The weird future of facial recognition

This story by Rene Chun about China’s New Frontiers in Dystopian Tech is wild:

Don’t even think about jaywalking in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province. Last year, traffic-management authorities there started using facial recognition to crack down. When a camera mounted above one of 50 of the city’s busiest intersections detects a jaywalker, it snaps several photos and records a video of the violation. The photos appear on an overhead screen so the offender can see that he or she has been busted, then are cross-checked with the images in a regional police database. Within 20 minutes, snippets of the perp’s ID number and home address are displayed on the crosswalk screen. The offender can choose among three options: a 20-yuan fine (about $3), a half-hour course in traffic rules, or 20 minutes spent assisting police in controlling traffic. Police have also been known to post names and photos of jaywalkers on social media.

I can’t help but be reminded of that “biometric advertising” scene in Minority Report:

Minority Report

Facebook is not honoring its side of the data deal with users

I think everyone has “Facebook Article Exhaustion” right now. But Brian Barrett’s Facebook Owes You More Than This makes a somber, important point:

This is not a screed about deleting your Facebook account. It’s not a rant about online ads. It is an argument, though, that Facebook has been a poor steward of your data, asking more and more of you without giving you more in return—and often not even bothering to ask. It has repeatedly failed to keep up its side of the deal, and expressed precious little interest in making good.

If you feel exasperated by the whole Facebook privacy debacle, I think this article will help make sense of some of those feelings. One more quote:

But as Facebook collects more and more data, and offers advertisers more and more tools to monetize it, the benefit to you seems not to have grown in kind. You get an ever-shifting algorithm designed to keep you scrolling, which the company’s own research suggests can leave you “feeling worse afterward.” You get dozens of Russian propagandists flooding millions of News Feeds with high-emotion content designed to undermine US democracy, with slow and incomplete disclosures about the impact. And you get ads for the same pair of shoes—that you already bought—trailing you for months.

Also check out the always excellent Paul Ford’s Facebook Is Why We Need a Digital Protection Agency, in which he calls for a digital equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency. His reasoning:

The activist and internet entrepreneur Maciej Ceglowski once described big data as “a bunch of radioactive, toxic sludge that we don’t know how to handle.” Maybe we should think about Google and Facebook as the new polluters. Their imperative is to grow! They create jobs! They pay taxes, sort of! In the meantime, they’re dumping trillions of units of toxic brain poison into our public-thinking reservoir. Then they mop it up with Wikipedia or send out a message that reads, “We take your privacy seriously.”

Spotify and the business of making hits

Spotify has been in the news quite a bit recently, especially since their IPO announcement. The best article I’ve read so far about Spotify’s business model (and challenges) is Ben Thompson’s Lessons from Spotify:

Spotify’s margins are completely at the mercy of the record labels, and even after the [lower royalties] rate change, the company is not just unprofitable, its losses are growing, at least in absolute euro terms.

Ben goes further to explain how difficult it would be for Spotify to cut out record labels completely:

Notice how little power Spotify and Apple Music have; neither has a sufficient user base to attract suppliers (artists) based on pure economics, in part because they don’t have access to back catalogs. Unlike newspapers, music labels built an integration that transcends distribution.

Profitability aside, it’s fascinating and kind of scary to get a sense of the oversized role that Spotify plays in deciding what becomes a hit song. Austin Powell digs into the details in his article Inside the booming black market for Spotify playlists:

The biggest of those playlists can essentially manufacture hits. A single add to Spotify’s influential RapCaviar, which boasts more than 8 million followers, can result in hundreds of thousands of streams, depending on where it’s placed and how long it stays there. RapCaviar has been credited, for example, with making Smokepurpp’s “Audi” go gold, with 68 million streams and counting.

But wait, there’s more (as the say). Some of Spotify’s biggest playlists are owned by none other than the record labels themselves. From Liz Pelly’s The Secret Lives of Playlists:

On other playlists, you’ll occasionally notice different logos: the thick cursive word Filtr, the all-caps logo for Topsify, or simple rounded text reading Digster. These are the playlisting brands owned by the major labels: Filtr by Sony, Topsify by Warner, and Digster by Universal.

What does this mean?

Outside of the Spotify staff-curated playlists, those curated by Filtr, Digster and Topsify have more visibility on the Browse pages than any other playlisting brands, individuals or labels. With these playlists, employees of Filtr, Digster and Topsify can simply log in and add tracks.

“Things like Topsify, Digster and Filtr remain good resources, especially for [major label] developing artists,” says Jeff. “I know that I can plug in such-and-such track to five [of our] playlists and start to rack up some plays, some revenue for that artist, get it in front of some new listeners, and you also get some algorithmic stuff going. Like Release Radar and Discover Weekly.” By using Filtr, Topsify and Digster playlists to generate activity on their own material, the majors effectively use these playlists to pump their artists into Spotify-owned algorithmic playlists.

The musical world belongs to the “curators” and algorithms. We’re just listening in it. And the company that has the most control over it all is not even close to being profitable.

When life becomes too “easy”

In The Tyranny of Convenience Tim Wu argues that life has become… well, too easy:

But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.

It would be perverse to embrace inconvenience as a general rule. But when we let convenience decide everything, we surrender too much.

And then there’s this kicker, which I keep coming back to in my mind:

An unwelcome consequence of living in a world where everything is “easy” is that the only skill that matters is the ability to multitask. At the extreme, we don’t actually do anything; we only arrange what will be done, which is a flimsy basis for a life.

Unrelated, I’m getting pretty close to perfecting my To Do system through a combination of OmniFocus and Field Notes. Nope, definitely not related at all.

The three kinds of distance in remote collaboration, and where to focus

Erica Dhawan and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic have some good suggestions in their article How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote. I found this part particularly interesting:

First, consider that there are three kinds of distance in remote collaboration: physical (place and time), operational (team size, bandwidth and skill levels) and affinity (values, trust, and interdependency). The best way for managers to drive team performance is by focusing on reducing affinity distance. Try switching most remote communication to regular video calls, which are a much better vehicle for establishing rapport and creating empathy than either e-mails or voice calls. And design virtual team-building rituals that give people the opportunity to interact regularly and experience their collaboration skills in action.

Focusing on “affinity distance” rings true for me. You can survive a long time with physical and operational distance if your team trusts each other and share certain values.

At Wildbit we use Zoom for video calls because it’s the only video conferencing software we’ve been able to find that lets us see the whole team’s faces on the screen at the same time. It’s much better than using Google Hangouts or any of the other apps that prioritize only the person who’s speaking. There are lots of way to reduce “affinity distance”, but having everyone (whether they’re remote or in the office) take video calls from their desks — and looking each other in the eyes on those calls — has had a surprisingly large positive impact.

How YouTube leads viewers down a rabbit hole of extremism

Two related articles about YouTube caught my eye over the past few days. The first, Zeynep Tufekci’s YouTube, the Great Radicalizer explains how YouTube’s algorithms almost always lead people to conspiracy theory videos:

It seems as if you are never “hard core” enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. It promotes, recommends and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes. Given its billion or so users, YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century. […]

What we are witnessing is the computational exploitation of a natural human desire: to look “behind the curtain,” to dig deeper into something that engages us. As we click and click, we are carried along by the exciting sensation of uncovering more secrets and deeper truths. YouTube leads viewers down a rabbit hole of extremism, while Google racks up the ad sales.

This is bad enough, but then there’s James Cook’s article YouTube suggested conspiracy videos to children using its Kids app, in which he explains how not even the YouTube Kids app is immune to this:

YouTube’s app specifically for children is meant to filter out adult content and provide a “world of learning and fun,” but Business Insider found that YouTube Kids featured many conspiracy theory videos which make claims that the world is flat, that the moon landing was faked, and that the planet is ruled by reptile-human hybrids.

I try not to be too quick to call technology evil, but this is definitely not a “all technology is neutral” situation. Product managers and developers have the power to stop this kind of escalation from happening.

How science fiction helps us understand the economy

Annalee Newitz wrote a really interesting essay on how economic anxieties are creeping into fantasy and science fiction stories. From The Rise of Dismal Science Fiction:

We’re used to science fiction providing us with commentary on technology, and vocabulary to discuss its more worrisome consequences. But underlying our fears of robots stealing our jobs or corporations turning us into consumer droids are more basic anxieties about money—and science fiction is increasingly reflecting that. For audiences grappling with the fear of poverty, or simply bewildered by postmodern economics, stories like Game of Thrones, Black Panther, and Malka Older’s critically acclaimed novel Infomocracy function like Aesop’s Fables for the 21st century.

My current favorite sci-fi series, The Expanse, is another great example of this. Yes, it’s a story about space and scary things, but it’s mostly a story about inequality and economic oppression.

Innovation consequences: it’s complicated

In Airbnb and the Unintended Consequences of ‘Disruption’ Derek Thompson uses Airbnb as an example to explain how it’s not as easy to call tech innovation a good or a bad thing. It’s complicated…

Airbnb lowered prices for tourists, supplemented the income of renters, and simply made travel to major cities more fun. But upon inspection, it shares some things in common with more-controversial companies—albeit with less grave implications. Facebook and Twitter design for attention, but incidentally encourage mendacious outrage and trolling. eBay and Amazon design for open marketplaces, but incidentally encourage the frenzied resale of bulk-ordered toys around Christmas. Airbnb was supposed to challenge hotels by letting tourists pay renters. But its platform is unwittingly producing a subsidy of tourists, paid for by nonparticipating urban dwellers, who bear the cost of higher rental prices.

The unreadable city

I really enjoyed Christopher Hawthorne’s essay called Los Angeles, Houston and the rise of the unreadable city:

This is going to be a column, instead, about something slightly different: about the legibility (and illegibility) of cities more generally. About how we react — as reporters and critics and simply as people — when we’re confronted with a city that doesn’t make sense to us right away.

I have never liked Los Angeles. I just couldn’t get over what I simply saw as a lot of dirt and too much traffic. But this viewpoint made me realize that, as with most cities, you can’t really love a city until you’ve lived there for a while.

If I had to put my finger on what unites Houston and Los Angeles, it is a certain elusiveness as urban object. Both cities are opaque and hard to read. What is Houston? Where does it begin and end? Does it have a center? Does it need one? It’s tough to say, even when you’re there — even when you’re looking directly at it.

I highly recommend reading this piece through the lens of a city you strongly dislike. Who knows, it might change your mind…

How Facebook realized that it’s more than a platform

Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein has a gripping feature in Wired called Inside Facebook’s Two Years of Hell. It’s long, but very much worth reading. It takes us through a journey that starts with Facebook’s years of denial:

It appears that Facebook did not, however, carefully think through the implications of becoming the dominant force in the news industry. Everyone in management cared about quality and accuracy, and they had set up rules, for example, to eliminate pornography and protect copyright. But Facebook hired few journalists and spent little time discussing the big questions that bedevil the media industry. What is fair? What is a fact? How do you signal the difference between news, analysis, satire, and opinion? Facebook has long seemed to think it has immunity from those debates because it is just a technology company—one that has built a “platform for all ideas.”

And it ends at the point they are at now: starting to realize that they can’t hide behind the “we’re just a platform” excuse any more.


  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. ...
  7. 115