Bot-mediated reality

Having just spent upwards of 25 hours in a car driving between Peterborough, Toronto, and Pukaskwa National Park, one of the ways we passed the time was listening to a variety of podcasts, including Philosophy Bites, CBC Ideas, and the Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long Term Thinking (SALT).

While SALT has hosted a bevy of fascinating and influential guests, including Craig Venter, Jimmy Wales, Francis Fukuyama, and Ray Kurzweil, Daemon: Bot-Mediated Reality by author and software engineer Daniel Suarez was one of the most interesting and thought-provoking (mp3 here).

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Facebook Camp

Having just returned from FacebookCampToronto4, I have to say that the more I learn about Facebook, the more concerned I become.

First it was the Youtube video about how Facebook owns everything you put on it, and is (somewhat loosely) connected to all sort of people/agencies involved in various intelligence gathering initiatives and operations.

That aside, what was somewhat disturbing during the event today was the way no one seemed to have any qualms about Facebook’s gleeful blurring of the “advertisement / editorial” distinction that is sacred to reputable journalism (not to claim that Facebook is engaged in journalism, per se, but the analogy holds).

Facebook proudly promotes as a “best practice” that people using their ad system link up their ads to users’ social actions, so that when I see a news feed item that, for instance, shows my buddy has gone to some event, the event organizers who may have posted an ad for that same event can have their advertising content automatically incorporated into the news feed item, piggybacking their paid advertising onto legitimate news about what my friends are up to.

The other thing that bugged me…

was how the redesigned facebook profile page (due to come out next week, and currently viewable at, though it’s pretty buggy) was being touted as a way to enable more/better “self-expression.”

I think we need to wonder about the degree to which trivial and largely superficial changes to our Facebook profile constitute an enhanced venue for self-expression. It’s a form of 21st century dandyism; I’m sorry, but if the way you express your “self” is by resizing certain boxes on your Facebook profile, your self is in dire straits.

The last thing that bugged me…

was the way we talk about addiction today, and how the goal of a Facebook developer (or of the creator of a new cookie, a new song, whatever) is to create something addictive. And, in the case of Facebook, not just addictive, but simple and pared down enough that it doesn’t actually involve any serious engagement. The goal of the creator is to create something that people will feel uncontrollably pulled to use, but only for short, intermittent periods of time with no purpose other than continued, addictive use. Consciously setting out to create things that are addictive is fairly ethically questionable.

I will take off my curmudgeon hat now.

Some thoughts on the coming of everybody

Clay Shirky discusses his new book, Here Comes Everybody, at the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Very interesting guy. But I have to take issue with his main point, which seems to be that group action just got easier. Rather than overcoming the pitfalls of group complexity by introducing hierarchy, he contends, the internet makes the connections that comprise group complexity easier to produce–they are “more lightweight.” But if a connection is lightweight, how much of a connection is it really? Is it a connection when it can be broken with as little consideration as it takes to click a link?

This is part of the problem of with viewing human relationships in terms of networks and network theory. Before computer networks, we didn’t talk about “building connections” or “creating social networks”, as if making friends and community was a straightforward process that could be envisioned in advance and reproduced mechanistically. I don’t deny that this is frequently a useful way of talking and describing the world, but the metaphors drawn from the world of production and fabrication only go so far in the world of human relations and action.

    Art show curator euthanizes living leather jacket

    Victimless Leather was, for its short life, a small jacket made up of embryonic stem cells taken from mice. The MoMA curator decided she had to remove the jacket’s life support when it started to grow too big.

    In other news, vegans the world over were deeply confused.

    The ethics of race- and ethnicity-based statistics

    Since the Vichy government, France has been more than just reluctant to collect statistics based on race, ethnicity, skin colours, etc. — it has positively banned such activities, and recently ruled that a sociology professor’s survey which sought to collect such data was unconstitutional. This from todays’ episode of CBC Radio’s Dispatches.

    The EU has recently stipulated that its member countries work to fight discrimination and France has established a body to adjudicate claims of racial discrimination but it has so far seen few cases because without the body of statistics to back up such claims, there are few hard facts upon which to proceed.

    The argument offered for maintaining the status quo by one of the interviewees, himself a university professor who studies discrimination (and whose own research showed that resumes with North African-sounding names were three times less likely to receive call-backs), were pretty weak. He claims that because there is, officially, no such thing as race in France, there can be no racial discrimination, and that race is an unscientific concept (true) therefore there can be no study of its effects in society (an incredible non-sequitur).

    He reasoned that it would lead to greater discrimination because if, say, you asked who was Muslim, then decided that you would set aside a certain number of jobs for Muslims, that would lead to you needing to define “Muslim,” which would in turn lead to abuses.

    This is of course not a bad point: the Canadian government’s definition of “Indian” is contributing directly to the disappearance of “Indians” (in one of Thomas King’s books he cites a statistic that there will be no Indians left in 20 or so years — I forget the exact number).

    But taking education as an example, the prevailing attitude in France seems to run exactly counter to the approach that, in North America, is increasingly seen as both progressive and necessary to addressing blatant and serious inequalities. This is exemplified by the Toronto District School Board‘s fairly exhaustive and admired student survey, by the work of the US-based Education Trust, whose sole mandate is to work towards closing the achievement gap and does extensive research on the different educational outcomes of young people from various ethnicities, and is also heard in the calls of First Nations in Canada for better data on the achievement, dropout rates, and so on of young Aboriginal people. In North America, the issue is more often around privacy than potentially discriminatory use of such data.

    Despite the pitfalls identified by Thomas King and the French professor on the CBC program, no sound policies for adequately addressing inequality could be formulated or implemented without this sort of knowledge.