With its special end-of-year message, Facebook wants to show you, over and over, what your year "looked like"; in Eric Meyer's case, the photo was of his daughter, who died this year: "For those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or losing a job or any one of a hundred crises, we might not want another look at this past year."
To show me Rebecca’s face and say “Here’s what your year looked like!” is jarring. It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it’s just unfortunate. These are hard, hard problems. It isn’t easy to programmatically figure out if a picture has a ton of Likes because it’s hilarious, astounding, or heartbreaking.
Algorithms are essentially thoughtless. They model certain decision flows, but once you run them, no more thought occurs. To call a person “thoughtless” is usually considered a slight, or an outright insult; and yet, we unleash so many literally thoughtless processes on our users, on our lives, on ourselves.
Where the human aspect fell short, at least with Facebook, was in not providing a way to opt out. The Year in Review ad keeps coming up in my feed, rotating through different fun-and-fabulous backgrounds, as if celebrating a death, and there is no obvious way to stop it. Yes, there’s the drop-down that lets me hide it, but knowing that is practically insider knowledge. How many people don’t know about it? Way more than you think.
Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty
It's an old story: someone searches Google for a common keyword -- "jews," "women," "black people" -- and gets back a bunch of far-right conspiracist/genocidal garbage; Google gets embarrassed, twiddles some search-weighting knobs, and the results change.
Twitter has a setting that (nominally) allows you to turn off its default of showing you "top" tweets (as selected by its engagement-maximizing, conflict-seeking algorithm), but periodically, Twitter just ignores that setting and starts nonconsensually eyeball-fucking you with inflammatory headlines.
When social media was young, it was obvious that it had some pathologies -- perverse incentives that drove people toward antisocial behaviour. Back in those days, a company named Flickr did some radical things that made it (briefly) the best social network on the internet (until Yahoo bought it and all but destroyed it): among […]
There’s overwhelming support for clean energy, and the planet is giving us more reasons to invest in renewable power sources with every passing year. Even in the most inhospitable areas, wind and solar can provide a good chunk of our power, if not all of it. So why aren’t we all taking advantage of it? […]
Hey, we love Netflix and Hulu, but let’s face it: The whole setup doesn’t exactly encourage active viewing. For all the binge-watching we’ve done, it’s tough to expand our horizons or learn anything new – except for how many episodes of “The Office” it takes to make us fall asleep. It was only a matter […]
Still using elbow grease to clean the sinks, tubs and other grimy surfaces around your house? Save your elbows, and some time. If you’ve got a power drill, the RevoClean® 4-in-1 Drill Brush Cleaning Kit will instantly turn it into a professional scrubber that can tackle any stain on any surface. Attach the 4″ nylon […]