Sunday Reading: Thoughts on The Tech Industry’s War on Kids

Person sitting at a table reading a book with a bowl of cereal and cup of tea

Reflecting on The Tech Industry’s War on Kids: How psychology is being used as a weapon against children

Richard Freed is a child psychologist who focuses on helping families work through “extreme overuse of phones, video games, and social media.”

Preteen and teen girls refuse to get off their phones, even though it’s remarkably clear that the devices are making them miserable. I also see far too many boys whose gaming obsessions lead them to forgo interest in school, extracurricular activities, and anything else productive. Some of these boys, as they reach their later teens, use their large bodies to terrorize parents who attempt to set gaming limits. A common thread running through many of these cases is parent guilt, as so many are certain they did something to put their kids on a destructive path.

Kids might be struggling with technology, but adults may also act like children if older folks had to go a day without technology. Maybe we should all take a digital detox.

Captology

BJ Fogg directs the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. There is tons of research and design practices used by today’s most popular apps, websites, and games, but we can still use this newfound power for good. Although, whether good or bad, the techniques are still shaping human behavior without consent.

Fogg’s website also has lately undergone a substantial makeover, as he now seems to go out of his way to suggest his work has benevolent aims, commenting, “I teach good people how behavior works so they can create products & services that benefit everyday people around the world.” Likewise, the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab website optimistically claims, “Persuasive technologies can bring about positive changes in many domains, including health, business, safety, and education. We also believe that new advances in technology can help promote world peace in 30 years.”

Why don’t we make it easy for kids and adults to spend their time doing the things society deems productive. Part of the challenge is exposing kids to new opportunities and experiences to help them understand their real world potential, even at their age.

While persuasion techniques work well on adults, they are particularly effective at influencing the still-maturing child and teen brain. “Video games, better than anything else in our culture, deliver rewards to people, especially teenage boys,” says Fogg. “Teenage boys are wired to seek competency. To master our world and get better at stuff. Video games, in dishing out rewards, can convey to people that their competency is growing, you can get better at something second by second.” And it’s persuasive design that’s helped convince this generation of boys they are gaining “competency” by spending countless hours on game sites, when the sad reality is they are locked away in their rooms gaming, ignoring school, and not developing the real-world competencies that colleges and employers demand.

Motivation/inspiration, Ability/capability, Trigger/feedback

According to B.J. Fogg, the “Fogg Behavior Model” is a well-tested method to change behavior and, in its simplified form, involves three primary factors: motivation, ability, and triggers. Describing how his formula is effective at getting people to use a social network, the psychologist says in an academic paper that a key motivator is users’ desire for “social acceptance,” although he says an even more powerful motivator is the desire “to avoid being socially rejected.” Regarding ability, Fogg suggests that digital products should be made so that users don’t have to “think hard.” Hence, social networks are designed for ease of use. Finally, Fogg says that potential users need to be triggered to use a site. This is accomplished by a myriad of digital tricks, including the sending of incessant notifications urging users to view friends’ pictures, telling them they are missing out while not on the social network, or suggesting that they check — yet again — to see if anyone liked their post or photo.

It seems we should be able to reframe the three motivation, ability, and triggers behavioral factors into a more productive framing of inspiration, capability, and reinforcement. For example, a kid who enjoys watching YouTube creators may be inspired to make a channel of their own. YouTube, influencers, or another service, can help kids build their movie making capabilities. Feedback on work can help reinforce learning and growth. In the end, kids are still spending time where they want to, but the behavioral model focuses on a healthy balance of creation and consumption leading to development in modern day, “real world capabilities”.

Mostly terrifying

the startup Dopamine Labs boasts about its use of persuasive techniques to increase profits: “Connect your app to our Persuasive AI [Artificial Intelligence] and lift your engagement and revenue up to 30% by giving your users our perfect bursts of dopamine,” and “A burst of Dopamine doesn’t just feel good: it’s proven to re-wire user behavior and habits.”

Ramsay Brown, the founder of Dopamine Labs, says in a KQED Science article, “We have now developed a rigorous technology of the human mind, and that is both exciting and terrifying. We have the ability to twiddle some knobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behavior in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feel second-nature but are really by design.”

Facebook Messenger Kids

How has the consumer tech industry responded to these calls for change? By going even lower. Facebook recently launched Messenger Kids, a social media app that will reach kids as young as five years old. Suggestive that harmful persuasive design is now honing in on very young children is the declaration of Messenger Kids Art Director, Shiu Pei Luu, “We want to help foster communication [on Facebook] and make that the most exciting thing you want to be doing.”

Facebook’s narrow-minded vision of childhood is reflective of how out of touch the social network and other consumer tech companies are with the needs of an increasingly troubled generation. The most “exciting thing” for young children should be spending time with family, playing outside, engaging in creative play, and other vital developmental experiences — not being drawn into the social media vortex on phones or tablets. Moreover, Facebook Messenger Kids is giving an early start to the wired life on social media that we know poses risks of depression and suicide-related behavior for older children.

In response to the release of Facebook’s Messenger Kids, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) sent Facebook a letter signed by numerous health advocates calling on the company to pull the plug on the app. Facebook has yet to respond to the letter and instead continues to aggressively market Messenger Kids for young children.

Conscious workflows vs impulsive habits

President John F. Kennedy’s prescient guidance: He said that technology “has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man.”

From Cal Newport:

Workflows are arguably more important than your high-level habits when it comes to impacting how effectively you produce valuable things (my preferred definition of “productivity”), but they’re a topic that’s often ignored.

Indeed, for most people, the workflows that drive their professional life are processes that haphazardly arose without much intention or consideration.

This fall, in other words, consider spending some serious time evaluating your workflows before turning your attention to the habits that help you deal with the obligations these flows generate.

Technology gives us the tools to do more. It’s up to us to decide how we leverage our new powers.

The best analogy I’ve ever heard is Scientific American, I think it was, did a study in the early 70s on the efficiency of locomotion, and what they did was for all different species of things in the planet, birds and cats and dogs and fish and goats and stuff, they measured how much energy does it take for a goat to get from here to there. Kilocalories per kilometer or something, I don’t know what they measured. And they ranked them, they published the list, and the Condor won. The Condor took the least amount of energy to get from here to there. Man was didn’t do so well, came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list.

But fortunately someone at Scientific American was insightful enough to test a man with a bicycle, and man with a bicycle won. Twice as good as the Condor, all the way off the list. And what it showed was that man is a toolmaker, has the ability to make a tool to amplify an inherent ability that he has. And that’s exactly what we’re doing here.

Additional reading

BJ Fogg commented on the article and provided a list of his works to raise awareness about the ethics of persuasive tech.

A recent Atlantic article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” by Dr. Jean Twenge

Stratechery article on Tech’s Two Philosophies: Some problems are best solved by human ingenuity; others by collective action

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Screen Time with iOS 12

Screen Time is Apple’s take on the growing trend of operating system level features that help you discover how you are really spending your time with your digital devices. These features and metrics provide you the baseline information to understand where your time is going, and give you the power to make changes to your habits. You are in control of how you use your device, and Screen Time, like Android’s Digital Wellbeing, will not inherently force you to act in a certain way. The tools can shape your behavior, but it is not Apple or Google prescribing how you should use your time. You are still the one making the choice to eat your vegetables.

So how does it work?

There are four main features (and one minor) under the “Screen Time” setting: Device Screen Time, App Limits, Downtime, Content Restrictions, and Bedtime.

Device Screen Time

Device screen time gives a detailed look at where you spend all your time on your Apple devices. You can see your daily and weekly usage trends, your most used apps, how often you pick up your device, and how many notifications you get.

In the last week, I’ve used my iPad for 10 hours and 45 minutes, with over and hour of that time coming during my defined device downtime. You can tell I spent some time organizing my calendar last weekend.

The average length of time per device “pickup” isn’t displayed (nor is most common amount of time), but a quick calculation given the weekly time spent and total pickups shows roughly 2 minutes and 45 seconds per interaction with my iPad. I’m wondering how this compares with others, and how many meaningful interaction people have with their devices in a day. Lowering the number of times we glance at the time or check for notifications could increase the average time, but is session length is not necessarily an indicator of time well spent.

It’s fun to see all this data, but there are no recommendations of how to use your device more intentionally. Apple lets you do all the analysis and any subsequent action you decide to take is entirely your decision.

App Limits

Once you’ve decided you need to take action, App Limits let you reign in your usage of certain apps.

You can set limits for individual apps or categories of apps.

Apps will act the same way whether or not you have screen time limits enabled. While you have time remaining, you can keep using the app, but once time runs out, that’s it. No more for today. You can always go through the block, but Apple tallies up all the times you were bad.

Interestingly, because my time on Twitter and Outlook is a scarce resource, I now find myself using the entire time limit every day. Previously, I would only go on Twitter once or twice a week, but when I did, I found myself engrossed in the content for a while. I figured Twitter would be a prime candidate for trying the new app limits. I wasn’t wrong, but now, since I know I’ll only be there for at most five minutes, I find myself spending time on Twitter every day.

Downtime and Always Allowed Apps

Downtime is the more interesting feature. While screen time limits are opt in for certain apps you think you use too much, Downtime is default opt out for every app on your device. Enable Downtime and you will be locked out of all your apps from the start to end time.

You can individually toggle on apps you want to use an app during downtime. This is a two part set up, first by enabling the Downtime setting, then returning to the Screen Time menu and selecting Always Allowed apps to select the apps available during Downtime.

This feature triggered the most significant, and positive, behavioral shift for me. I start Downtime a little while before I generally go to sleep, and end it a little after I generally wake up. I only enable apps where I most intentionally create and consume content. For me, this means I can read the articles I set aside for myself earlier in the day, and can write what’s on my mind. That’s it. (Phone, Messages, and FaceTime are also enabled by default). Since I installed the iOS 12 beta on my iPad, I’ve stopped watching YouTube hours on end before going to sleep, and I’ve stopped immediately checking notifications right after waking up.

Parental Controls to Block content and set a Screen Time passcode


These are also under the Screen Time setting, but it feels like they were just moved here because they make sense in relation to the other settings . Nothing too interesting, but you can set a Screen Time passcode for your self if you really want to lock your self out of some apps.

Expanded “Do Not Disturb” settings with Bedtime mode


You should really create your own Bedtime mode using Downtime as I described above. The new Bedtime mode toggle under the Do Not Disturb Setting will dim the lock screen, silence calls, and send all notifications to notification center. It’s really only an extension on the existing Do Not Disturb mode. Nice to have, but not a major improvement compared to the other Screen Time features.

Not so final thoughts

Apple’s Screen Time features are available now in the iOS 12 public beta but you may just want to wait for the general release this fall before trying everything out (it’s telling I accidentally typed “bug” while trying to write “public” just then). Betas allow developers to fix issues in software before the official release, and running beta software can cause some headache when your main device does not work as expected.

How Asia (and social networking) Works

After over three years on the bookshelf, I finally picked up the Bill Gates recommended, How Asia Works by Joe Studwell. The review sparked my interest in the book then, but the intrigue was rekindled recently when I discovered Strange Parts on YouTube (don’t ask how it took me so long to find Scotty). Seeing another side of technology, the technological fringe, so to speak, I was fascinated by how the electronics manufacturing and recycling industries worked. So looking for a more worldly view, and with years of anticipation, I started reading How Asia Works.

And then, still in the roman numerals, I put the book down because I was so surprised at how taken aback I was by this comment.

“If a country does not trade and interact with the world, it is all but impossible to get ahead in the development game” – How Asia Works, page xx

The idea was not meant to be a large part of the story, as it was literally telling why Studwell would not be including further discussion about countries low on the United Nations Human Development Index, but the impact of the implication in today’s globally networked world really struck me. It’s silly, but I haven’t been able to continue reading the book because the thought has been on my mind for the last week. I had to make sense of this line before moving on to the next.

I am having trouble reconciling the positive benefits of networking in the digital age with the draining effects of the attention economy.

Will those who abstain from social networking share the same demise as the “politically and economically introverted” countries Studwell mentions? Or is it still possible to develop when withdrawn from our hyper connected society.  Existentially, does this mean I am going the way of these disconnected countries? I have a Facebook account, but I don’t use it, and I rarely post on Twitter.

Cal Newport on Social Networking

There is a way to connect digitally with others, and Cal Newport calls it the Social Internet from his post On Social Media and Its Discontents.

The social internet describes the general ways in which the global communication network and open protocols known as “the internet” enable good things like connecting people, spreading information, and supporting expression and activism.

Social media, by contrast, describes the attempt to privatize these capabilities by large companies within the newly emerged algorithmic attention economy, a particularly virulent strain of the attention sector that leverages personal data and sophisticated algorithms to ruthlessly siphon users’ cognitive capital.

I support the social internet. I’m incredibly wary of social media.

So do I. I am trying to contribute to the social internet, but it is difficult to be found without the leverage of the social media’s network effects. Newport has thoughts on this too:

The tricky question, of course, is how exactly one enables a useful social internet in the absence of the network effects and economic resources provided by the algorithmic attention economy.

One intriguing answer is the idea of augmenting the basic infrastructure of the internet with social protocols.

In short, these protocols would enable the following two functions:

  • A way for individuals to create and own a digital identity that no one else can manipulate or forge.
  • A way for two digital identities to agree to establish a descriptive social link in such a way that outside observers can validate that both identities did in fact agree to form that link.

There are few serious technical obstacles to implementing these protocols, which require only standard asymmetric cryptography primitives. But their impact could be significant.

This has glimmers of dana boyd’s Faceted Id/entity thesis, but the key point of Newport’s idea is this:

In this ecosystem, many different applications can leverage this distributed social graph to offer useful features to users. By eliminating the need for each such social application to create a network from scratch, a vibrant competitive marketplace can emerge.

Ben Thompson talks about open sourcing Facebook’s social graph all the time, more from the perspective of fostering competing services, but still the idea is similar:

All social networks should be required to enable social graph portability — the ability to export your lists of friends from one network to another. Again Instagram is the perfect example: the one-time photo-filtering app launched its network off the back of Twitter by enabling the wholesale import of your Twitter social graph. And, after it was acquired by Facebook, Instagram has only accelerated its growth by continually importing your Facebook network. Today all social networks have long since made this impossible, making it that much more difficult for competitors to arise.

via Manifestos and Monopolies and here and here

Strategies and Future Developments

Blockchain could flip the internet paradigm on its head, creating a decentralized network akin to Pied Piper, which could solve the online identity problem.

For all their brilliance, the inventors of the open protocols that shaped the internet failed to include some key elements that would later prove critical to the future of online culture. Perhaps most important, they did not create a secure open standard that established human identity on the network. Units of information could be defined — pages, links, messages — but people did not have their own protocol: no way to define and share your real name, your location, your interests or (perhaps most crucial) your relationships to other people online.

via Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble

So while we wait for blockchain to save us, what are we stuck with for the time being? We can “change [our] relationship with these services to shift from compulsive to controlled use“. Or, how about some slightly ironic info about how to use Twitter, from someone on Twitter. It’s actually quite optimistic and intellectual:

Follow weird stuff. Follow unusual corners. I enjoy Nigerian tech twitter. I enjoy short-story twitter. I enjoy urban design twitter. I enjoy the zillions of clever bots . I keep meaning to get into opera twitter, but never quite manage it.

via @michael_nielsen

Hey, at least he’s contributing to the network.

That’s all for now

I’m still thinking about all this, but I had to get some initial thoughts out of my head so I can keep reading the book. I’ll let you know what happens after the introduction.

One more thing, here’s John Oliver on the subject of China.

Intentional Technology

Would it be easier if we carried around devices devoted solely to one function instead of our multifaceted gadgets? There’s no reason we couldn’t go back to pocket calendars, contact lists, photos, wallets, and pens, other than that it wouldn’t be quite as convenient. Video game consoles are great at just playing video games, and we still put up with them. You wouldn’t be distracted by mail delivered to your door when writing down the date of your next dentist appointment, so why should you settle for that experience in a phone?

Katie Reid wonders if we can relearn to live without using smartphones. What will it take for us to feel comfortable being bored? We gotta think of some weird slow activities to fill the time.

My smartphone obviously helped me with a great number of cognitive tasks. It communicated with my friends. It managed my finances. It delivered work emails. It alerted me to emergencies in the area. It reminded me of appointments. It captured and stored memories. But this sudden and overwhelming awareness of its physical absence indicated that it had become just as important to my body as it had to my mind. If I’m honest, much of what I did on my phone could be characterized as mindless. I can’t count the number of times I pulled out my phone just for the feeling of unlocking the screen and swiping through applications, whether out of comfort—like a baby sucking her thumb—or boredom—like a teenager at school, tapping his fingers on a desk. In those cases, I sought not mental stimulation, but physical release.

Dear iPhone—It Was Just Physical, and Now It’s Over by Katie Reid

It can be fun to mindlessly watch YouTube videos for hours or scroll endlessly through your friends’ Instagram feeds, but when the action becomes habitual and reactive, it can be problematic. Reading the New York Times is a similar experience online and in print, but did anyone ever self distract themselves by picking up a newspaper and scanning the headlines for 30 seconds? There’s a more intentional decision making process to read the physical paper. It’s a single task you mindfully opt into for the course of reading a few articles (or cover to cover).

What happened is that the internet stopped being something you went to in order to separate from the real world — from your job and your work and your obligations and responsibilities. It’s not the place you seek to waste time, but the place you go to so that you’ll someday have time to waste. The internet is a utility world for me now. It is efficient and all-encompassing. It is not very much fun.

I Don’t Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore by Dan Nosowitz

Maybe it’s time to stop wasting time on the internet and start using the tool to accomplish what we want to do. In their own ways, people are beginning to realize the many of the most popular services online have been designed to keep us amused rather than help us develop.

Here’s the reality:

– there are more interesting independent blogs now than there were pre-Facebook/Twitter. Maybe less “per-capita” of total online usage, but there’s still a higher volume

– every single person is capable of making an online community using cheap tech, and using corporate social media to promote it; way easier than it was in the past

– developers are still “allowed” to make sites in plain HTML/CSS that look great and load fast

Comment from Hacker News

It ironic how engrained these services are in our lives that companies trying to help us be more mindful are leveraging the same platforms they warn us about.

The addictive qualities of these platforms make them the best place to reach potential new customers or fans. Kindred notes that she’s proud of Mindful Technology’s Instagram account. “It’s blowing up,” she says. “I think a lot of people like me are fed up and over it.”

Tech Addiction and the Business of Mindfulness by Erin Griffith

 

But they still provide some overly simplistic tips for dealing with tech overload.

Conveniently, they have five tips for mindful sharing on social media. For starters, don’t just suddenly drop into phone-mode around other people. Tell your companions, “I’m going to do a social post right now,” and step aside. Next, tap into your inspiration, asking yourself, “What about this feels special to me that I want to build up as part of my world?” Don’t forget to check yourself. So much of posting on Instagram can be an exercise in vanity and proving one’s self-worth; instead, pause and “find the place where you’re inspired.” The fourth tip – “have fun with it”—seemed obvious, but Instagram can be an anxiety-inducing place for many. And lastly, let it go. “There is a nice moment where you can say, ‘I kinda don’t care if anyone likes it … I’m just gonna I hit send and then move on,” Pettit says.

In your mind, will telling your companions you are going to do a social post right now really fix your social media concerns? What about following another account on Instagram. I don’t think so. We need steps to remember how to leverage technology as a tool. It’s meant to help us be more productive, connect with people and build new things. Perhaps the internet really is just a utility that isn’t so much fun anymore, but we need to be intentional about our use of technology instead of slipping into mindless habits. We can use the internet to create and not just consume.

What we learned from Facebook this week

A puppy. This is why people use Facebook, right?
For all the talk with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in the US Senate and House this week, there was very little surprising content. We give consent to use the Facebook service, we upload images, write posts, and like articles. We have control at every step of our interaction to decide how much to share with Facebook and what we give the company is exactly what is given back to us in the data archive download tool. It’s shocking to see every interaction you’ve ever made on Facebook in one place, but there is nothing here we don’t expect. There is no post we didn’t make or image we didn’t take. Facebook remembers what we do on the service as long as we have an account.

But that doesn’t mean everything from the last week was old information.

What was clarified?

An important point Zuckerberg reiterated is that Facebook does not sell user data. This would be a silly business move because Facebook’s value to advertisers is in the uniqueness of its data. It is in Facebook’s best interests to keep it’s trove of data secure, as it requires advertisers to keep coming back. There’s no other place advertisers can go to get the same level of targeting.

Instead of selling data, Facebook actually collects all the details from every person “in the community” and compiles the best advertising opportunity for a given ad. Facebook assures advertisers their ad placement will reach the intended audience with the greatest possibility of interaction. It is this assurance that gives Facebook it’s gazillion dollar market cap.

The Cambridge Analytica case was different, but still Facebook never sold data. Instead, Cambridge Analytica got raw Facebook user data from an app developer who used a survey app to harvest data. In 2014, it was within Facebook terms for a 3rd party app developer to use the Facebook developer platform to collect just about all the information about you and all your friends ever entered onto the site.

Listen to Exponent episode 146 “Facebooks Real Mistake” (link at the end) for background on how Facebook’s past push to be a platform landed the company in this situation. The takeaway? Had Facebook realized it’s value as an ad network, the company would never have given the same level of data access in the first place.

This is why the current Facebook fiasco is not a data security breach, but a data privacy leak. Hackers did not break into Facebook systems to obtain user data, but a developer (which could have been anyone) used Facebook sanctioned tools to collect your information. Facebook has since locked down it’s platform to prevent such unrestricted access to user data, but it does not change the fact that massive amounts of user data left the platform seemingly without consent of its users. And yes, it’s true that by signing up you agreed to the terms that allowed developers to leverage the wide open API to gather profile information, but did you really know that was part of the agreement?

What was surprising and novel?

Did you check if your info was collected by Cambridge Analytica? Go ahead, I’ll wait ⌚😊

After you’ve read through your activity log and exported your data, take a minute and think about what stands out from the content (I think this tinfoil hat scandal is all a ploy to get us to go on Facebook even more. Feel free to finish reading in the meantime, the export takes a while). Once you get to the details, you can see the majority of the information came from you, but there is a small subset which reveals the inner working of the Facebook machine.

To put things in perspective, focus on your ad preferences and take a look at your ad demographics information. This is a window to the 9698 categories from the Senate hearing. Advertiser demographic is the result of running all our interactions on Facebook through a proprietary algorithm. Of all the information in the data archive, this piece is novel. We didn’t explicitly tell Facebook this information, but they determined it based on what we’ve done on the site.

This is why the Facebook hearing this week is only the tip of the iceberg. If we are concerned that Cambridge Analytica could sway an election with a slice of our data, what kind of power does Facebook have? Sure we didn’t entrust Cambridge Analytica with our data, but why does opting into a puppy video sharing service change our perception of possible psychological manipulation?

What does Facebook do with all our data? And what can they do?

We need greater transparency on how our data is used. I can control and know what I upload, but what happens with the data “I own” once it’s handed over?

When I upload a photo to Facebook, what algorithms are tuned as a result? How does the content of the photo affect ads I see?

WhatsApp communication is encrypted, so it’s private between those in the conversation, but in what way does Facebook link my WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook accounts? I’ve logged into all three on the same device so they must know it’s the same person (even though I signed up for all three as separate users).

And what about activity coming from the same IP address or GPS location? Does Facebook correlate data of those physically closest to me, outside of our connections on it’s services? What about when I’m on Facebook but signed out?

The consumer facing fun part seems like a front for the stingy advertising business on the back end. What is the difference between the two? It’s telling that Zuckerberg doesn’t fully understand the difference (from questioning by Brian Schatz). From Facebook’s perspective, the “fun part” is the user feature set that drives advertising revenue. It’s the top of the funnel for all of Facebook’s algorithms and drives the companies valuation.

For a platform that relies on its users to generate value, the company doesn’t provide much information to said users on how the internal cogs work. Perhaps it’s best to be blissfully unaware, or maybe it’s not a requirement, but when 2 billion people feel like the product and not the customer, it’s reasonable for them to want a little more information on how they’re being used.

And if this is Facebook, what about Google? (You can also export Google data)

What can you do to stay in control?

  1. Adjust log-in behavior to prevent future data leaks
  2. Check permissions when using Facebook (or Google or any over service) to sign up for a new site. To keep the same convenience, sign up for a password manager like Dashlane or LastPass which can generate and remember a new login for each site you visit. This adds a layer of security to your accounts and removes the possibility of another Cambridge Analytica style data leak.
  3. Prevent cross site tracking
  4. Use a separate browser just for Facebook. Only log in to Facebook on that browser and do all your other web stuff in another. Or use extensions like Ghostery (which also tracks your trackers, so maybe just turn off the internet for the day…) or the Facebook Container for Firefox.
  5. Limit sharing data
  6. Just use Facebook less? Deactivate for a week and see how you feel. You can always reactivate.
    Go old school and use an rss reader.
    Stick with iMessage/FaceTime.
    This is always an option.

All sorts of links

Video of Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing (transcript) and appearance before House committee (transcript)
Day 2 from MIT Technology Review
What was Facebook Thinking by James Allworth
The Facebook Current and The Facebook Brand from Stratechery
Facebook and Cambridge Analytica Explained from NYTimes
Facebook’s Real Mistake and Facebook Fatigue from Exponent Podcast
Mark Zuckerberg is Either Ignorant or Deliberately Misleading Congress from The Intercept
Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook’s hardest year, and what comes next from Vox
What is GDPR?
General Data Protection Regulation
Coachella streams 1, 2, and 3

Collapsing Context

Assorted music amps, records, tapes, books, and televisions on a wall

Does Jaron Lanier follow blogs? Where does he get his news? How does he learn about Meltdown/Spectre?

 

Word of mouth was the original form of communication. Before there were books, people could only tell stories to share information. The collective hive mind of civilization would do their best to spread knowledge equally from one person to the next. Verification of stories could only be carried out collectively as groups of people could ensure what they believe was true. One could add Individual color a story to show creativity but ultimately lead to deviations from the original idea.

Fast forward to books. Once we mastered the skill of preserving information in physical objects the amount of our collective knowledge exploded. We could remember things across generations, and even without coming into contact with the person or people who first transcribed their ideas. We could pull from philosophers, physicists, mathematicians, composers, playwrights, and doctors to develop deeper ideas and advance our understanding.

What is the hive mind in the world of books? It was still among the people reading these works who pulled from their own experiences and created their own interpretations. Remixing their learnings into new forms of intelligence.

Today is another progression. We go beyond having all the knowledge in the world documented and at our fingertips, to peering into the minds of everyone on the internet. Social media, like Twitter, amplify ideas only for an instant, as the next thing comes along and yanks at our attention.

(This is no different than before when we spread stories across the world, or documented our understanding of nature.)

We go where the thought leaders go. And when rapid reactions and quick wit are incentivized, we miss out on the deep thinking required to keep progressing forward. As Lanier mentions, where are all the Woodward and Bernstein’s these days? Deep investigative journalism is becoming a thing of the past. Instead our big stories take the form of the aggregate. Pulling the voices of all perspectives involved. And taking down multiple people.

Continuing the thought, how can one create new ideas and seek blue oceans? Part of the success of the web (an any technology for that matter) is the externalities spawning new industries out of the original innovation. Like cryptography, it takes a lot of work to come up with a solution, but once public, the idea is easily verified. It’s the “why didn’t I think of that moment” you get when watching Shark Tank.

So how can we do it? Why is music from 90s and 00s so similar in sound? Are we bound to digitally rehash all of history? To find out, lets think about some of the new ideas stemming from web 2.0.

Well one more digression. To do so, lets start with some digital rehashes: Airbnb -> hotels. Lyft -> taxis. Wikipedia -> Encyclopedia. Ebay -> Thrift store. Amazon -> Bookstore, grocerystore, restauraunt brick and mortar. These are all hugely successful companies that replaced what existed before. I think what’s missing from Lanier’s manifesto is the added value web 2.0 tech brings to previous implementations. However, he does highlight what’s lost in the transformation. (there is more to talk about here, but I’m getting off track)

What is new thought. Is a review of a book just adding to the noise? How can we ever learn if we do not discuss our thoughts and opinions with others? There is value to rehashing work if the idea can stand for something greater. A new version of Unix? Ok sure. But openly available for all to improve and understand? This is novel and moves society forward. Lanier is concerned with the side effects of open culture and I agree with him on the aspect of sustainability (via employment, how do you make a living working on open source?), but how do we build cathedrals if we don’t have the tools?

Part of Lanier’s concern stems from the abstraction of humankind. Kevin Kelly’s one book theory, for example. And it is important to maintain human individuality and creativity. So how do we keep from abstracting the person behind the creation as we move to an aggregated world? People no longer know which studio produces a movie or TV show, unless it’s from Netflix. Netflix advertises their creations, and everyone else’s are abstracted to a title, image, and caption.

Context Collapse

There is a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show with Lanier. Instigated by the release of Lanier’s new book, the two discuss all sorts of things including VR, music, Facebook, blogs, and podcasts. The most intriguing thread was on the topic of social media’s influence in collapsing context of the things people create. They didn’t know who coined the term, but it seems to have been either danah boyd or Michael Wesch (see below), although it might as well have been Lanier.

The basic idea is this (as nicely described by Joel on Software):

Here’s what happened with the 140 characters. You would start out having some kind of complicated thought. “Ya know, dogs are great and all? I love dogs! But sometimes they can be a little bit too friendly. They can get excited and jump on little kids and scare the bejesus out of them. They wag their tails so hard they knock things over. (PS not Huskies! Huskies are the cats of the dog world!)”

Ok, so now you try to post that on Twitter. And you edit and edit and you finally get it down to something that fits: “Dogs can be too friendly!”

All the nuance is lost. And this is where things go wrong. “@spolsky what about huskies? #dontforgethuskies”

Ten minutes later, “Boycott @stackoverflow. @spolsky proves again that tech bros hate huskies. #shame”

By the time you get off the plane in Africa you’re on the international pariah list and your @replies are full of people accusing you of throwing puppies out of moving cars for profit.

The context for Joel’s thought is his decision to give up Facebook and Twitter for 2018. (Isn’t it odd how things come in threes? Reading Lanier, Context Collapse, Joel on Facebook & Twitter). His reasons for doing so are exactly what Klein and Lanier discuss in the podcast. You just lose the human connection when everything we say and do is mashed up, chomped into a sound bite, and thrown around far outside the initial context for the idea.

And I realize I’m constantly doing that know. I haven’t quite figured out how to include quotes and references to others when developing new thoughts and creating new things. I have to keep exploring. Which leads to…

A basis for further understanding

A quick search lead me to this post from danah boyd on coining context collapse. danah boyd talked about the term back in 2013, referencing her thesis from 2002. So the idea, while not new, was new to me. This topic is a rabbit hole, and I have just scratched the surface. I need to go off to read, watch, and listen. I will return soon.

from danah:

From Michael Wesch:

P.S.

I’ve fallen victim just now. I scoured the web for an hour following links to uncover new and interesting things to read. Then I took it all out of the context I was in and distilled my findings into a nice tidy list. I’m grappling with how the onslaught of Ben Thompson’s Aggregation Theory can mesh with avoiding context collapse via boyd/Lanier (the three should do a podcast together). Does pulling together sources and finding key themes inherently strip the human side of what people create? Or are we bound to keep mashing up ideas. Certainly all new things come from the history that preceded, but how do we balance this growing from this influence with remembering where we came from?

To do research, you take all the mind space of the internet open 100 tabs, make some progress, then save it across all services to pick up again tomorrow. Just with this topic alone, I scattered material to YouTube, Kindle, Instapaper, iBooks, and OneNote. What in the world!? How do people keep any semblance of a train of thought when the best technologies are designed to keep us stretched in multiple directions. Where does the context remain after distilling your work into buckets and silos? This frustrates me, With all the learning one can do on the internet, why is it so unnatural and inhuman? What if the internet was set up more like college, where thoughts and ideas are shared amongst new learners and experts, instead of like a kindergarten classroom where things may be haphazardly thrown everywhere with no sense of where they came from?

There is more to this thread, but I need to dig deeper. I have my materials and my thoughts. Now I just need to stay focused. Keep my mental state and remember the context of where it all began.

Fixing the Blog

Hammer and bent nails on a wood block

Thank you Jetpack Support

First of all, Jetpack support is amazing. Automattic is known for its customer service oriented culture, and it shows. I was running into an issue where Jetpack would not connect to my site, so I reached out to their support team. They were responsive in helping me figure out the tech at all hours of the day, and they even researched how to solve a problem with a non-Automattic product. Great stuff, I appreciate it!

Here’s the link if you need help with Jetpack.

WordPress and Site Address URL

The first issue has been with the site since day one. For custom WordPress installs, the WordPress Address and Site Address URLs should be the same (both set to https://ryancropp.com in this case) no matter what they say:

Site Address (URL):

Enter the address here if you want your site home page to be different from your WordPress installation directory.

Just don’t try to manually update WordPress and Site address to your custom domain from wp-admin dashboard. You will get locked out.

To fix the issue you need to FTP into your site and update the siteurl in the functions.php file for your installed theme:

update_option('siteurl','https://ryancropp.com');
update_option('home','https://ryancropp.com');

Refresh WordPress admin and then remove the update_option code.

Clear site cache

Just for good measure, clear the Project Nami blob cache so no old site configurations are left hanging around. The instructions are in the readme of the Blob-cache download (why!?).

An aside on Cron expressions

They’re kind of fun, but how are these still a thing? I guess we have Unix to thank. I need to use them 0 0 0 0 0 ? 2018/2 or 0 0 0 0 0 ? 2018/3 at best. Here are some docs from Oracle and Quartz to figure out what that means.

Jetpack and Project Nami

Turns out everything up to this point had nothing to do with getting Jetpack to work. It certainly didn’t hurt, but attempting to link Jetpack still showed the error “Verification secrets not found”.

Jetpack verification secrets error message

On a whim I decided to look into the compatibility issues with Jetpack and Project Nami, the caching mechanism for WordPress on Azure. And what do you know, Issue #237 on the Project Nami GitHub had the answer.

One should now be able to solve the issue by adding the following to the site’s wp-config.php:

define( ‘JETPACK_DISABLE_RAW_OPTIONS’, true );

See Automattic/jetpack#7875 for more info.

So finally, if you’re following along at home, disable Jetpack raw options for Project Nami…

And it works!

You can sign up for email subscriptions in the sidebar.

A red-herring extension

Turning off browser extensions may or may not have helped. I turned off Ghostery in the middle of the process, forgot about it, then realized it was still off some time later.

Happy blogging

Catching up on Stratechery

Camera aperture with a green-blue lens flare

My Instapaper reading list was piling up. Nearly half of the articles were from Stratechery, so I decided to knock them all out at once (well, over the course of a day or two).

https://stratechery.com/2017/goodbye-gatekeepers/

From Weinstein and movies to the NYTimes and YouTube

In a world where the default news source is the Facebook News Feed, the New York Times is breaking out of the inevitable modularization and commodification entailed in supplying the “news” to the feed. That, in turn, requires building a direct relationship with customers: they are the ones in charge, not the gatekeepers of old — even they must now go direct.

YouTube produces an astounding amount of fame.

YouTube represents something else that is just as important: the complete lack of gatekeepers. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said on an earnings’ call earlier this year that “Every single day, over 1,000 creators reached the milestone of having 1,000 channel subscribers.” That is an astounding number in its own right; what is even more remarkable is that while Hollywood has only ~3,500 acting slots a year (including all movies, not just major studios), YouTube creates 100 times as many “stars” over the same time period.

https://stratechery.com/2017/tech-goes-to-washington/

Did he say 330 million?

https://stratechery.com/2017/why-facebook-shouldnt-be-allowed-to-buy-tbh/

Requiring Facebook to offer its social graph to any would-be competitor as a condition of acquiring tbh would be a good outcome; unfortunately, it is perhaps the most unlikely, given the FTC’s commitment to unfettered privacy (without a consideration of the impact on competition).

https://stratechery.com/2017/stitch-fix-and-the-senate/

Negative churn

existing customers were increasing spend by more than the revenue lost by those leaving

https://stratechery.com/2017/pro-neutrality-anti-title-ii/

The most famous example of an ISP acting badly was a company called Madison River Communication which, in 2005, blocked ports used for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, presumably to prop up their own alternative; it remains the canonical violation of net neutrality. It was also a short-lived one: Vonage quickly complained to the FCC, which quickly obtained a consent decree that included a nominal fine and guarantee from Madison River Communications that they would not block such services again. They did not, and no other ISP has tried to do the same; the reasoning is straightforward: foreclosing a service that competes with an ISP’s own service is a clear antitrust violation. In other words, there are already regulations in place to deal with this behavior, and the limited evidence we have suggests it works.

https://stratechery.com/2017/free-daily-update-light-touch-cable-and-dsl-the-broadband-tradeoff-the-importance-of-antitrust/

The equation is straightforward: there is wide consensus amongst economists of all political stripes that regulation imposes costs on both innovation and society through regulatory capture; I would prefer to avoid bearing that cost until we are certain it is necessary, particularly since the evidence to date suggests after-the-fact regulation is working.

The question that must be grappled with, though, is whether or not the Internet is “done.” By that I mean that today’s bandwidth is all we all never need, which means we can risk chilling investment through prophylactic regulation and the elimination of price signals that may spur infrastructure build-out (that being the elimination of paid prioritization).

If we are “done”, then the potential harm of a Title II reclassification is much lower; sure, ISPs will have to do more paperwork, but honestly, they’re just a bunch of mean monopolists anyways, right? Best to get laws in place to preserve what we have.

But what if we aren’t done? What if virtual reality with dual 8k displays actually becomes something meaningful? What if those imagined remote medicine applications are actually developed? What if the Internet of Things moves beyond this messy experimentation phase and into real-time value generation, not just in the home but in all kinds of unimagined commercial applications? I certainly hope we will have the bandwidth to support all of that!

The problem with regulating broadband in this way, though, is that the definition of acceptable broadband is much more of a moving target. As Marc Andreessen memorably put it on Twitter:
@mattyglesias @binarybits Because sewers and electricity are far more static markets than broadband. You don’t shit 10x as much every 3 yrs.
— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 23, 2014

https://stratechery.com/2017/the-pollyannish-assumption/

Documenting why and how these platforms have power has, in many respects, been the ultimate theme of Stratechery over the last four-and-a-half year: this is a call to exercise it, in part, and a request to not, in another. There is a line: what is broadly deemed unacceptable, and what is still under dispute; the responsibility of these new powers that be is to actively search out the former, and keep their hands — and algorithms and policies — off the latter. Said French Revolution offers hints at fates if this all goes wrong.

https://stratechery.com/2017/disney-and-fox/

This is a remarkable look at how Disney could leverage 21st Century Fox to compete against Netflix in the years ahead. One of the most insightful articles with a clear line of how we could get to a future where Netflix and Disney are massive content aggregators.

The best sort of acquisitions, though, are best described by the famous Wayne Gretzky admonition, “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been”; these are acquisitions that don’t necessarily make perfect sense in the present but place the acquirer in a far better position going forward: think Google and YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, or Disney’s own acquisition of Capital Cities (which included ESPN).

 

The problem now is obvious: Netflix wasn’t simply a customer for Disney’s content, the company was also a competitor for Disney’s far more important and lucrative customer — cable TV. And, over the next five years, as more and more cable TV customers either cut the cord or, more critically, never got cable in the first place, happy to let Netflix fulfill their TV needs, Disney was facing declines in a business it assumed would grow forever.

 

… differentiated content is Disney’s core competency, as demonstrated by its ability to extract profits from cable companies.

 

   Consider the comparison in terms of BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement): for distributors the alternative to not carrying ESPN was losing a huge number of customers who cared about seeing live sports; that’s not much of an alternative! Netflix, on the other hand, can — and is! — going straight to creators for content that viewers can watch instead of whatever Disney may choose to withhold if Netflix’s price is unsatisfactory.
Clearly it’s working: Netflix isn’t simply adding customers, it is raising prices at the same time, the surest sign of market power.
Therefore, the only way for Disney to avoid commoditization is to itself go vertical and connect directly with customers

Will it go through?

If one starts with a static view of the world as it is at the end of 2017, then there may be some minor antitrust concerns, but probably nothing that would stop the deal. Disney might have to divest a cable channel or two (the company’s power over distributors would be even stronger; basically the opposite of the some of the concerns that halted the Comcast acquisition of Time Warner), and potentially be limited in its ability to make operational decisions about Hulu (Disney would have a controlling stake after the merger; Comcast was similarly restricted after acquiring NBC Universal, but there the concern was more about Comcast’s conflict of interest with regards to its cable TV business competing with Hulu). The Hulu point is interesting in its own right: Disney could choose to focus its streaming efforts there instead of building its own service, but I suspect it would rather own it all.

That’s it for now. Keep reading. Keep connecting.

Netflix and Coinbase Engineering Cultures

Lightbulb drawing on white paper with blue paper ball

I watched a few QCon videos on the InfoQ YouTube channel. The presentations are from conferences over the last year or so, but the videos were all uploaded within the last month.

A blueprint for organizational success- case study Netflix

I’m pretty sure this is a re-upload, but it caught my eye again. (Here’s another great session by Josh Evans Mastering Chaos – A Netflix Guide to Microservices) Josh Evans begins the talk with with focus on how the organizational structure at Netflix led to internal struggle and dictated the engineering process. Tribalism and the expression of Conway’s law meant the way Netflix shipped code mirrored the team hierarchy. It wasn’t until upper management got involved that the teams sorted out their differences and began to put the architecture before the org structure.

These quotes stood out to me:

Organizational Scalability: The ability for an organization to easily add people and domain responsibilities in response to increased work and complexity. The ease with which an organization or team can adapt to shifts in business strategy

For an organization to grow, the culture must be able to adapt to changes and fluctuations in daily tasks. Netflix grew from prioritizing DVD through the mail to online streaming, two starkly different business models. Looking back at the change, it is easy to place explainations on how things went, but what seemed to be constant is the engineering culture. As Evans mentions:

We have a culture of creativity and self discipline, freedom and responsibility.

Once defined, culture is not easily changed, but setting the right culture from the beginning is crucial to and validated by success.

If you get a chance, be sure to watch (or at least listen) to the video.

Crushing Tech Debt Through Automation at Coinbase

This session with Rob Witoff at Coinbase from March 6, 2017 details how the startup is growing its technology with the interest in cryptocurrencies. The nine month distance in timing gives more perspective in light of recent events. Things are constantly evolving with Bitcoin, but just look at the comments relevant to the week the video was published on November 30, 2017. While cryptocurrency is its own fascinating discussion, the engineering culture at Coinbase is of paramount importance to the company and worth investigating.

Engineering Velocity requires tools and guardrails to empower engineers to work without fear.

And what is the Coinbase engineering velocity? Devs deploy an average of 4 times per week and 16 times a month. This rate of code movement requires heavy investment in testing and tools to ensure changes are good. Not every deploy succeeds (by design) and each failure is an opportunity to improve the product. Bugs in successful deployments is an opportunity to improve the deployment pipeline, and catch similar errors in the future.

Coinbase avoids a culture of blame to ensure people have the freedom to learn and grow. The engineering systems support this ideal and allow the company to scale. People like to compare market caps of Bitcoin and publicly traded companies, and we’ll have to see if the culture at Coinbase allows it to scale similar to Netflix

Again, I won’t spoil it all, as it’s worth the watch.

Post note

The InfoQ youtube channel used to be NewCircle. NewCircle specialized in tech training videos, and InfoQ has a similar focus. I originally subscribed to the NewCircle channel, and when the channel switched over to InfoQ I was happily surprised by the new QCon session videos.

Two Weeks in Review – November 5, 2017

Sunset over mountains from black to blue to orange

4:45 and its dark outside

Podcasts

The Finnish (UBI) Experiment – 99 Percent Invisible

The Psychology of Self-Righteousness – Jonathan Haidt – On Being
An interesting psychological take on political leanings

Readings

Bitcoin uses a lot of energy. Why not a solar powered rig?

The World’s Happiest Places – National Geographic

Tech

Xbox One X

iPhone X

A raspi cluster looks fun, and so does gaming on a plane.

And so many video games: BF1, Fortnite and TF2.

Food

Challah French toast

Donut or doughnut?