How Social Media Warps Democracy

Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell writing in The Atlantic:

Madison’s design has proved durable. But what would happen to American democracy if, one day in the early 21st century, a technology appeared that—over the course of a decade—changed several fundamental parameters of social and political life? What if this technology greatly increased the amount of “mutual animosity” and the speed at which outrage spread? Might we witness the political equivalent of buildings collapsing, birds falling from the sky, and the Earth moving closer to the sun?

I find the authors’ argument compelling: social media has changed the nature of discourse in democratic societies. It’s not a content problem, but a structural issue driven by our intrinsic want for attention.

Can we recover? Perhaps — but change will require major structural interventions. The article suggests three that seem worthwhile. (Alas, no mention of the nefarious business model driving the major social networks: selling the attention of their users.)

The Dark Psychology of Social Networks – The Atlantic

The Golden Age of Learning Anything

Last weekend I did something I’d never done before: I reupholstered a chair. Here’s a photo of the final result:

Unfortunately, I don’t have a “before” photo to share. But take my word for it: my efforts improved this chair’s condition significantly. Before this weekend, it was unpresentable. Little fingers love to tug on tiny tears in vinyl until they become large, unsightly tears. Alas, it’s cheaper to buy new reproductions such as this one than to have them professionally reupholstered. But my conscience doesn’t let me throw away an otherwise good piece of furniture because of a fixable imperfection.

I’m sharing my weekend project here not to seek your approbation. Instead, I want to highlight that we live in a time when we can learn almost any skill on the internet. I learned to reupholster in a couple of hours through a combination of websites and YouTube videos. I researched and ordered the required materials on Amazon. It took some effort on my part, but it was worth it. I’m surprised at how well the chair worked out, given it was my first time.

As we head into a new year, I keep seeing pundits on Twitter claiming “big tech” is ruining everything. Of course, the real world isn’t as simple as these folks render it. Sure, there are negative aspects to our current large tech platforms — but there are positive ones too. The ability to pick up new knowledge and skills anytime at our own pace very cheaply is among the positives.

LEGO: An Appreciation

I took Christmas Day off: no client work, no podcast editing, no writing. Instead, I spent the day playing with my kids. Mostly, we built LEGO sets.

Although I am not an AFOL, LEGO is an important part of my life. I use it in my systems class and have written about some lessons it holds for systems thinkers. More importantly, I love playing with LEGO. It’s my favorite toy — and has been since I was a child.

Yesterday, as I helped my daughter build set #10260, I reflected on why I love the bricks so much. It boils down to the following:

Continue reading

The Informed Life With Mary Parks

The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with linguist Mary Parks. For almost twenty years, Mary has worked as a voice user interface designer for several digital technology companies, including some of the field’s leaders. Our conversation focused on what it takes for digital systems to parse, understand, and generate speech.

One fascinating aspect of voice recognition systems is how they separate the audio signal of an utterance from the content it carries — it’s “text.” For example, as Mary put it, the system doesn’t know if you’re yelling at it, only what you’re saying. But this audio signal carries with it a lot of important information as well:

The moment we open our mouths, a massive amount of identifying information is in the speech utterance, in the first two seconds of the utterance. Whenever we talk, there’s a ton of information there. You hear things in the in the sound of the voice that tell you who the person is, elements of their identity, including perhaps the region they’re from. You know, there’s just all kinds of things that come up. And if you know the person, then your brain goes, “Oh, I know this voice.” Like you can hear only just to the two seconds of a voice, and if it’s somebody you really know, you’ll know who it is right away with pretty high confidence as a person. And so just identity and language are deeply tied.

I wish Mary and I had talked longer — there was much in our conversation I wanted to follow up on. I hope you get as much value from this episode as I did.

(By the way, in case you missed it: the show is now available on Google Play Music. This should make it easier for folks who use Android devices to listen.)

The Informed Life Episode 25: Mary Parks on Voice User Interfaces

Worth Your Attention

You Are Being Tracked

A few months ago, The New York Times obtained a dataset of people’s movements gathered from their smartphones. The initial report on their findings aims to make tangible the risks we’re running by permitting the private mass surveillance industry to continue tracking us as they have:

One search turned up more than a dozen people visiting the Playboy Mansion, some overnight. Without much effort we spotted visitors to the estates of Johnny Depp, Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger, connecting the devices’ owners to the residences indefinitely.

If you lived in one of the cities the dataset covers and use apps that share your location – anything from weather apps to local news apps to coupon savers – you could be in there, too.

If you could see the full trove, you might never use your phone the same way again.

The report makes the implications obvious by identifying specific individuals. For example, the data revealed a Microsoft engineer visiting Amazon’s campus, where he now works. Another — who remains anonymous in the report — is a senior Defense Department official (and his wife,) shown walking through the Women’s March in Washington. It’s not difficult imagine the implications of such information being available to employers, governments, and other powerful organizations.

When we talk about regulating tech, we usually think of large data-driven companies. But data themselves are neutral. Large data sets can help us identify and cure medical conditions, for example. It’s where we apply data — and to what ends — that can get us in trouble. Surreptitiously gathering data about citizens and residents to better persuade us is about the most pernicious thing we can do to a free society. Yet here we are.

Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy

Five Books I Enjoyed in 2019

Many people take time during the holidays to look back on the past year. Reading is a big part of my life, so around this time I usually re-visit the books I’ve read during the year and highlight the ones that stood out. I share these lists in case you’re looking for book recommendations for the holidays. (Note these aren’t necessarily books that were published during the past year — this just happens to be when I got around to them.)

Without further preamble, here are five books I enjoyed and learned from in 2019:

Design Unbound: Designing for Emergence in a White Water World by Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown. A map for pragmatic design-doing — not for making products and services better (or even better products and services), but for operating at a higher, more systemic level: that of social, economic, ecologic transformation. Buy it on Amazon.com (volume 1/volume 2) or see my book notes.

Design by Concept: A New Way to Think About Software by Daniel Jackson. A compelling argument for the importance of conceptual modeling in software design. It includes clear examples and an actionable framework for defining such models. (The book is billed as a “prepublication draft”; I’d love to read the “final” version.) Buy it on Amazon.com.

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of The Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger. A memoir/leadership manual from one of the great business leaders of our time. Mr. Iger took the job of Disney CEO at a troubled time for the company; he revived its fortunes by skillfully implementing a clear, compelling strategic vision. Buy it on Amazon.com or see my book notes.

Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts. Makes the case that Churchill — flaws and all — was the right person at the right time to (literally) save the world. What’s more interesting is that he knew this, even from an early age. (At 16 he predicted he’d save England from an invasion.) He was also hilarious. Buy it on Amazon.com.

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott. A treatise on the relationship between top-down and bottom-up organization frameworks. Argues that states seek to simplify social structures to make them more “legible.” (I.e., easier to measure and manage.) This impulse has led, in the most extreme cases, to disastrous top-down “high modernist” schemes. The book is engaging, disturbing, and mind-changing. Buy it on Amazon.com.

Seeing Wide and Deep

A version of this post appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

Teams that manage or design digital products are often narrowly focused on their domains. These teams care about the needs of their stakeholders and users, the features that will accommodate those needs, the rollout of those features over time, their performance (financial and otherwise), the constraints and possibilities of their infrastructure, etc. It’s a lot to track.

These folks must maintain this focus to produce results — especially if they’re working in complex domains. But there’s a risk: by so focusing their efforts, they can become inwardly-oriented, missing opportunities to innovate. For example, I’ve worked with product teams who have trouble seeing outside of their industry. As a result, they understand their offerings primarily in relation to what competitors are doing. These teams would benefit from an external perspective.

There’s another field that has embraced an “outsider” role in the creative process, one which may be worth emulating: the music industry.

Think of a pop song you love, one that brightens your day. You likely know the name of the artist who sings it. However, creating a successful song isn’t only up to the artist; there’s a team behind most hits. One of the key members of this team is the music producer.

The producer isn’t the song’s author or performer. Instead, the producer works with artists to help them reach their potential. Among other things, the producer helps them anticipate trends, break out of ruts, find new uses for innovative technologies, identify and recruit collaborators, manage the recording process, and generally shake things up by helping artists experience their work in a broader context.

To do these things, the producer must know the workings of the studio, the economics and politics of the industry, the past and present of the genre, what other artists are doing, and more. Few musical artists can master these skills while also excelling at writing and performing their music. One way to think about it is that where artists go deep, producers go wide. It makes for a powerful partnership.

I don’t think such a role currently exists in product organizations, but it should. (I suspect it must be played by an outsider, someone not looking to “join the band.” One of the ways producers add value is by cross-pollinating frameworks.) Teams that can see deep and wide can better understand the boundaries of their systems and articulate more clearly the problems they’re addressing. Teams with a broadened perspective can see and connect dots that others miss, revealing new opportunities.