Worth Your Attention

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

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

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

Mind Your Manners Online

In case you haven’t seen it, The New York Times has a new-ish section called Smarter Living that offers pointers on how to be effective in our hybrid physical-digital world. A recent article by Victoria Turk is representative; it highlights the importance of good manners online:

As more of our lives moves online, good digital etiquette is critical. Just as we judge people by their behavior IRL — in real life — so we take note when a person’s manners in the digital sphere leave something to be desired.

The article addresses some of the challenges of operating in contexts made of (written) language:

Both the content of your message and its tone will live or die based on what you type on your keyboard, so the gap between, say, landing a joke and causing mortal offense can be perilously fine.

It goes on to suggest ways in which you can be mindful about your online etiquette; all good reminders.

I’m glad to see major publications like the Times acknowledging the contextual nature of our digital environments. Being effective in today’s world requires that we become adept at operating in places made of text. Minding our manners in these places is perhaps more important than in physical environments since written language is so easy to misinterpret. It also sticks around: spoken words are evanescent, but your online posts will be there for a long time.

While the NYT article doesn’t mention it, for me, an important part of minding my manners online is reminding myself that I’m dealing with other people, not just collections of pixels and metadata. These people — different though their positions may be from mine — also experience joy and suffering and all the tribulations of being human. I’m often reminded of this beautiful admonition from Kurt Vonnegut:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’

You Live Your Life Online. Don’t Forget Your Manners

Worth Your Attention

Rediscovering Information Architecture

UX Collective’s Fabricio Teixeira and Caio Braga writing in their fifth annual State of UX report:

While last year we the design community reflected on how the experiences we create can impact the world (from enabling tech addiction to influencing democratic elections), this year’s report carries a more positive outlook: 2020 is the year of pragmatic optimism. It is the year for designers to conscientiously improve not only the digital products people use every day, but also our companies and our industry.

The report highlights several possible futures for an improved UX design field. Among them: the rediscovery of information architecture. This section cites the central role of information environments in today’s societies and notes that designing effectively for such environments calls for thinking beneath the surface to the structures that underlie them.

This subject is dear to me, so I was grateful when Caio and Fabricio asked me to contribute some thoughts for the report. I’ll highlight this one since I think it nicely articulates the broad implications of the subject:

As we enter the year 2020, things start to change as information environments become the core of all digital institutions surrounding our lives. “Organizations are stewards of information environments, and information structures are a key strategic concern. Companies, governments, and non-profits must aim for these structures to be useful, usable, and coherent — not just for themselves and their stakeholders, but for society as a whole,” explains Arango. “These factors increase the strategic importance of design in general and information architecture in particular. IA is long overdue for rediscovery and resurgence.”

The whole thing is worth your attention — especially if you’re responsible for the design of digital products or services.

The State of UX in 2020

Preserving Open Source Software for the Long Term

We take much of our digital infrastructure for granted; stuff “just works,” day after day. But things can change fast. What would happen if contextual conditions — social, natural, or whatever — radically devolved into chaos? It’d be good to be able to reboot things in the case of a digital dark age. Looking to address this contingency, the Long Now Foundation has partnered with GitHub on its new GitHub Archive program:

Taking its lessons from past examples when crucial cultural knowledge was lost, such as the Great Library of Alexandria (which was burned multiple times between 48 BCE 00640 CE) and the Roman recipe for concrete, the GitHub Archive is employing a LOCKSS (“Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”) approach to preserving open source code for the future.

The Archive will take periodic snapshots of all public GitHub repositories, and store them in various formats and locations, including the Arctic World Archive in Norway — a code-archiving strategy inspired by Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand’s pace layers framework.

Is it likely that we’ll lapse into a new dark age? I don’t know. Would the GitHub Archive help in such a circumstance? I don’t know… And hope to never have to find out. But I do know it’s important to think about possible futures and plan accordingly. The GitHub Archive is a tangible example of such thinking.

In our sped-up age, it’s more important than ever that we make decisions with longer time perspectives in mind. By partnering with the GitHub Archive project, the Long Now Foundation (of which I’m a proud member) is carrying out its mission to foster long-term thinking. If you’re not a member yet, check out their seminar series about long-term thinking and consider joining.

Long Now Partners with GitHub on its Long-term Archive Program for Open Source Code

No More Customer Reviews on Apple.com

AppleInsider reports:

On November 17, Apple removed the “Ratings & Reviews” section from all product pages on the Apple website. It is currently unclear what has prompted this decision, nor when Apple will bring back the option to read the opinions of other customers at the time of purchase.

Customer reviews never felt like a natural part of Apple’s online store. I remember reading the negative reviews for the USB-C to 3.5mm Headphone Jack Adapter and wondering how a company as controlling of its image as Apple allowed its products to be disparaged on its own website. I expect the answer to the question “when will Apple bring back this option?” is “never.”

(Contrast this decision with Amazon’s approach.)

Apple pulls all customer reviews from online Apple Store