesthood. Anything that raises the bar to writing some HTML or CSS makes me very worried. Usually it’s toolchains that make things more complex, but in this case the barrier to entry is being brought right into the browser itself.
I’m trying to imagine future Codebar evenings, helping people to make their first websites, but now having to tell them that some CSS will be off-limits until they meet the entry requirements of HTTPS …even though CSS and HTTPS have literally nothing to do with one another. (And yes, there will be an exception for
localhost and I really hope there’ll be an exception for
file: as well, but that’s simply postponing the disappointment.)
No doubt Mozilla (and the W3C Technical Architecture Group) believe that they are doing the right thing. Perhaps they think it would be morally wrong if browsers didn’t enforce HTTPS even for unrelated features like new CSS properties. They believe that, in this particular case, the ends justify the means.
I strongly disagree. If you also disagree, I encourage you to make your voice heard. Remember, this isn’t about whether you think that we should all switch to HTTPS—we’re all in agreement on that. This is about whether it’s okay to create collateral damage by deliberately denying people access to web features in order to further a completely separate agenda.
This isn’t about you or me. This is about all those people who could potentially become makers of the web. We should be welcoming them, not creating barriers for them to overcome.
A terrific piece by Maria Bustillos on digital preservation and the power of archives, backed up with frightening real-world examples.
Because history is a fight we’re having every day. We’re battling to make the truth first by living it, and then by recording and sharing it, and finally, crucially, by preserving it. Without an archive, there is no history.
Friday, February 23rd, 2018
Mike pours his heart out on Ev’s blog.
I’m not entirely sure if I agree with him about licensing or certification for designers (and developers?), but I absolutely 100% agree on the need for unionisation.
We need to be held accountable for our actions. We’ve been moving fast. We’ve been breaking things. Sometimes on purpose. Sometimes out of ignorance. The effects are the same. The things we’re building are bigger than they used to be, and have more reach. The moment to slow down is here. Because what we’re breaking is too important and too precious. Much of it is irreplaceable.
Sunday, February 11th, 2018
A terrific piece by Dan Hon on our collective responsibility. This bit, in particular, resonated with me: it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately:
We are better and stronger when we are together than when we are apart. If you’re a technologist, consider this question: what are the pros and cons of unionizing? As the product of a linked network, consider the question: what is gained and who gains from preventing humans from linking up in this way?
Friday, February 2nd, 2018
A brilliant talk by Stuart on how privacy could be a genuinely disruptive angle for companies looking to gain competitive advantage over the businesses currently in the ascendent.
How do you end up shaping the world? By inventing a thing that the current incumbents can’t compete against. By making privacy your core goal. Because companies who have built their whole business model on monetising your personal information cannot compete against that. They’d have to give up on everything that they are, which they can’t do. Facebook altering itself to ensure privacy for its users… wouldn’t exist. Can’t exist. That’s how you win.
The beauty of this is that it’s a weapon which only hurts bad people. A company who are currently doing creepy things with your data but don’t actually have to can alter themselves to not be creepy, and then they’re OK! A company who is utterly reliant on doing creepy things with your data and that’s all they can do, well, they’ll fail. But, y’know, I’m kinda OK with that.
Thursday, January 18th, 2018
The transcript of a talk by Charles Stross on the perils of prediction and the lessons of the past. It echoes Ted Chiang’s observation that runaway AIs are already here, and they’re called corporations.
History gives us the perspective to see what went wrong in the past, and to look for patterns, and check whether those patterns apply to the present and near future. And looking in particular at the history of the past 200-400 years—the age of increasingly rapid change—one glaringly obvious deviation from the norm of the preceding three thousand centuries—is the development of Artificial Intelligence, which happened no earlier than 1553 and no later than 1844.
I’m talking about the very old, very slow AIs we call corporations, of course.
Wednesday, January 10th, 2018
An absolutely fantastic talk (as always) from Maciej, this time looking at the history of radio and its parallels with the internet (something that Tom Standage touched on his book, Writing On The Wall). It starts as a hobbyist, fun medium. Then it gets regulated. Then it gets used to reinforce existing power structures.
It is hard to accept that good people, working on technology that benefits so many, with nothing but good intentions, could end up building a powerful tool for the wicked.
Saturday, December 30th, 2017
Six excellent mini essays from Lauren Beukes, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken Liu, Hannu Rajaniemi, Alastair Reynolds and Aliette de Bodard.
I particularly Kim Stanley Robinson’s thoughts on the function of science fiction:
Here’s how I think science fiction works aesthetically. It’s not prediction. It has, rather, a double action, like the lenses of 3D glasses. Through one lens, we make a serious attempt to portray a possible future. Through the other, we see our present metaphorically, in a kind of heroic simile that says, “It is as if our world is like this.” When these two visions merge, the artificial third dimension that pops into being is simply history. We see ourselves and our society and our planet “like giants plunged into the years”, as Marcel Proust put it. So really it’s the fourth dimension that leaps into view: deep time, and our place in it. Some readers can’t make that merger happen, so they don’t like science fiction; it shimmers irreally, it gives them a headache. But relax your eyes, and the results can be startling in their clarity.