Banning Targeted Advertising?

Gilad Edelman writing in Wired:

The task of regulating an increasingly out of control digital environment often looks like a multifront war against various enemies: privacy breaches, hate speech, disinformation, and more. What if we had a weapon that could bring all those armies to their knees?

The article highlights a “nascent movement” of people who believe the business model underlying these environments — targeted, personalized advertising — is the main problem. Rather than focusing on front-end efforts to legislate what happens in these places, a more impactful approach would be to make the business model itself illegal.

If you’ve read Living in Information, you won’t be surprised to know I agree with the assessment that business models are critical. That said, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to this issue. I can easily imagine targeted advertising would make some information environments more useful while also supporting user goals.

As a user myself, I’m willing to give up some of my privacy if I get something tangible in return, and I clearly understand who’s using my information and for what purposes. For example, I don’t mind if the place where I do my shopping shows me ads that meet my needs. I’m there to buy stuff, after all, and the place knows who I am and my preferences and shopping patterns. Knowing those things, it can tell me about new products that will make my life better. That has value to me.

I don’t feel the same way about places where I meet with family and friends or have civic conversations with my neighbors. The general idea behind targeted advertising — that the system will learn my preferences so it can better persuade me — is profoundly at odds with my goals in those environments.

Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?

Come Together (in Information Environments)

Priya Parker writing in The New York Times:

It’s possible to make remote gathering a worthy competitor of traditional events. The bittersweet truth about all the gatherings and meetings and parties and conferences being canceled is that many of them would not have been particularly meaningful to begin with. And so if we are willing to bring to the time of Covid-19 a level of intention that we too rarely visit upon our regular gatherings, this heavy time could be leavened by the new rituals it created, the unlikely intimacies it fostered and the ways in which it revealed that convening people is a special privilege that ought never to be taken for granted.

This post beautifully articulates a feeling I’ve had over the past few days: that the current crisis is an inflection point in how we meet and collaborate. It’s not just that we’re working online; we’re experimenting with all types of social interactions. (This evening I’m planning to attend my first virtual happy hour.)

It’s still too soon to tell what the effects will be in the near-term. That said, some seem obvious. Digital communication platforms (Zoom, WebEx, Messages, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, etc.) were already important before this crisis, but now they’re essential. How long would we stand the isolation if it weren’t for these systems? The companies that operate these systems are now central to our social infrastructure.

Also, we must be more mindful of what should be a meeting. Now that most communications are happening in information environments, the choice between synchronous and asynchronous communications seems less stark. It’s all happening on the same plane, after all. Why not just start an email thread, or reach out to folks on Slack, instead of scheduling a meeting?

That said, I expect a reaction when this is over; a resurgence of big festivals, fairs, concerts, etc. I sense that after weeks (and hopefully it’s only weeks) of meeting people exclusively through video chats, we’ll be longing to be in the physical presence of others. Digital is too narrow a medium to convey the richness of full interpersonal interaction. For now, we are truly living significant parts of our lives in information environments — not by choice.

(I found out about this op ed through my publisher’s newsletter; you should subscribe.)

How to Be Together Apart In the Time of Coronavirus

Efficiency and Redundancy

Yesterday, officials in the Bay Area issued an order for those of us who live here to “shelter in place.” Meaning, we’re to stay inside our homes and only go out for essential reasons, such as buying groceries. (Most businesses are closed anyway.) This order is in place for three weeks.

I went to Costco to buy some staples (coffee!) before the order took effect. I found shelves stocked with a mix of some goods (there was plenty of coffee) and not much of others (no toilet paper, very little bread.) Hoarding behavior + supply chain disruptions = empty shelves. As I perused the gaps in the store’s inventory, one word kept coming to mind: resiliency. We’re learning the degree to which our systems can keep us fed, clothed, connected, etc.

Markets are great mechanisms for reducing costs. But in times of crisis, cost is only one variable among many. There may come a time when people are willing to pay more for a roll of toilet paper. But if there are no machines turning out more rolls, or trucks to transport them, or fuel to power them, or raw materials to produce them, or stores to sell them, then cost won’t matter much. A month ago, this observation would’ve been hypothetical. Now, it feels very real.

A generative question for the world we create after this crisis: how might markets better balance efficiency and redundancy?

The Dynamics of Remote All-hands Meetings

Over the last few weeks, COVID-19 went from being a news item to being the news. And this past week, those of us in the United States started feeling the impact of the disease firsthand. Fortunately, for most people, the impact isn’t health-related. Currently, many of us are more affected by measures to curb the pandemic than by the disease itself. For a privileged few — including myself — the primary impact in the near-term is a shift to working from home.

For software designers like myself, working primarily from home isn’t as much of a burden as it would be for people in many other industries. The stuff we work on is the same stuff that we communicate with, so moving work online is feasible. However, it still requires adjustments. Team dynamics are different when working remotely. If you’re used to working with others in physical environments, you’ve internalized ways of working and hierarchies that have emerged in (and made possible by) the environments you share. As you shift to new environments, these hierarchies become visible.

This week I participated in a recurring all-hands meeting. I’d been in these meetings many times before, always in all in the same physical space. The atmosphere had always been casual, but the structure of the room, and the way we arranged ourselves in the space, implied and reinforced a hierarchy. There was always a sense that someone was leading the meeting at any given time; the rest of us were more of an audience. Our shared attention was on a vertical surface at the “front” of the room: a whiteboard. The meeting “leader” usually stood near this whiteboard, sometimes holding a marker. Those of us in the “audience” faced this whiteboard so we could see it and the speaker.

Continue reading

The Quality of Impromptu Online Work

This tweet resonated with me:

Avoiding congregations is a key measure for slowing the spread of coronavirus. As a result, we’re moving online many activities that we would’ve previously done in person. Some activities are easier to move than others.

I had an in-person brainstorming meeting scheduled this morning. We’re now planning to do it over Zoom. We’ll still meet, but it won’t be the same. When I meet with someone to explore new ideas, we use sticky notes and whiteboards to make our thinking visible. The room becomes part of our shared cognitive apparatus. As good as they are, modern teleconferencing apps can’t replicate a physical space with lots of drawing surfaces. We can’t immerse ourselves in the thinking in the same way, so the thinking will be different.

I’m also an educator. I haven’t heard from my institution about canceling in-person classes, but another local university did so last week. So I must at least consider the possibility: what if we need to move classes online? My classes have lecture components and experiential components, such as design critiques and in-class exercises. I can easily do the lectures online, but not the exercises. We don’t have time to restructure the course (literally) in the middle of the semester. So if need be, we can finish the semester online, but it won’t be the same.

Moving activities online on short notice isn’t ideal. Some, such as basic “information transfer” meetings, are relatively easy to do. Others will not be as easy. Moving these activities online will require additional effort, and will likely impact the quality of work in the near-term. But as the cliché says, necessity is the mother of invention. One possible outcome from this time of disruption could be new remote collaboration techniques that outlast the immediate crisis. Ultimately, reducing our dependency on transportation could even be good for the environment. (Looking for a silver lining here.)

Legislating the Structure of Information Environments

Proposed legislation in the U.S. would constrain the structure of online spaces aimed at children:

Platforms either targeting a designated audience or providing covered content would be prohibited from using tactics that promote prolonged engagement such as auto-play, push alerts, or displaying “the quantity of positive engagement or feedback that a covered user has received from other users”—so no “likes” on a teen’s Instagram account. That goes for “badges or other visual award symbols” that show off engagement, such as awards for streaks on Snapchat.

The bill defines children as anyone under 16 and takes a broad lens towards what it considers content aimed at them.

I’m all for information environments that strive to more closely align the interests of their creators and their users. (This is one of the main arguments of my book, Living in Information.) This bill seems to do that for children using attention-driven information environments.

I do wish industry would adopt such measures without the need for regulations. People can be ingenious at following the letter of such laws while skirting their spirit. Also, laws change more slowly than technology and tend to stick around longer; they’re on different layers in the pace layer diagram. (But moving more slowly and deliberately in this area might not be a bad thing.)

That said, it’s good that lawmakers are paying attention. Hopefully, the threat of legislation will nudge organizations towards greater alignment with the interests of their users — especially the most vulnerable.

Proposed bill would end “likes” for young teens’ online content

Coronavirus and Remote Collaboration

In early February, Azeem Azhar asked a provocative question in his blog, Exponential View:

How might the new coronavirus change our world?

The post lists six significant changes the outbreak might usher. Among these, one stood out to me:

Remote everything – we’ll travel less.

This point has aged well. Just in the last week, several major conferences and industry gatherings have been either cancelled or postponed. Large organizations like Amazon and Facebook have banned nonessential travel for employees. Some companies, like Twitter, are encouraging employees to work from home.

Near-term, these measures will negatively impact the travel and hospitality industries and local economies that rely on event-based tourism. That said, other industries might see a surge in demand. Businesses that provide remote collaboration systems and services are sure to experience higher usage. (In a subsequent post, Mr. Azhar noted that Zoom “has added 2.22 million monthly active users in 2020, compared to 1.99 million in all of 2019.”)

It’s still too soon to tell what will happen with the coronavirus. That said, one undeniable immediate effect is an increase in remote collaboration over digital systems. While some conferences have been cancelled outright, others, like Google’s Cloud Next conference have already been refashioned into digital-first events. In Living in Information, I highlighted several ways in which we’re moving towards working in information environments. A significant outbreak of a contagious disease would accelerate this trend, by unfortunate necessity.

I hope for quick and effective containment of the coronavirus and relief to people who are suffering. I also can’t help but wonder: will these new work modalities stick as we discover better ways of collaborating remotely? Will the relaxation of remote-work policies outlast the crisis? What will be the effects of the virus on how we work in the mid- and long-term?

Six ways coronavirus will change our world – Exponential View

Reid Hoffman on Language, Big Tech, and Society

Tyler Cowen posted a great podcast of an interview with Reid Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman studied philosophy, and at one point in the conversation they discussed the influence of Wittgenstein on LinkedIn:

COWEN: How did your interest in the late Wittgenstein influence the construction and design of LinkedIn? I’m sure they ask you this all the time in interviews.

HOFFMAN: [laughs] All the time. The question I’ve always been expecting. I would say that the notion of thinking about — a central part of later Wittgenstein is to think that we play language games, that the way that we form identity and community, both of ourselves and as individuals, is the way that we discourse and the way that we see each other and the way that we elaborate language.

That pattern of which ways we communicate with each other, what’s the channel we do, and what’s the environment that we’re in comes from insights from — including later Wittgenstein, who I think was one of the best modern philosophers in thinking about how language is core to the people that we are and that we become.

Later, Mr. Hoffman addresses the relationship between large tech companies and society as a whole:

I agree that the technological companies are a very important Archimedean lever. What I disagree with is that, as those levers become more important to society, I think that we can’t actually, in fact, say, “We should not be in discourse with society about what we’re doing.” Because actually, in fact, once you begin to have society-level impact, not just a, “Oh, look, here’s a new social game or something else, here is a new Zynga game that’s fun to play.”

Okay, who cares? I mean, it’s fun. Maybe hundreds of millions of people do it, but that doesn’t actually impact the way that society operates.

The fact is, as we get to the way that society operates, we need to add in interaction with society, accountability on the design principles and the philosophy by which we are affecting society. We have to integrate in ways by which society can give us feedback. That doesn’t necessarily always mean direction. Maybe sometimes there’s regulation or other things, but an ability to be in conversation with them.

If you look at it, my view would be that, as you have more successful tech companies that have an impact on society as a whole, part of what you should start doing is deliberately engaging in discourse with the various institutions of society in a public way, to say, “Here is the kinds of things that not only are we doing now, but what we’re trying to create in the future.”

He doesn’t explicitly connect the two ideas in the interview, but I will: these places made of language increasingly impact the ways societies work. As a result, the organizations that operate them must engage in active dialog with other social institutions, including governments.

(Mr. Cowen’s podcast, Conversations With Tyler, features insightful interviews with people who are shaping our world. It’s worth your attention.)

Reid Hoffman | Conversations With Tyler

The Pull of the Present

By this time twenty years ago, many of us were feeling relieved. We’d been hearing for months about the near-certain fallout from the “Y2K bug”: widespread computer system failures caused by the practice of shortening years to two digits instead of four (e.g., 99 rather than 1999.) But by mid-January, 2000, it was clear that all would be ok. Or so it seemed.

Some context, in case you weren’t around then. By the mid-1990s, computer systems were already essential parts of our infrastructure. Nobody knew how many of these computers had the bug or what would happen after 11:59 pm on December 31, 1999, when these systems would assume it was now January 1 of year zero. Would there be blackouts? Urban transport cancellations? Airplane collisions? The complexity of such infrastructure-level systems made the consequences impossible to predict. Governments and companies undertook massive and expensive projects to “fix” the problem. FORTRAN programmers suddenly found their skills in demand.

Then nothing happened. By the end of the first week of January 2000, it was clear that either the fixes had been successful or the potential downsides overblown. Those of us who’d been stressing out about the Y2K bug felt relieved and quickly forgot about it.

Continue reading