Wednesday, July 12, 2017

When Data Attacks

One way of thinking about the Internet is as a giant matching machine. You have a question, it finds you an answer. You want a flight, it finds you a good deal. You want a date, it can find that for you too. Lots of them in fact.

But is this the whole story? Not exactly.

A fairly simple problem/solution scenario is how things worked in the days of Web 1.0, a pre-data collection web that hadn’t yet developed, let alone mastered, micro-targeting by such attributes as demographics, psychographics, and location. And before you cry “surveillance!” bear in mind that it is the advertising-supported, data slicing and dicing web that brings so much to all of us each day in the form of news, entertainment, and productivity tools. Not to mention that the systems that optimize marketing done online also help filter out that which could be called ‘noise’; i.e. if I don’t have kids I won’t get daycare ads on Facebook, if I don’t have a dog or a cat I won’t get coupons for kibble popping up alongside YouTube videos I watch.

Is this all for the better? As with many things, it depends how you look at it, and it depends who you ask. If you ask mathematician Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, the answer would be no.

At a recent talk held at Microsoft Research O’Neil began by describing what an algorithm is. “It’s something we build to make a prediction about the future…and it assumes that things that happened in the past will happen again in the future.”  O’Neil explained that algorithms use things such as decision trees, which contain if/then and yes/no statements and then use historical information, pattern matching, and machine learning to build models that can make thousands to millions of predictions, and can do so in a fraction of the time of a human being with a calculator and a scratch pad. 

So what’s not to like? The problem is, according to O’Neil, that the agenda of the algorithm is decided by the builder of the algorithm. What goes into the algorithm is, necessarily ‘curated’, and when some variables are selected while others are left out, then a value system is embedded in the algorithm.

These value systems in turn can affect decisions now made by machines that used to be made by humans, such as hiring, credit worthiness, professional evaluation, and insurance eligibility. Researchers, including O'Neil herself, have attempted to find out the rules that inhabit some of these algorithms, using Freedom of Information requests, but according to O'Neil many such requests have not been successful. Furthermore, many of the data-driven systems responsible for making millions of decisions are built on proprietary, or 'black box' software architectures, that are extremely difficult to reverse engineer.

But let's bring things back to how data interfaces with you in your daily life. If you’ve ever wondered, for example, why you often spend a half hour on hold when you call customer support and your friends say they get through right away the explanation may be more than “we’re experiencing larger than normal call volumes.” Maybe they are, but maybe, as O’Neil points out, it's something else. She cites the example of how it is a common practice for customer service lines to pre-determine if you’re a high value customer or a low value customer based on the purchase and credit information cross-referenced with your phone number. And, well, you can figure out who gets put through to a real live human operator and who has to listen to extended musical accompaniments of flutes and vibraphones.

O’Neil calls such processes “systematic filtering”, and is concerned that machine learning, a key component of artificial intelligence -- which is said to be the next revolution in computing -- “automates the status quo” and in turn creates “pernicious feedback loops” that not only trap people in the biases of the past but also magnify those biases as machine learning is itself based on recursive loops and neural networks.

This was not and is not the intention of any such systems of course. The point of deploying data, at scale, is to build models at a speed and complexity that far exceeds the capability of humans. As with any technological innovation, there exist unintended consequences, and the decisions made by data-driven systems are no different.

For an overview of Cathy O'Neil's book "Weapons of Math Destruction" click here.

This post also appears, in a slightly revised version, on the blog of the American Marketing Association, Toronto Chapter.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Airport raccoons, Ikea monkeys, and 'matter out of place'

Anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote on the concepts of purity and danger in the mid 1960s, creating a framework through which various cultures arrive at categorizations of things that belong and things that do not, of things that are deemed to be dangerous, and things that some think of as 'taboo', while others do not. In other words, one person's threat is another person's meh/not so much.

Douglas' idea that dirt can be best understood as matter out of place, or, something relative to one's environment and attitude about it, is also helpful when thinking about the viral videos which cascade upon us daily in our Facebook newsfeed and our Twitter tweet streams. A monkey in the jungle, not a surprise. A monkey in a shearling coat in an Ikea, well, pretty alarming.

When our expectations are defied in such a manner we now have a way to express our emotional responses --  delight, shock, horror -- whatever they may be, by hitting the forward, share, retweet, or post buttons on social media platforms.

Last month at Toronto's Pearson airport there was another 'matter out of place' incident that caught the attention of the Internet: the airport raccoon.

The video was taken by an accounting professor who, being analytically minded, was interested not just in a misplaced raccoon but in the mechanisms of how things spread online. I got in touch with Prof. Graham to deconstruct his experience of somewhere between 24 and 48 hours of Internet stardom and the full story can be found here.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Your call is important to us

They are the face of multinational corporations, particularly airlines, banks, and credit card companies. They are the call centres, usually of the third world, where scripts tell the person on the other end of the line to reassure us with phrases such as “certainly” and “not a problem”, even though we, usually dialling from the comfort of our kitchens, know darn well there’s a problem, otherwise we wouldn’t be on the line with them in the first place.

“Call centre workers are the emblematic workers of the digital economy”, said Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalization at University of Hertfordshire. “They sit at the interface of the digital and the real, and at a place of tension, because people only contact call centres when something has gone wrong. And yet, they are, paradoxically, the public face of the company, where a standardized script sits in for customer service.”

The occasion for the consideration of life behind the 1-800 number was a book launch for Enda Brophy's “Language Put To Work: The Making of the Global Call Centre Workforce”. “I did the project to get away from the binary view of one of the world’s fastest growing professions”, revealed Brophy. On the one hand we have the modern, digitally connected information worker, and on the other we have the exploited outsourced labourer. “So I looked at the call centre from below, from the point of view of the worker”, said Brophy, referencing the work of historian of the British working classes E.P. Thompson.

A cornerstone of the outsourcing industry, in which business functions that don’t necessarily need to be conducted in Western countries are effectively sent overseas, the global call centre industry is a juggernaut with a value approaching $10 billion annually. Terms such as 'cyber proletariat', 'digital capitalism', and 'immaterial labour' have been used to described the provision of offshore workforces for functions such as customer service, billing, and assorted back office duties.

Call centres have traditionally been associated with Indian cities such as Delhi, Bangalore, Chandigarh, and Hyderabad, where a parallel industry of accent reduction and ‘call centre English’ has sprouted up. On top of learning how to twist vowels and phrases so they are more mellifluous to American ears, call centre workers also strive to pass as Westerners by taking on Anglicized names such as Robin, Karen, and Shawn. But not everything goes smoothly in the headsetted life of the cubicle farm. As part of his history of call centres from the bottom up Brophy also documented worker resistance, whether in the form of casual slacking or more organized activism.

For a more in depth look at the life of arguably today’s quintessential globalized worker, the call centre operator, you can check out these two documentaries, one on the call centres of India, the other on the call centres of The Philippines, the new capital of outsourced customer service.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Inside the shift to Streaming TV

Chances are you're not watching television the way you used to. And why would you. Freed from the constraints of broadcast schedules, once-per-week episodes, and the relative safeness of network television fare, you can instead spend hours inside the YouTube rabbit hole, exploring whatever it is that catches your fancy, and the random places that fancy leads you. Alternately you can grab a large bag of kale chips and settle in for multiple episodes of the show du jour on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.

The industry is in the midst of a massive shift, one considered in great detail at a conference held recently at Boston University entitled "Streaming, Binge-Watching & Second Screening". 

Industry executives, academics, and analysts gathered for two days in what can only be described as a majestic room to discuss the technical, behavioural, and creative changes that mark the transition to digital, on-demand television.

The conference HQ at Boston University's
 aptly named "The Castle"

Click here to read the full blog post on the many ramifications of the shift to the streaming TV environment.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The post money marketplace?

A few days ago I tweeted about a new project in which I'm participating. It's called the Artisanal Economies Project (AEP) and its mission is to formulate points of view and perspectives on the burgeoning marketplace of handmade products and the non-traditional ways in which people and products connect. The AEP is still taking shape, with interviews and articles being posted on the just launched blog, so I would call the state of things active beta.  

Homepage of Artisanal Economies Project (AEP)

I contributed my first piece to the AEP blog this weekend. The following piece originally appeared here.

In parallel to the word of the handcrafted and whimsical things found on sites like Etsy and the small batch products found at farmer’s markets Team AEP notes this: the emergence of cashless commerce. This is one more refusal of retail as we once knew it -- the big and the branded, with complimentary 2 hour underground parking – and a new set of practices in its place.

Exhibits A and B -- Bunz and Secondhand Sunday -- come from my current hometown of Toronto.

You can trade, but you cannot buy at Bunz

Neighbourhood Swap Event SecondHandSunday

Additional evidence of cashless commerce can be found in neighborhood swap & sell groups on Facebook, where people list things for sale (Ed. Note: sometimes at mind numbingly trivial prices such as two or three dollars, which makes me wonder ‘why even bother’), but there are also curb alerts (objects either intentionally left or abandoned curbside) and porch pickups of items ranging from the old standby Ikea Billy bookcase to blenders and toaster ovens, to boxes filled with books, magazines, and CDs.

But let’s get back to Bunz. There are apparently only 2 rules there: No cash is allowed and don’t be a jerk. You can’t buy anything on Bunz, but you can trade. A sample of current postings on Bunz in Toronto include mud masks, a plant with no name, and a never worn dress. And remember you can’t buy any of these things, you can only trade something for them. Sometimes the trade is specified, such as a bottle of beer, and sometimes it is up to the interested party to propose something agreed to be fungible.

While messaging with a friend this weekend I mentioned that I was working on a blog post about Bunz and he told me about a friend of his girlfriend who recently traded an unopened package of paper towels and a transit token for an unopened box of tea using the site. Note that the desired currency for the dress above is also the transit token.

In a profile of Bunz last fall written by Gerrit DeVynck for, it was described as “…a quirky mash-up of the classifieds vibe of Craigslist, the sociability of Meetup and the neighborliness of NextDoor.”

To ensure safety while swapping Bunz has set up trading zones at shops and cafes, which are identified by door stickers, such as the one seen below at Tandem, a café in my neighbourhood.

A certified Bunz Trading Zone in Corktown, Toronto

Bunz founder Emily Bitze started the site in the summer of 2013 and since that time various subgroups have popped up, e.g. for jobhunting and apartment hunting, along with sites for other Canadian cities and the first U.S. one for New York. An angel investor now backs the company, which most likely never planned on becoming a business, and there are now 8 full time employees at the HQ in Toronto, responsible for iOS and Android app development, marketing, and even artificial intelligence.

What appears to be going on here – whether on Bunz or with curb alerts or at events like Secondhand Sunday -- are new options for participating in the consumer society.

And while some may say the examples here provide further evidence of the death of retail, what’s more interesting is the birth of other forms of exchange. And yes there was always a market of secondhand goods, whether at rummage sales, flea markets, or Goodwill stores, but there are some key differences this time. Now we are finding an exchange of used goods without stigma or shame. Used goods that don’t say ‘I can’t afford the new version of this’.

And all this is happening in the midst of accusations of everything in our midst being soaked in ‘late capitalism’, in which things exist for the sole purpose of being commoditized. Instead we see here the opposite of the built in obsolescence of so many goods of the 20th century, and in their place we have object lifespans limited only by their ability to find someone who needs them.

What we appear to have here is a true sharing economy, unlike the ones put forward by AirBnB and Uber, which are really pretty straightforward transactional economies. If you don’t agree, try to pay your AirBnB host with unopened packages of paper towels or some transit tokens and see what happens.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Digital Canada: More than just 10% of Digital U.S.

Further to the release of the report I recently co-authored on the value of the Internet to the U.S. economy, I was approached to pull together some thoughts on the topic as they pertain to the Internet in Canada.

I obliged, of course, and the full article can be found here, with an excerpt below.

See the full article here.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

From LOLCats to Rated Dogs

We may need no further evidence of the progress we've made as a society than the fact that dogs, not cats, now power the Internet.

It's been close to a decade since LOL cats became a thing on the Internet. You know, those pictures of cats in various positions, superimposed with captions written in, presumably, kittyspeak, that drove the online world cat mad. In a good way.

Apparently it's time for the cats to move over though. Things have changed and there are millions of Twitter followers to prove it.The inaugural talk of the MIT Humor Series (not only is there one, but there's a research fund in support of it) featured academics Jonny Sun and Susan Benesch in conversation with the man behind the wildly popular Twitter account @dog_rates, exploring the phenomenon it has become and the role of humor in online discourse. Rating dogs online is pretty much what it sounds like, which is a dog-rating account. You send in a picture of your dog, and if you're lucky it receives a numerical rating, accompanied by a caption. But then again it's not. It's actually a person, who turns out to be Matt Nelson, impersonating a dog who rates other dogs, sometimes picking fights with picture submitters and viewers, and often ignoring the constraints of the 10-point rating scale. 

L to R: Jonny Sun, Matt Nelson aka The Dogfather,
and Susan Benesch at the MIT Media Lab, April 2017

Nelson started the account on a whim in his North Carolina college dorm room in November 2015, picking up 100,000 followers in his first month online. By January 2017 the number of dog rating enthusiasts on Twitter had swelled to 1 million, and as of April 2017 is approaching 1.8 million. Along the way he's direct messaged with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and Hamilton's Lin Manuel Miranda and received coverage in The Washington Post.

Yes there are lots of dog accounts on Twitter and Instagram but most of them are just cute canines doing cute things like wearing tiaras and ties. Things that make people go dawwww. Most people post pictures of their own dogs, while Nelson aggregates and then adds captions, often written in a kind of lingua franca of frequenters of the account. He explains: "The first time I used "af" people lost their minds. So then I tried to use it as often as possible. The life cycle of these things is short. I try to expand them beyond the usual few weeks so I can get the t-shirts made."

What does the workflow look like for a Twitter account rapidly approaching 2 million followers? "We're sent a stupid amount of pictures each day", Nelson told the standing room only crowd assembled on the 6th floor of the Media Lab. "1 guy condenses them to 20 to 30 pictures and then sends those to me. If inspiration hits immediately I can get the caption done in 5 seconds. If not, I put the pictures into a folder for later consideration, so it takes anywhere from 5 seconds to 30 minutes to come up with just the right caption."

While the account is primarily a combination of puppy love and inside jokes, @dog_rates does not shy away from taking a political stance, as was the case at the Women's March held in Toronto in January 2017.

...but not everyone was happy

Nelson ended up losing the most followers ever on the day of the march, when 800 dropped off. The good news is that 37,000 were added. And as the Internet is endlessly generative the rating trope has extended beyond rating dogs, to things such as rating dads.

@dog_rates founder Matt Nelson gets the pleasure of being the inspiration for such offshoot accounts  as We Rate Dads but doesn't benefit in any financial way. "Anyone can rate anything. Just like anyone can post pictures of dogs", he pointed out. But clearly there's room for it all in the world of rating things online. In addition to the Twitter account that he says often takes as much time as a full time job Nelson has an app and a book slated for publication this fall.