Bots taking over us getting back on algorithms

So it appears now one can apparently wish a friend happy birthday on Facebook just by typing a “1”. This is awesome, scary and undoubtedly the future all wrapped up in one little text-based payload. Because typing “happy birthday!” means typing thirteen more characters than typing “1”. But it also means loading Facebook and loading that friend’s profile page. Clearly, Facebook is doing away with the barrier to interaction.

Which leads to the question: at what point do bots start talking to bots? You know, why should you have to type “thank you!” when you can reply to a text with “1”? Or better yet, why should you have to type the “1” at all? If Facebook knows you want to say “thank you” to everyone (bots included) who wished you a happy birthday, shouldn’t they just give you the option to let Facebook do that for you on your behalf?

And that leads to the idea of having Facebook automatically say “happy birthday” to a friend on their birthday each year. If you can do that and then the Facebook “thank you” bot can reply to the “happy birthday” bot, we would have some hot bot-on-bot action.

While we are figure our communication niceties,  it appears completely paradoxical to me that while we let Facebook take over the simple task of wishing someone happy birthday, we do not trust its choice of content or music for us. There is enough and more that has been seen and heard about the algorithm that powers the Wall and decides to show what we may want to know at that point of time based on our interest or Spotify whirling down the its endless cycle of songs in the shuffle mode like a Ferris wheel based the artists that one has chosen.

David Bryne who is curating the Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre in London has a thing or two to say about why us-humans beat any alogorithm hands down when it comes to curation.

Why this insistent emphasis on choices and filtering now? It’s obvious: when everything is available, within reach, accessible, the problem becomes not one of scarcity but of abundance. Where to find, amid the glut, what is right for you? How to separate the music from the noise? Pre-internet (and before there was a host of world music guidebooks), I used to go to a record store in Times Square subway station and buy Latin records. Did I know anything about them? Very, very little. I was following vague clues – the cover graphics, the producer, the band members, the other artists on the same label. A risky way to find stuff, it would seem, but once you learn to read those clues, the odds are surprisingly good. 

And then this bit on how the social media platforms curate the content for us.

Social media recommendations, of course, are a form of curation. The internet memes and viral eruptions, the algorithms and whims of the herd, sweep us along and these, too, increase the value of the things they recommend. Are they unbiased? Not so much. They’re often trying to sell you something, or gather information on you that they can then sell to someone else, so trust in that world is a rare commodity.

I love Twitter where I spend a fair bit of time everyday and I shudder at the though of Project Lightning may do to it. I am the least bit surprised when Apple at the launch of Apple Music tom-toms about DJs who will man the internet radio or Twitter, Linkedin and Apple going out and looking for human editors to curate news and content for us.

More choice is always good. Or imagine going to a library and finding books by the same author again and again or sitting infront of a national television broadcaster as a sole television channel which decides what programmes we should be watching. However, the big worry that may arise with the introduction of editorial discretion is the problem of trust. Facebook was sharply rebuked for clandestinely manipulating users’ news feeds in a psychology experiment last year, so Apple and Twitter will have to prove their reliability and good judgment. How will Apple’s editors handle news unfavorable to Apple, for example, and how inclusive will Twitter’s conversation shapers be when it comes to airing unpopular points of view on a given subject?

Still-thriving web communities like Digg and Reddit rely heavily on user participation. These platforms automate only to tally up the popularity of stories among their readers, and then have the moderators vet to ensure quality. Clearly, it’s a a mix of human and machine that helps us distill the web into something digestible. Right now, the momentum seems to be swinging back in favor of the conscious curator, the human that can make decisions for us in order to tame the big, beautiful chaos of the web.

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Why did the expensive notebook company need to go digital?

The Expensive Notebook Company (via New Yorker)

I almost balked when I saw a calendar app from Moleskine on the App Store. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore Moleskine and collect hordes of them. I have the LEGO edition, the Lord of the Rings edition, the Star Wars edition, the wine journal and the traveller’s journal. And I use none of them because I feel they are so special that they are meant to be treasured and not to be used. There is a sense of pride in using a product that accounts for Hemningway, Picasso and van Gogh as part of its lineage. Unlike the note-writing apps, there is something very intuitive about Moleskine, perhaps as it does not involve learning where to click or where to go and what to do. It is immediate.

The idea that non-digital products and ideas have become more valuable may just seem to work against the narrative of disruption-worshipping techno-utopianism coming out of Silicon Valley but, in fact, it simply shows that the evolution of technology is not linear. We may eagerly adopt new solutions, but, in the long run, these endure only if they truly provide us with a better experience—if they can compete with digital technology on a cold, rational level.

And therein lies the rub. I find the transformation of Moleskine to its digital avatar at complete odds. Moleskine’s ascent is symptomatic of a shift that I call the revenge of analog, in which certain technologies and processes that have been rendered “obsolete” suddenly show new life and growth, even as the world becomes increasingly driven by digital technology. This goes beyond the well-documented return of vinyl records, encompassing everything from a business-card renaissance sparked by  MOO.

Interestingly, Evernote, the digital app which competes with Moleskine has opened a marketplace for physical products, including notebooks, special Post-it notes, desk accessories, and even bags with the bestseller product being the Evernote Moleskine. Evernote might have set out to eliminate unorganized stashes of paper notes, but the future is not paperless.

The end of an era

“It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards…it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the ‘wheel,’ it’s called the ‘carousel.’ It lets us travel the way a child travels — around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

— Don Draper, in Mad Men

Today marks the beginning of the last few episodes of Mad Men. In an odd-schadenfreude way, Mad Men has been like comfort television for the last seven years though I believe it is largely a show which has been on the wrong side of history. I say that because its a show about terrible things happening to not-so-terrible people. The men and women of Madison Avenue never appear boring because the personal chaos they inhabit mirrors the seismic shifts of the period. Their tension between morality and immorality, stability and anomie, surface and depth is signature romantic. If romantics are anything, we are conflicted. We long for that amber-hued period in the past when work provided a bulwark against all the erupting madness of the world — yet we simultaneously celebrate the moments when fortification fails, exposing fissures across class, gender, and racial lines, revealing to us the allure of messy lives. And it’s also consoling and even a little heartening to remind ourselves that, no matter how they’ve spun it, the people who tried to navigate this world ahead of us didn’t know what the hell they were doing either.

So, tonight I raise a toast to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce!

Diversity in Emoji

Have you ever wondered why the Simpsons are all painted yellow? Groening, the creator of the Simpsons believed whenever someone was flipping through the channels, they would automatically know the Simpsons was on when they saw the yellow bodies flash by. Cut to today, and there are a set of people who aren’t happy being identified as ‘yellow’ albeit on the digital medium.

Apple in its new release of Yosemite has made an option available which allows people to pick the colour of the emojis in up to six shades. While I am all for inclusiveness and an increase in the emoji database to reflect the local cultural nuances, it hasn’t definitely gone well with most of the people.

Emoji Colour-shades

On Weibo, China’s largest microblog, some bloggers praised the new selection, especially since previous Apple emoji depicting humans had only come in a single shade: white but more users found the yellow toned emoji mildly offensive (there is a long racist history of using “yellow” to describe Asians) or just inaccurate. Read here. To me, it’s sounds all the more surreal because there were even a recent attempt to ban wordplay so as to encourage pun control.

And all of this makes we wonder what would Paul Grice, the father of linguistics, would have thought of. Grice argued that conversation is a joint activity, an activity that cannot be achieved without the cooperation of its participants. However, I think the rules change drastically when the conversations move online in a non-immediate setting. I have dwelled more on this in a longer Medium piece. There are many aspects of the digital communication that do not account for local cultural nuances and it’s not strange because the biggest internet organisations are headquartered in the US and to give them a fair play, it’s really difficult to the local traditions given that there are so many diversions and discussions within the micro-communities as well. However, it’s also worth noting that China and India now account for the second largest and the third largest internet population in the world and it’s only bound to grow for the future posing a not so easy conundrum.