Goodbye, Information Age

Fake news“Say goodbye to the information age: it’s all about reputation now,” is the headline of an article by Italian philosopher and professor Gloria Origgi, published recently on Aeon Magazine’s website.

She writes:

…the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.

I no longer need to open a computer, go online and type my questions into Google if I want to know something: I can simply ask it. “Hey Google, what’s the population of China?” or “Hey Google, who’s the mayor of Midland, Ontario?” or “Hey Google, how many lines are in Hamlet?” Google will answer with all the data. If I ask, “Hey Google, what are the headlines this morning?” it will play a recent CBC newscast.

Google Home can, however, only give me a summary, a snippet, a teaser. Should I want to delve deeper or into than one question, I still need to go online and search. And that leads me into the information swamp that is the internet. How do i sort it all out?

The way we access information has changed as radically as the amount available to us. Just look at the Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2018: “Nomophobia” which means “a fear or worry at the idea of being without your mobile phone or unable to use it”.

Describing a typical day in his life, Dan Nixon writes of how we isolate ourselves with out phones, imagining they are instead connecting us:

…the deluge of stimuli competing to grab our attention almost certainly inclines us towards instant gratification. This crowds out space for the exploratory mode of attention. When I get to the bus stop now, I automatically reach for my phone, rather than stare into space; my fellow commuters (when I do raise my head) seem to be doing the same thing.

What could there be that is so engaging on the phone that the writer cannot use the time to, say, think? Read? Observe? Communicate with his fellow travellers? Eleven studies found that “…participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” The phone serves as a personal barrier to interaction instead of facilitating it. It’s a feedback loop: making it seem we are “doing something” by giving us a sensory response, while making it seem that simply thinking is “doing nothing.”

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
Seneca, Letter II to Lucilius, trans. Robin Campbell, Penguin Classics: Letters from a Stoic, 2004.

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Dictionary vs Dictionary.com

Concise OEDDid you know that doxastic is a philosophical adjective relating to an individual’s beliefs? Or that doxorubicin was an antibiotic used in treating leukemia? Or that doxy is a 16th century word for mistress and prostitute? That drack is Australian slang for unattractive or dreary? Drabble means to make wet and dirty in muddy water? A downwarp is a broad depression in the earth’s surface? Drail is a weighted fish hook? Dragonnade means quartering troops on a population while dragonet is a small fish but a dragoman is an interpreter? That a dramaturge is a literary editor on a theatre staff?

These are words I read when I was looking up the word doxology last night. They all appear close to doxology, either on the same or the adjacent page. Anyone with even a modicum of curiosity opening a dictionary can find these and other words in your search for the meaning of an unfamiliar or uncommon word. In fact, it’s quite entertaining to simply open a dictionary at any random page and read because you are likely to learn something new each time (well, perhaps less so if you use one of the generic no-name dictionaries you bought in the box store).

My bedside dictionary is the Concise Oxford, but I also have several other Oxford editions, a Random House, Merriam Webster, and Chambers, plus some others. I often refer to several for a more comprehensive understanding of a word. And yes, I do keep one by the bed because I read a lot before sleep and sometimes encounter unfamiliar words. Oxford because it’s simply the best, I like the layout and typography, and it’s English, not American.
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The bucket list, kicked

Kick the bucketNowadays the “bucket list” concept has become a wildly popular cultural meme, thanks to the movie of the same name. Subsequent marketing of the idea to millennials has proven a successful means to derive them of their income, with which they seem eager to part.

I don’t like the concept. The list, I mean, not necessarily the plucking of the millennial chickens who willingly hand over their financial feathers. They get what they deserve.

Bucketlist.org has, at the time of this writing, more than 5.317 million “dreams” for you to pursue. Contributed by more than 450,000 people. And your individual dream? Part of the Borg’s list. Pretty hard to think of something original that the previous 450,000 folks didn’t already add to the list.

Just search “bucket list” on Google and you’ll turn up close to 52 million hits, and a huge number of them are selling something, from New Age codswallop to travel to high-tech gadgets and everything in-between. Nowadays, “your” bucket list is everyone’s bucket list and has become part of a slick campaign aimed at your wallet. At every corner there’s some entrepreneur eager to play Virgil to your hollow life’s Dante, for a price.

A bucket list is, we learned from the film, the wish list of things you want to accomplish before you kick the metaphorical bucket  – i.e. die – as a means to give your previously pathetic life some substance. That notion quickly morphed into a commercial selling point, and it seems I encounter it every day in some new form, usually on social media. It’s up there with posts about puppies, angels, magic crystals, and nasty troll posts about liberals.

The movie is about two seniors undergoing an end-of-life crisis trying to figure out the Meaning of It All. They resolve to avoid dwelling on their inevitable end by taking very expensive trips around the world (Jack Nicholson plays a billionaire…). It’s a cute, moving film. It’s fiction, but also a great marketing idea. We are all susceptible to Hollywood, after all. And, of course, we all have billionaire friends who will buy the tickets, right?

Okay, I get it: we all want life to make sense, and to have meaning that makes the 9-5 grind worthwhile. But even if our lives are meaningless, we don’t want to die, either. We want to be able to say something we did made the journey worth the effort. But is this the way? Is life simply a series of boxes we check off? A list that keeps growing with more and more items to check? Your self esteem will suffer if you don’t check this off. And this. And this. And this…

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Server upgrade coming

Sometime in the next two weeks, I will be amalgamating servers for the several sites I manage and conflating them onto one, new and (I hope) faster and more efficient server. There may be some downtime while the files and databases migrate, like virtual birds, to their new home.

I hope that the digital gods of server migration allow my moves to go smoothly. I would sacrifice a virtual dove to propitiate them, if I could only find their virtual altar… would that I were the digital Odysseus…

For most users, it will, I expect, be but a momentary blip in the service, a temporary lapse of rant soon reconstructed. No more than a couple of hours of downtime while the ether is busy with transient bytes flitting hither and yon. My biggest concern is the Blue Agave forum which operates on an Invision system… the transition to the current servers wasn’t all that smooth when I moved a few years back. But we’ll see how it evolves… I might need the aid of Invision’s tech team, too…. but that should not concern you.

If things don’t go smoothly, and it takes longer than expected, it may be the result my clumsy handling of the tools (while still technically inclined, my edge has, I admit, lost some of its crispness as I age). Or it may be some deeper, larger problem that requires tech support to save me from myself and the quicksand of SQL content.

I can migrate the static files easily enough, but depend somewhat on online tools to make the transition for the blog and WordPress databases. And then there’s all that PHP stuff…

Anyway, things may appear and disappear, and off error pages emerge, but take heart that I am not vanished from the network, merely taking the high road to the deep north, as Basho did, but of course virtually, and expecting to return momentarily. Should my site appear gone, take heart that it has not shuffled off this mortal coil, but merely retired momentarily to a far, far better place…. and will reappear when the digital stars align.

Refresh, refresh, refresh and return and it will all be made clear. I hope. If not…. well, I can always start afresh.

Facebook, Likes and Big Data

GizmodoI suppose you could call it ironic. There was a story from a ‘friend’ on my Facebook news feed today called “Quitting the Like” all about escaping Facebook’s data collection processes by simply not “liking” items or comments you see.

Right below this ostensibly anti-Facebook story were three related links produced by one of the Facebook data-collection bots all about the same thing: breaking free from Facebook’s data mining. I suspect the FB programmers hadn’t planned it that way. But aside from the irony, it caused me to read them all.

The first story, fully titled “I Quit Liking Things On Facebook for Two Weeks. Here’s How It Changed My View of Humanity” is by blogger Elan Morgan who explains:

I no longer wanted to be as active a participant in teaching Facebook how to advertise to me as I had been in the past, but another and much larger issue was my real curiosity: how was my Facebook experience going to change once I stopped feeding its engine with likes?

Her conclusion is that by not feeding the bots through the automatic reflex of clicking “like” below a ‘friend’s’ (real or artificial) post or comment, and instead by writing something positive in a comment, you can increase the human interaction on FB and reduce the generated noise.

Quit the Like and experiment with amplifying a better signal. What will happen to your Facebook without your likes? What will happen to your perception of not only your Facebook friends but the world at large? What will happen to us?

That’s an interesting approach, one I had considered but never taken. It encourages me to try it, but I also wonder if sharing a post also generates the same sort of algorithmic reaction. Is a ‘share’ a formulaic equivalent to a ‘like’ or are they weighted in some manner? And I am not sure the algorithms don’t also track comment density and content: is replacing ‘like’ with a comment merely a cosmetic change, or does it have a significant effect?

Gizmodo reported FB is doing some automatic liking for you, behind the curtain:

You might think clicking “Like” is the only way to stamp that public FB affirmation on something—you’re wrong. Facebook is checking your private messages and automatically liking things you talk about.

What I’d really like to know is how FB’s bots manage all the content, beyond the like button. So they weigh keywords, track what we post, how we comment, share and so on? I suspect they do, but how they parse the results is a fascinating, sometimes a bit scary mystery.

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No Data Are Better Than Bad Data

Avoid bias
The full name of an article I read today is, “The Fallacy of Online Surveys: No Data Are Better Than Bad Data.” It’s from 2010 and very good. You can find it on the Responsive Management website. It makes some key points about the invalidity of online surveys:

  • For a study to be unbiased, every member of the population under study must have an equal chance of participating.
  • When online surveys are accessible to anyone who visits a website, the researcher has no control over sample selection. These self-selected opinion polls result in a sample of people who decide to take the survey — not a sample of scientifically selected respondents who represent the larger population.
  • Non-response bias in online surveys is complicated by the most egregious form of self-selection. People who respond to a request to complete an online survey are likely to be more interested in or enthusiastic about the topic and therefore more willing to complete the survey, which biases the results.
  • Unless specific technical steps are taken with the survey to prevent it, people who have a vested interest in survey results can complete an online survey multiple times and urge others to complete the survey in order to influence the results.
  • Because of the inability to control who has access to online surveys, there is no way to verify who responds to them — who they are, their demographic background, their location, and so on.

I’ve said this all before. The article concludes:

As a result of these problems, obtaining representative, unbiased, scientifically valid results from online surveys is not possible at this time, except in the case of the closed population surveys, such as with employee surveys, described earlier. This is because, from the outset, there is no such thing as a complete and valid sample — some people are systematically excluded, which is the very definition of bias. In addition, there is no control over who completes the survey or how many times they complete the survey. These biases increase in a stepwise manner, starting out with the basic issue of excluding those without Internet access, then non-response bias, then stakeholder bias, then unverified respondents. As each of these becomes an issue, the data become farther and farther removed from being representative of the population as a whole.

There’s also a good slide show on internet surveys here that goes over the basics presented in the article above. A 2008 paper addressed just issue with online surveys: self-selection. The author, Jelke Bethlehem, wrote:

…web surveys are a fast, cheap and attractive means of collecting large amounts of data. Not surprisingly, many survey organisations have implemented such surveys. However, the question is whether a web survey is also attractive from a quality point of view, because there are methodological problems. These problems are caused by using the Internet as a selection instrument for respondents.
This paper shows that the quality of web surveys may be seriously affected by these problems, making it difficult, if not impossible to make proper inference with respect to the target population of the survey. The two main causes of problems are under-coverage and self-selection.

The author concludes:

It was shown that self-selection can cause estimates of population characteristics to be biased. This seems to be similar to the effect of nonresponse in traditional probability sampling based surveys. However, it was shown that the bias in selfselection surveys can be substantially larger. Depending on the response rate in a web survey, the bias can in a worst case situation even be more than 13 times as large.

In other words: most online surveys are bunk. You might also recall I wrote about online surveys in past posts. I won’t repeat what I said then, but here are the links to those posts: