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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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.

Visualising the internet

The internet has been described in innumerable ways. At times, it is difficult to imagine the force which we interact we act with so often. Spending most of our days in front of a big screen and then the small screen in our pockets, my attention is certainly divided.

A couple of days back I read this wonderful book by Andrew Blum called Tubes. Blum became hung up on the lack of physicality associated with the Internet. The journey to find exactly what places support and connect with the Internet was triggered following an unusual interaction with a squirrel in his backyard.Once when Blum’s internet broke the cable guy came to fix it, he said something which appeared extremely preposterous to Blum.He said ‘I think a squirrel is chewing on your internet’. And this of course seemed absurd, because as all of you know the internet is the great changer of everything, it has changed revolutions, and dating and shopping and anything that you might imagine.And then Blum realised if he yanked off the wire from the wall, it had to go someplace. So, Blum went on an adventure to find the buildings, installations and people who make the Internet what it is today which ended up in completely unexpected but wonderful book.

Ben Mendelsohn explores this subject in Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors, a short documentary on the internet infrastructure. He takes us inside 60 Hudson Street in New York City, a nondescript building that houses one of the major nodes of the Internet on the east coast of the US.

Timo Arnall,a designer and artist from London, has documented the hidden spaces,the series of massive servers, wires and equipment tucked away in high-security buildings in his project Internet Machine.

And, there has also been an attempt to visualise the immaterial, the network around us which carries multiple giga-bits of data around us in the immaterials project.

In the words of the designers, the Immaterials project emerged from the humble preoccupations of a few designers dealing with some of the invisible, immaterial, intangible stuff we had in front of us. These small experiments led to larger and more visually and narratively communicative work. In the end what I think we’ve developed is an approach to technology that revolves around material exploration, explanation and communication.

RFID-Touch-Project
Image via

Anthropologists of commerce

I have always enjoyed browsing Etsy, the online marketplace for DIY and crafts.

Today I chanced upon this very interesting way of how they describe themselves (and I guess they do not do it anymore!)

Etsy is the marketplace we make together. We’re anthropologists of commerce. We’re curious about people and what they make, exchange and consume. By looking around at the stuff that matters to our lives, we believe we can understand more about what moves us as human beings.

Etsy image

If you too like Etsy, head over to Cap Watkins’s blog who is the Senior Product Design Manager at Etsy and often blogs about the online design process at Etsy.

A social network for the dead

Is it ever possible that the social network you use frequently will contain profiles of more dead people than that of living ones? And what challenges does it pose for someone who is trying to study the user behaviour of people on that social network? Is it ethical? Does it adhere to the basic tenets of doing ethnography? Your social network can afford to keep all our pages and data indefinitely. Living users will always generate more data than dead ones, and the accounts for active users are the ones that will need to be easily accessible. Even if accounts for dead (or inactive) people make up a majority of their users, it will probably never add up to a large part of their overall infrastructure budget. More important will be our decisions. What do we want for those pages? Unless we demand that the social network deletes them, they will presumably, by default, keep copies of everything forever. But there are a lot of questions surrounding passwords and access to private data that we haven’t yet developed social norms for. Should accounts remain accessible? What should be made private? Should next-of-kin have the right to access email? Should memorial pages have comments? How do we handle trolling and vandalism? Should people be allowed to interact with dead user accounts? What lists of friends should they show up on? T

hese are issues that we’re currently in the process of sorting out by trial and error. Death has always been a big, difficult, and emotionally charged subject, and every society finds different ways to handle it. In every place, culture, and technological landscape, we develop a different set of behaviour around these same activities. And it is this evolving behaviour, which poses great challenges when someone is trying to do study users on digital platforms. Death may appear to be an easier issue to deal with, if you keenly observe the different cultural sensitivities that come into play when people are expressing their opinion on religion, politics or other complex matters of the society. There are also issues related to user anonymity and state control. To add to the complexity, the ethnographer faces many methodological challenges like playing the dual role of participant-observer, contextualizing and arriving at normativity while conducting the research.

So I moved to London to study Digital Anthropology

It does not happen too often that you walk a few feet around a place and you see a house which was once home to Charles Dickens and another one whose inhabitants included George Bernard Shaw and Virgina Woolf. And then you see someone ‘almost flipping pages’ of supposedly, a book on their Kindle, as they sit by the sides of these historic but still functional precincts.

This is the leafy Bloomsbury in London. How good are the chances that one of them is reading a Great Expectations or a Pygamalion on those reading devices? It makes me wonder if they already had one of those books in paper and downloaded an e-copy so that they can read one as they move around. Or what else can be the reason that they decided to ‘consume’ (which has a lot of deeper meaning than what we usually associate it with) or read the book on their e-devices? And once they finish reading the book will they recommend the book to someone in their different social circles – friends, family and workspace colleagues? And if they do recommend how will they do, on Facebook or WhatsApp or walk up to a friend and talk about it? Will they Instagram the cover of the book because they liked the cover art and share it on their digital social networks?

What I realise quite as much is aspects of consumption of new media have been growing beyond physical media into bits and stream and clouds of data, and beyond the largely one-way conventional distribution channels to a more social experience. And this is why I find myself in London spending the next year studying Digital Anthropology at University College London (UCL). The programme is (arguably) the only one of its kind in the world.

While the title ‘Digital Anthropology’ may seem a little unconventional, “locating the field of digital communication and digital media on a global context using field-based methods” is important. Look at the Internet and think how much time you spend on it – and how its changed the way you talk to people, contact your family, look for information, conduct business, and (special to Instagram) take pictures with a hint of nostalgia. Or the role of cell phone and social networks in the organisation. We need to derive new methods to study how our behaviour and relationship with entities around us is changing because of technology.

Communication has changed dramatically – how its changing is important to try to understand and has implications of art, society, business, and policy, and trying to understand some aspects of this is going to implicitly affect all our lives and perhaps explicitly be the focus of a good deal of my primary career.

While there are many academic programs worldwide studying these things under different names (“media studies,” etc), I chose Digital Anthropology in part because I liked the idea of rooting a methodological approach in social and cultural aspects, as well as UCL’s egalitarian ethos. The anthropology program here is known for its emphasis on research in material and visual culture – i.e., stuff, and stuff we can see – and their connection to social relationships. Objects. Keepsakes. Knick-knacks. As we experience wearable devices and smart watches around us, there will be stuff, and with it stuff to talk about. And then I wanted to steer my experience in digital marketing and business of over the last six years into something more grounded in inter-disciplinary social sciences theory and critical analyses so that it gives me new perspectives to think or evaluate business problems once I go back to work after the course.

This sort of grounding seems the ideal springboard to go into new and social media, which at times can seem quite intangible and in other ways is very concrete – as in the record kept by an online group, or the physical object of a pirate DVD. And, of course, I’ll be chronicling my life and studies in London through some of the same technology I’ll be studying. We’re all doing it – the studying and chronicling, I mean. I just found a place that gave it a name I liked.

Tailpiece: It is highly unlikely that you come across a statue of Mahatama Gandhi in close proximity with a statue of Rabindranath Tagore anywhere in India. I feel extremely chuffed almost every morning, walking past their statues in Bloomsbury, both of whom studied in UCL.