Essays on Technology and Culture

The Unbearable Difficulty of Opting-Out

A couple of years ago, in a fit of pique and a desire to clean up my data trails, I nuked my LinkedIn account. I wasn’t using it, I never liked the company, and it felt like another leech on my mind. I had recently started a new job after a year working for a Fintech startup that required a LinkedIn account—it was the major method we used for social sign-on—so that made me doubly interested in nuking it. All was fine with my LinkedIn-free existence, until I started to get restless, and look for another job.

Interviewing at a Redacted Consumer Technology Blog for a Social Media Coordinator role went well… until I was asked about my lack of a LinkedIn profile. It looks really bad for someone who is ostensibly a Social Media-slash-Community Manager person not to have a profile on the Largest Professional Networking site or whatnot. After I got home, I scrambled to put together a new LinkedIn profile, though not without grumbling as I did so. Once I had some connections and a profile, my job search turned around almost immediately, though I didn’t get the job with the Blog.

It’s getting harder and harder to opt-out of services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google. We can choose not to use them, in much the same way that we can choose not to have indoor plumbing, but it won’t be easy or comfortable. When the vast majority of my friends and family use Facebook as their primary method of communication, what is the alternative? I am not going to be able to drag all my friends with me to a competing platform I can trust, assuming there is one. Most of them don’t know about the alternatives, and even if they did, odds are they don’t give a damn. And why should they? The privacy and security minded among us have been raising a fuss for nearly a decade now without much effect.

We claim “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” It’s true. Social media companies make their money by collecting our personal data, chopping it up, and selling the resulting sausage to advertisers with barely a token amount of obfuscation. It doesn’t make a dent. People are more afraid of hackers than they are of the companies that have access to their data. It’s only a matter of time before someone cleverly social-engineers their way into Facebook or Google’s database and gets away with a chunk of user data that will be disseminated over the Dark Web. It will be a dark day for the Internet, especially if they also get away with data on the profiles these companies have collected upon us. I just hope Have I Been Pwned? is using some heavy-duty caching when it happens.

So everyone stays on these services, and people like me would would prefer not to are caught up in the web of social obligation that these companies depend on. Because of this, I can’t just pull a Louis C.K. and quit the Internet. They’ve become the de facto plumbing of the Internet, and how do you opt-out of plumbing? At least there’s reasonable alternatives to most Google services—the majority of my searches go through DuckDuckGo these days—but as mentioned before, any alternative to the social plumbing online is either just as bad, worse, or so obscure as to be useless. How many of your Facebook friends are on Diaspora? Who is still posting to App.Net?

When does it become easier to just give in to corporate surveillance and the misery of tracking and ads if you want to keep in touch with the people in your life that you care about? When does it become worth giving in if you want your existence to be known for a career, for your art, for anything?

If I had the answer, I wouldn’t be writing this.

A Brief Thought on watchOS 3 and Context Aware Computing

A key feature of watchOS 3, as announced at WWDC, is that it’s now easier to configure and switch between watch faces. This is awesome, and a lot of Apple Watch users, myself included, have several watch faces they switch to at different times. Currently, I keep an “Activity Face”, a “Productivity Face”, a “Sleep” face, a “Casual” face, and a “Time Only” face. Being able to have them a swipe away, instead of a force-press and a swipe away will make them even more useful.

Daniel Jalkut, however, had a better thought: using Siri to switch between named watch faces. This is brilliant, and I hope Apple considers his radar. If they decide to do this, if not in watchOS 3, perhaps in 3.1, it would go a long way towards something I dreamed of when the Watch first dropped: context-aware watch faces.

As long as the Watch is tethered to the iPhone, something I don’t see changing any time soon, it knows where I’m at and what I’m doing. If I’m walking to work, why not let it switch to my Activity face, so I can see my ring progress? When I’m at the office, show my productivity face, so I get my OmniFocus tasks. At home, show my casual face. Bedtime? Switch to the Sleep face. Weekend? X-Large face, please.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a pipe-dream, but as long as the data around knowing what my Watch face should show stays securely on my devices, I’m more than happy to let it be used to make my life a ittle more convenient. And yeah, stick the Siri integration on there, too. That would be great when you have speciality faces that don’t necessarily fit context, or if you’re paranoid about location data.

I want my devices to make my life easier, to be my outboard brain. That requires them to know more and step up what they can do for me. I’m more than willing to allow it, as long as that data remains in my control, and not sold to the highest bidder. The WWDC announcements this year have left me hopeful, more so than iOS 9’s weak-sauce Proactive stuff, but every little bit helps. You don’t need massive buildings of data-sucking machines in the cloud, you just need to use what’s already in people’s pockets, and on people’s wrists in a smarter manner.

Am I Too Paranoid About AIs?

Some of the tech people I follow online are slowly starting to crack my brain open about bots and AI stuff. John Gruber and Merlin Mann on The Talk Show were quite effective. There’s a lot of possibility, and as an Apple fanboy, I’m excited to see what’s happening with Siri at WWDC. In the interim, the Amazon Echo continues to tempt me, despite my misgivings. I’ve been a proponent of context-based computing for the past few years, and with better bots and AI, we seem to be getting there, at last.

Problem is, to get all those crazy cool context-aware systems, for our AIs to know what we need to know before we need to know it, they need a lot of data about us to make it happen. I don’t want to give all that data up to those systems. It’s less that I’m worried about giving up my personal data in the abstract. I’m more worried about what the people I give my data to are doing with it beyond what I want them to do. It’s a question of trust. Am I giving up more than I’m getting back?

To stick with Google, my experiences with their AI stuff have been sub-par to say the least, but I don’t know why. It’s a black box. Maybe I wasn’t giving Google enough data, maybe I was stymied by iOS limitations, or maybe I was some weird edge case. There’s no good way to diagnose where any of this stuff is failing, and—at the time—no easy way to make corrections when the AIs screw up. Why should I trust Google to know my commute, when it gives me reminders to leave for work once I’m already at the office?

iOS 9’s “Proactive” features got me more excited than anything Google’s done, not least because I knew most of the smarts were happening on the device, instead of the “cloud” where Apple could do squirrely things with the data. I trust Apple in a way I don’t with Google, but Proactive is a disappointment. Maybe there will be improvements with iOS 10, but even for a 1.0, Proactive is weak sauce. The most functional thing it does is show a little corner icon on my lock screen to open Overcast when my Bluetooth headphones connect. This does me no good, because I still hit the home button to view my lock screen like an animal, and since I have a 6S, I end up at my home screen.

So, I’m stuck between a service that barely works, and a service that might work if I’m willing to unload my entire digital life into its hungry, gaping maw. I know Google will use that data to give me something, but then they’ll slice it, dice it, mix it with the data of people it considers similar, and sell it as a package to advertisers. That’s how they make the money to keep the services going. We know that this is the deal, but the question is… should I really be that paranoid?

It’s a tricky question. How do I know what I’m missing out on until I try it? But I can’t try it without going all-in and surrendering my personal data to a service I don’t know if I can trust. As mentioned before, my previous experience with Google’s AI stuff have been phenomenally sub-par for reasons I can’t even begin to unpack. If they want me to go all in, they’ve got to give me a compelling argument to overlook where they’ve failed in the past. Google not only needs to overcome my paranoia, but to overcome their own failures.

My paranoia extends far beyond Google, though. I’ve made it a point not to connect anything with my Facebook account, because as little as I trust Google, I trust Facebook even less. I even disabled the ability to use Facebook with apps. That hasn’t stopped Facebook from figuring out pieces of my digital life I thought had been siloed. I’ve seen Facebook suggest Twitter friends as Facebook friends, and all I can think of is “How did they get that?” Then, I realized I linked my Instagram account, which uses the same email as my Facebook account, to Twitter, because I was unhappy with IFTTT over their poor treatment of Pinboard. That one’s on me, I guess.

The question remains. Even when I think I’ve drawn the barriers between myself and the prying eyes of the algorithm, something always leaks. You think you’re safe, and then the algorithm starts showing you stuff you never knew it was going to give you—correct stuff, but not the right stuff. The only way to correct it is to surrender, give up more data, and surrender more of myself as disembodied data points that will get sold to give me more and more “relevant” ads. It’s a Catch–22! I don’t want to have my data sold, but I want at least some of what the AI algorithms can give me.

I’m not a hard-liner on any of this, I just want to know what I’m giving up, and how it’ll be used to serve me, and their real customers. At least then I can make an informed decision. If I buy an Echo, can I be certain Amazon is really deleting anything I would say in my apartment before “Alexa?” Am I going to get ads for walnuts based on causal conversations with my fiancĂ© about nutrition? I mean, I’m the kind of person who will give fake information when signing up for a store loyalty cards so I don’t get more junk mail and telemarketing calls. I can’t do that with bots and algorithms.

How long can I keep putting up the fight? At a certain point, it’s easier just to give in. My only hope is that I can hold out until the adtech bubble finally bursts. At which point, I might have to pay a monthly fee to get a decent AI system in my life, but I’ll be more comfortable that way. Either that, or Siri will get the long overdue upgrade it needs at WWDC ’16. There’s no rush, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable being left behind.

Mindful Tech, Part 8: Where Our Data Lives

Of all the ways in which we use technology, nothing has changed quite so dramatically as the way we store and retrieve data. In the span since I started using a computer, we’ve gone from keeping our files on floppy disks and cartridge media, to CD-Rs and thumb drives, to having more local storage than we know what to do with, to keeping our data in the cloud. Odds are, we probably have some overlapping mix of all of these, save for the floppy disks unless you’re really old.

This is just data you’ve made for yourself: files, photos, music, and anything else you can imagine. Where does all of this live? Is there one place you can point toand say “my data lives here”? Another thing that’s changed is that we now have multiple devices. Maybe it’s just a computer and a smartphone, but many people also have tablets, separate work computers, network-attached storage…

I remember when I started living with more than one computer in my life. I was obsessed with keeping everything in my digital life in sync across all my devices, and having one single place for all my data. There were a number of adventures in doing both, never successfully. This included destroying the ability to use .Mac synchronization on two computers thanks to a pirated, third-party, unsupported app to trick computers into using a locally emulated .Mac sync just so I could have all my Yojimbo notes on my laptop and my desktop, years before Evernote was a glint in someone’s eye.

A decade later, and there’s no shortage of great options for keeping data in sync across multiple devices. It’s a blessing and a curse all the same. I know I have personal data scattered across iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox, and probably a few others. Everything is in sync (I hope), but it’s far from being in one place. It would be wonderful for all of these storage options to work together in some fashion. If there were an app that lets me see, at a glance, all my data across my various cloud storage providers, I would pay handsomely for a copy.

There’s no incentive for the cloud data providers to allow such a thing, of course. It’s more lucrative to keep you locked in with exclusive features and APIs, and—depending on who you’re storing with—to pry into your data for the purpose of getting more info to sell to advertisers. There’s also the matter of trust, a subject I’ve written about elsewhere. There are plenty of people who stand by Dropbox, and it’s a reliable service. With Dr. Condoleeza Rice, a noted proponent of domestic spying, on the Dropbox board, I’d rather keep my data some place else. I’m forced to keep using Dropbox, however, as it has the most robust sharing options. iCloud Drive is reliable, but accessible only to me.

Yet, as our devices proliferate, and the way we use computers changes in tune, our data is going to be forced to live in the cloud. It’s unreasonable to expect people to set up their own cloud storage in their homes with a NAS or spare computer. It’s expensive, requires time for setup and maintenance! and ISPs still frown at users running home servers. It’s easier now than it was when I took an old PC and used it as a file server for my MP3s over a decade ago, but not easier enough. It’s not something we should expect ordinary people to do.

Let’s go back to the great auditing from earlier in this series. If you’re concerned about how and where your data lives, take the time to audit that. Ask yourself what data needs to even be in the cloud, what service gives you the best balance of accessibility, organization, flexibility, and security—especially security if you’re as paranoid as I am. Settle on a primary choice, and a backup solution to cover what your primary storage provider can’t do. It makes life so much easier when you know what data lives where.

And if you’re a developer who’s good with APIs and data visualization, please make an app that lets me see all my files in the cloud in one place. Mac or iOS, I don’t care, just make it, and charge me for it. I doubt I’m the only person who wants it.

Thoughts on the Coming Chatbot Revolution

Well, folks, the tech press and VC establishment have shaken their Magic Eight-Ball and determined the Next Big Thing is… “Bots!”

Wait. Is this right? Grace, can you check on that? Really?! Okay, I’ll roll with it.

Yes, it’s bots. Specifically chat bots and AI virtual asistants like Siri and Alexa. Everybody’s getting on board with the bot revolution, and it’s going to revolutionize everything. Get your VC investments primed and ready for all the bot statups.

The rise of the “bot” as the Next Big Thing from the Valley utterly mystified me until recently. What are the advantages of a conversational interface over an explicit, directly manipulable one? There’s the hands-free aspect, something I’ve appreciated with Siri, even more on my Apple Watch, but that only works with the voice assistants. Chatbots? Not so much, though we have come a long way since the days of “YOU CAN’T GET YE FLASK”.

Then it hit me, in that way so many things do. Chatbots, especially when they have a playful personality, are a perfect way to extract more data from people. With Internet users becoming more mindful of their privacy, it’s getting harder for the data brokers and ad companies to get more info to sell advertisements on. What better way to learn consumer preferences than by having them give it to you directly? No more inferring user interests from cookies and browsing data! By presenting a conversational interface, you bypass the defenses of a user’s protectiveness, and get a direct tap into their needs and wants. No wonder it’s a growth industry.

Bots and AI seem like a useful solution being applied to the wrong set of problems. There are great applications for these tools. If I could sit here, at my desk, and be able to just capture a quick idea or OmniFocus task by yelling out loud to my Virtual Assistant, that would be great. I mean, I can… but it’s not great. The chatbot paradigm has the advantage of being simpler than a GUI, and for a number of simpler tasks, it should be a lot easier than one. But it won’t be for everything.

Anything that involves dealing large amounts of data is going to be worse. If you’re looking up pizza places, you’re already going to be overwhelmed in some New York neighborhoods. Instead of finding better ways to handle that data, you’re likely to just be defaulted to whatever chain pizza joint has a marketing deal with your bot provider. Hope you like Dominos, is all I’m saying. Because of this, visual, tactile, and direct interfaces will never go away. Even the voice-controlled universe on Star Trek, where the computer never has trouble understanding you, has a GUI all over the place.

It’s possible a conversational UI would help in allowing computers to be better at understanding nuance. Historically, this is something computers have always sucked at. This is, of course, based on the assumption that the people creating the bots have an understanding of nuance as well. Alyx Baldwin wrote a great piece on The Hidden Dangers of AI for Queer and Trans People. It’s worth your time, but here’s a summary: computers are really good at putting things in boxes, and humans are really bad at being put into boxes. The people who program computers are also lazy and tend to only think of a handful of boxes. Unless the developers of AI, Deep Learning Algorithms, and Chatbots understand the variety of people using them, the AIs, Algorithms, and Chatbots won’t understand them either.

As for understanding, even in terms of language, that’s still up in the air. Voice recognition has come a long way, and on a good day, Siri can understand me despite a whole mess of background noise. Voice recognition still sucks, however, for anyone who speaks with a heavy accent, or has a speech disorder. Since bots and voice recognition systems are often trained on a corpus of speech that assumes someone who speaks a standard language by default.

If you’re not going to come across that language or method of speech in a Silicon Valley development house, you’re not going to see it supported in a voice recognition app or device. It is possible to do single-user training, much like you would with old school voice-to-text apps like Dragon Dictate, but that’s a lot to ask of a user up-front. Easier to just let ’em dangle, though perhaps that might change in time.

Unlike, say, virtual reality, I can see a lot of potential in the “bot” ecosystem, assuming we can work past all these stumbling blocks in the way. I’ve eyed an Amazon Echo for a while, though its utility would be diminished since I refuse to use any streaming music service. We’ll see what happens after WWDC, there. I’m still uncomfortable letting Amazon have an always-on microphone in my apartment, if only because I can’t be sure it’s not going to be parsing my conversations for ad metadata. I could be more willing to trust an Apple device, even if it does less, because Apple is more in tune with me on privacy.

The dream of the AI/chatbot/virtual assistant world is one where everyone’s little earpieces, smartwatches, speaker dinguses, or whatever, seamlessly connects the entire world by our voice, enabling an easier lifestyle for everyone. The reality is likely to be a whole bunch of miserable walled gardens full of microphones that can deliver us crappy pizza while making sure we get ads about debt consolidation every time we complain about the credit card bill after buying one. The former is more preferable, but the later is much more lucrative.