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‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia

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Paul Lews writes in the Guardian:

Justin Rosenstein had tweaked his laptop’s operating system to block Reddit, banned himself from Snapchat, which he compares to heroin, and imposed limits on his use of Facebook. But even that wasn’t enough. In August, the 34-year-old tech executive took a more radical step to restrict his use of social media and other addictive technologies.

Rosenstein purchased a new iPhone and instructed his assistant to set up a parental-control feature to prevent him from downloading any apps.

He was particularly aware of the allure of Facebook “likes”, which he describes as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” that can be as hollow as they are seductive. And Rosenstein should know: he was the Facebook engineer who created the “like” button in the first place.

A decade after he stayed up all night coding a prototype of what was then called an “awesome” button, Rosenstein belongs to a small but growing band of Silicon Valley heretics who complain about the rise of the so-called “attention economy”: an internet shaped around the demands of an advertising economy.

These refuseniks are rarely founders or chief executives, who have little incentive to deviate from the mantra that their companies are making the world a better place. Instead, they tend to have worked a rung or two down the corporate ladder: designers, engineers and product managers who, like Rosenstein, several years ago put in place the building blocks of a digital world from which they are now trying to disentangle themselves. “It is very common,” Rosenstein says, “for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.”

Rosenstein, who also helped create Gchat during a stint at Google, and now leads a San Francisco-based company that improves office productivity, appears most concerned about the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.

There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”

But those concerns are trivial compared with the devastating impact upon the political system that some of Rosenstein’s peers believe can be attributed to the rise of social media and the attention-based market that drives it.

Drawing a straight line between addiction to social media and political earthquakes like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, they contend that digital forces have completely upended the political system and, left unchecked, could even render democracy as we know it obsolete.

In 2007, Rosenstein was one of a small group of Facebook employees who decided to create a path of least resistance – a single click – to “send little bits of positivity” across the platform. Facebook’s “like” feature was, Rosenstein says, “wildly” successful: engagement soared as people enjoyed the short-term boost they got from giving or receiving social affirmation, while Facebook harvested valuable data about the preferences of users that could be sold to advertisers. The idea was soon copied by Twitter, with its heart-shaped “likes” (previously star-shaped “favourites”), Instagram, and countless other apps and websites.

It was Rosenstein’s colleague, Leah Pearlman, then a product manager at Facebook and on the team that created the Facebook “like”, who announced the feature in a 2009 blogpost. Now 35 and an illustrator, Pearlman confirmed via email that she, too, has grown disaffected with Facebook “likes” and other addictive feedback loops. She has installed a web browser plug-in to eradicate her Facebook news feed, and hired a social media manager to monitor her Facebook page so that she doesn’t have to.

“One reason I think it is particularly important for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before,” Rosenstein says. It may or may not be relevant that Rosenstein, Pearlman and most of the tech insiders questioning today’s attention economy are in their 30s, members of the last generation that can remember a world in which telephones were plugged into walls.

It is revealing that many of these younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: never get high on your own supply.

One morning in April this year, designers, programmers and tech entrepreneurs from across the world gathered at a conference centre on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. They had each paid up to $1,700 to learn how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products, on a course curated by conference organiser Nir Eyal.

Eyal, 39, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has spent several years consulting for the tech industry, teaching techniques he developed by closely studying how the Silicon Valley giants operate.

“The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions,” Eyal writes. “It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later.” None of this is an accident, he writes. It is all “just as their designers intended”.

He explains the subtle psychological tricks that can be used to make people develop habits, such as varying the rewards people receive to create “a craving”, or exploiting negative emotions that can act as “triggers”. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation,” Eyal writes.

Attendees of the 2017 Habit Summit might have been surprised when Eyal walked on stage to announce that this year’s keynote speech was about “something a little different”. He wanted to address the growing concern that technological manipulation was somehow harmful or immoral. He told his audience that they should be careful not to abuse persuasive design, and wary of crossing a line into coercion. . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 April 2018 at 9:05 am

Breast cancer page scrubbed from women’s health website

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The Trump administration continues to act against the interests of the American public. Rebecca Savransky reports in The Hill:

A webpage that focused on breast cancer was reportedly scrubbed from the website of the Department of Health and Human Services’s (HHS) Office on Women’s Health (OWH).

The changes on — which include the removal of material on insurance for low-income people — were detailed in a new report from the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project and reported by ThinkProgress.

A spokesperson for HHS told ThinkProgress the page was removed Dec. 6, 2017 “because content was not mobile-friendly and very rarely used.”

“Before we update any of the information … we engage in a comprehensive audit and use analysis process that includes reviewing other federal consumer health websites to ensure we are not duplicating efforts or presenting redundant information,” the spokesperson said.

According to the report, content about mammogram breast cancer screening remains on the site.

But “informational pages and factsheets about the disease, including symptoms, treatment, risk factors, and public no- or low-cost cancer screening programs, have been entirely removed and are no longer found elsewhere on the OWH site,” the report said.

“Among the material removed is information about provisions of the Affordable Care Act that require coverage of no-cost breast cancer screenings for certain women, as well as links to a free cancer screening program administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” the report said. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 April 2018 at 10:03 am

We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads

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Worth watching.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 March 2018 at 7:58 am

Fair Housing Groups Sue Facebook for Allowing Discrimination in Housing Ads

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Facebook needs strict oversight. They are out of control. Julia Angwin and Ariana Tobin report in ProPublica:

In February 2017, in response to a ProPublica investigation, Facebook pledged to crack down on efforts by advertisers of rental housing to discriminate against tenants based on race, disability, gender and other characteristics.

But a new lawsuit, filed Tuesday by the National Fair Housing Alliance in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York, alleges that the world’s largest social network still allows advertisers to discriminate against legally protected groups, including mothers, the disabled and Spanish-language speakers.

Since 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, “it is all the more egregious and shocking” that “Facebook continues to enable landlords and real estate brokers to bar families with children, women and others from receiving rental and sales ads or housing,” the lawsuit states. It asks the court, among other things, to declare that Facebook’s policies violate fair housing laws, to bar the company from publishing discriminatory ads, and to require it to develop and make public a written fair housing policy for advertising.

Diane Houk, lead counsel for the alliance, said this type of discrimination is especially difficult to uncover and combat. “The person who is being discriminated against has no way to know” it, because the technology “keeps the discrimination hidden in hopes that it will not be caught,” she said.

Facebook disputes the housing groups’ allegations. “There is absolutely no place for discrimination on Facebook. We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously,” said Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne.

The lawsuit adds to Facebook’s woes, which are mounting on multiple fronts. The company’s stock plunged last week on the news that it had allowed a voter-profiling outfit, Cambridge Analytica, to obtain data on 50 million of its users without their knowledge or consent. The news came after a troubling year in which, among other things, Facebook admitted that it unwittingly allowed a Russian disinformation operation on its platform and had been promoting fake news in its News Feed algorithm. As a result, lawmakers and regulators around the world have launched investigations into Facebook.

Discrimination in housing advertising has been a persistent problem for Facebook. In October 2016, we described how Facebook let advertisers exclude specific groups with what it called “ethnic affinities,” including blacks and Hispanics, from seeing ads. Although Facebook responded by announcing it had built a system to flag and reject these ads, we bought dozens of rental housing ads in November 2017 that we specified would not be shown to blacks, Jews, people interested in wheelchair ramps and other groups.

It wasn’t until ProPublica brought the issue of advertising discrimination on Facebook to light, Houk said, that fair housing advocates learned of it. Emulating ProPublica’s technique, the Washington, D.C.-based national fair housing group, along with member groups in New York, San Antonio and Miami created fake housing companies and placed discriminatory ads on Facebook. The ads were approved by Facebook over a period of a few months, with the most recent buys occurring on Feb. 23.

Using Facebook’s dropdown “exclusion” menu, they were able to buy housing ads that blocked groups such as “trendy moms,” “soccer moms,” “parents with teenagers,” people interested in a disabled parking permit and people interested in Telemundo, the Spanish-language television network.

The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to publish any advertisement “with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin.” Violators may face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

After ProPublica’s investigation, Facebook added a self-certification option, which asks housing advertisers to certify that their advertisement is not discriminatory. In some cases, Houk said, the housing groups encountered the self-certification option, and did not submit the ads to Facebook for approval and publication. But that only happened in some of the ad buys, she said.

Since advertisers can falsely attest to fairness, the self-certification screens don’t “seem like a whole-hearted commitment to trying to change the advertising platform to comply with the Fair Housing Act and local fair housing laws,” Houk said. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2018 at 3:45 pm

An interested analogue for computer-managed instruction

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From The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, by Brian Dear:

“The theory was,” Braunfeld recalls, “a) here we are at a university, so by definition we know how to educate, and b) we know how to do what was in those days called real-time data processing. Which I guess today there isn’t even a word for that, because it’s all real-time. But the notion of real-time data processing was a big deal in those days, because computers typically had as their inputs cards or paper tape, and it came in and it did its thing and it came back out. The notion of actually getting stuff in at random times was rather rare.”

Having all come fresh from the Cornfield project, these CSL engineers immediately saw an analogy between Cornfield’s need to track the real-time comings and goings of multiple airplanes and naval vessels, identifying which was friend, which was foe, while they moved in different directions at different speeds, and the new project’s need to track the real-time interactions of multiple students each sitting at a terminal, each interacting with the computer at their own pace, each student having essentially an ongoing, private, live conversation with their digital tutor. The big breakthrough that gave Bitzer and his colleagues a surge of confidence was that they could see at an abstract level the similarities between these two very different problem spaces—air traffic control and student data. Step back far enough, and from a purely architectural point of view, naval destroyers’ radar data could be seen as data from student terminals. To the computer it was all just zeroes and ones. Students would be interacting with the system in real time, so the data would be pouring in from multiple sources in real time. No different, to the computer, from multiple aircraft radar pings being fed back to the central machine in real time. The notion of a central computer handling lots of random incoming data, processing it as fast as possible, and spewing it back out to graphical terminals? Just think of the students as aircraft and it all started making sense.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2018 at 7:46 pm

Posted in Education, Technology

Interview: Former Cambridge Analytica exec says she wants lies to stop

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In the Guardian Paul Lewis and Paul Hilder interview Brittany Kaiser:

It was the summer of 2007. Brittany Kaiser was not yet 21, but she was one of a handful of full-time workers in the small digital team for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, uploading photos of the Illinois senator to something called a Facebook page.

At the next desk was another activist who knew a bit about the social media startup. Chris Hughes, 24, had worked with his Harvard roommate Mark Zuckerberg to create Facebook as a tool for students a few years earlier.

A decade later, the picture has darkened, as Hughes recently lamented when he complained about the “negative role” Facebook is playing in politics.

And Kaiser, who until two weeks ago was a senior employee at Cambridge Analytica, has worked for a company involved in two of the most negative and controversial campaigns in history.

Now she wants to make those secrets public, becoming the second former Cambridge Analytica employee to come forward in less than a week.

Her motive for doing so is likely to come under scrutiny: this has been a catastrophic week for the firm – and Kaiser was a senior executive. She claims, however, that it is because she wants to stop telling lies.

It seems remarkable that an Obama volunteer who studied human rights and voted for Bernie Sanders ended up working for a controversial data analytics company at the centre of a global story about the use of data and dirty tricks.

The company’s work on Donald Trump’s election campaign left her feeling “incredibly internally conflicted”, but she insists she was only doing her job; her political views have nothing to do with her decision to reveal secrets about Cambridge Analytica.

Asked why she has decided to speak out, Kaiser flares: “Why should we make excuses for these people? Why? I’m so tired of making excuses for old white men. Fucking hell.”

She says she believes that Silicon Valley has much to answer for. “There’s a much wider story that I think needs to be told about how people can protect themselves, and their own data.”

Her disclosures come almost a week after the Observer revealed new information on how data was acquired from more than 50 million Facebook friends without their consent.

Kaiser has less to say on the harvesting of this data in 2014 than she does on other issues, which is corroborated by emails, correspondence and other documents reviewed by the Guardian.

Her own journey – from Obama’s campaign to trying to secure business with political parties and corporate interests in Ethiopia, Lithuania, Romania, Nigeria and Zambia; and from Occupy to Trump’s presidential victory party – says much about the bizarre state of politics in the digital era.


Facebook was not all Kaiser and Hughes had in common when they met at Obama’s Chicago HQ; they had attended the same prestigious private school in Massachusetts. Now they were among fewer than a dozen Obama activists and volunteers on the “new media” team.

Hughes, though, stood apart. He was apparently still able to pull strings at Facebook, which had relocated to California. When the campaign noticed problematic things about the social media site, such as the deluge of racist and abusive material being posted on the senator’s “wall”, Hughes, it seems, could find a solution.

On that occasion, Kaiser says, the platform was changed so that campaign workers could pre-approve messages before they appeared.

Another leap forward for Obama 2008’s Facebook experiment was their response to the avalanche of “friend” requests tying up campaign resources, with volunteers having to check photos. “We didn’t want a media controversy around Barack Obama being friends with somebody that was naked with an assault rifle,” she says.

The solution was a change that meant fans could “follow” Obama’s campaign rather than request a “friend connection”.

For the next few years, Kaiser says, her career diverged from US politics: she was a marketing officer for London’s air ambulance, volunteered for human rights groups, lived in Asia and started an inward-investment company in Libya – primarily, she claims, to gain access to the country for human rights work.

These opaque foreign adventures appear to have caught the eye of the SCL Group, a British psy-ops company, and its ambitious chief executive, Alexander Nix. Kaiser said she first met Nix at a sushi restaurant with some Mongolian clients. He drilled her as a spy might a source, apparently telling her: “Let me get you drunk and steal your secrets.”

That was 2012, the year Obama was re-elected, this time on a much more sophisticated campaign whose backbone was “big data” and Facebook friend networks, using techniques that foreshadowed much of what was to come.

Kaiser recalls Nix getting excited when she told him she’d worked for Obama.

Kaiser worked for SCL until Cambridge Analytica was formally incorporated.

Nix, she says, saw the gap in the market. The Republicans were losing the data race; that was where the opportunities were.

The kind of personality questionnaires conducted by the Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan on Facebook were particularly important, she adds, as they allowed the company’s data scientists to build models connecting data to behavioral traits and build “a very in-depth picture on those individuals”.

Kogan paid about 270,000 people to take his personality test. But, Kaiser says, Cambridge Analytica did many similar quizzes – not always on Facebook – and had personality data for more than 2 million Americans.

“The bigger a data set that you have, the more polls, the more surveys that you have that people undertake, the more accurate your models are going to be,” she says. “That’s just a fact of data science.”

Around mid-2015, Kaiser says, the company knew Facebook was changing its API rules to restrict the data that could be harvested through questionnaires like Kogan’s.

This appears to have prompted a last-minute grab for data. In one internal email seen by the Guardian, employees are asked to identify which issues on a list of 500 Facebook “like” items would be most “useful for political modeling or commercial sales”.

It is unclear from the email where the data was coming from, but the list is curiously revealing. Cambridge Analytica didn’t want to know who “liked” Eminem, Family Guy, YouTube, The Walking Dead or Mountain Dew. It was, however, interested in Facebook users who “liked” Mitt Romney, Walt Disney World, the US Marine Corps and Coca-Cola.


Nigeria was one of Kaiser’s first assignments. Three days ago, in one of a series of extraordinary scoops, the Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr revealed details about this project, aimed at securing the re-election of the then president, Goodluck Jonathan. He was unaware of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement.

Cadwalladr revealed details of a murky operation by suspected Israeli hackers to discredit Johnson’s rival, Muhammadu Buhari, by finding “kompromat” on the Nigerian politician. Asked about this, Kaiser confirms she knew the Israeli contractors.

“They were working for the same client that we were working for.” Who was that? “Oil billionaires,” she replies.

Kaiser’s story of how the Israelis got their information, however, was worse than computer hacking.

“They went to Nigeria, became friends with the people in Buhari’s campaign, and started sitting in meetings in the campaign headquarters,” she says. “They got information by being in there, however you do that. Making friends with people, sitting in high-level meetings, working on their computers.”

This, she claims, was being done independently of Cambridge Analytica.

Earlier this week there was another scoop, based on undercover footage from C4 News which captured Nix boasting about using “honey traps”, fake news campaigns and operations with ex-spies to swing election campaigns around the world.

Kaiser claims she had never heard him make such claims before. “Alexander is known to oversell everything to close the deal.”

By 2015, Nix and Kaiser were pitching to increase their market share in the most lucrative market of all: the US presidential campaign. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2018 at 6:26 pm

Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking

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Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos write in the Harvard Business Review:

“Put your phone away” has become a commonplace phrase that is just as often dismissed. Despite wanting to be in the moment, we often do everything within our power to the contrary. We take out our phones to take pictures in the middle of festive family meals, and send text messages or update our social media profiles in the middle of a date or while watching a movie. At the same time, we are often interrupted passively by notifications of emails or phone calls. Clearly, interacting with our smartphones affects our experiences. But can our smartphones affect us even when we aren’t interacting with them — when they are simply nearby?

In recent research, we investigated whether merely having one’s own smartphone nearby could influence cognitive abilities. In two lab experiments, nearly 800 people completed tasks designed to measure their cognitive capacity. In one task, participants simultaneously completed math problems and memorized random letters. This tests how well they can keep track of task-relevant information while engaging in a complex cognitive task. In the second task, participants saw a set of images that formed an incomplete pattern, and chose the image that best completed the pattern. This task measures “fluid intelligence,” or people’s ability to reason and solve novel problems. Performance on both of these tasks is affected by individuals’ available mental resources.

Our intervention was simple: before completing these tasks, we asked participants to either place their phones in front of them (face-down on their desks), keep them in their pockets or bags, or leave them in another room. Importantly, all phones had sound alerts and vibration turned off, so the participants couldn’t be interrupted by notifications.

The results were striking: individuals who completed these tasks while their phones were in another room performed the best, followed by those who left their phones in their pockets. In last place were those whose phones were on their desks. We saw similar results when participants’ phones were turned off: people performed worst when their phones were nearby, and best when they were away in a separate room. Thus, merely having their smartphones out on the desk led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity — on par with effects of lacking sleep.

This cognitive capacity is critical for helping us learn, reason, and develop creative ideas. In this way, even a small effect on cognitive capacity can have a big impact, considering the billions of smartphone owners who have their devices present at countless moments of their lives. This means that in these moments, the mere presence of our smartphones can adversely affect our ability to think and problem-solve — even when we aren’t using them. Even when we aren’t looking at them. Even when they are face-down. And even when they are powered off altogether.

Why are smart phones so distracting, even when they’re not buzzing or chirping at us? The costs of smartphones are inextricably linked to their benefits. The immense value smartphones provide, as personal hubs connecting us to each other and to virtually all of the world’s collective knowledge, necessarily positions them as important and relevant to myriad aspects of our everyday lives. Research in cognitive psychology shows that humans learn to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to them, even when they are focused on a different task. For example, even if we are actively engaged in a conversation, we will turn our heads when someone says our name across the room. Similarly, parents automatically attend to the sight or sound of a baby’s cry.

Our research suggests that, in a way, the mere presence of our smartphones is like the sound of our names — they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention. If you have ever felt a “phantom buzz” you inherently know this. Attempts to block or resist this pull takes a toll by impairing our cognitive abilities. In a poignant twist, then, this means that when we are successful at resisting the urge to attend to our smartphones, we may actually be undermining our own cognitive performance.

Are you affected? Most likely. Consider  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2018 at 1:47 pm

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