Random finds (2017, week 8) — On Zuckerberg’s well-intended manifesto, a technologized world, and Dataism

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Concrete jungle: why brutalist architecture is back in style (McPherson Square station in Washington DC, photograph by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

“The four characteristics of humanism are curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race.” — E.M. Forster

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and a reflection of my curiosity.

On Zuckerberg’s well-intended manifesto

News organizations are perhaps the biggest casualty of the world Zuckerberg built. There’s reason to believe things are going to get worse. His manifesto Building Global Community should heighten the news organizations’ sense of urgency about how they can survive in a Facebook-dominated world.

In his manifesto, Zuckerberg uses abstract language. He wants Facebook to develop “the social infrastructure for community,” but what he is actually describing is creating a media company with classic journalistic goals — “for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all” — albeit without journalists, Adrienne Lafrance writes in an article for The Atlantic, The Mark Zuckerberg Manifesto Is a Blueprint for Destroying Journalism.

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Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook.

Users will be asked to help shape the content they see by adjusting personal settings that help train Facebook’s algorithms. The Facebook population is massive, and the same set of standards won’t be acceptable to everyone in different regions and cultures. “It’s a good idea,” but viewing this approach through the lens of journalism, you can see how Facebook is continuing its hands-off approach to editorial responsibility, Lafrance argues. “For those who don’t make a decision, the default will be whatever the majority of people in your region selected,” Zuckerberg wrote. This makes some sense to Lafrance. Nobody wants Facebook to impose its cultural values uniformly on 1.9 billion individuals all over the world.

On the other hand, “Facebook is building a global newsroom run by robot editors and its own readers. If journalism is an indispensable component of the global community Zuckerberg is trying to build, he must also realize that what he’s building is a grave threat to journalism.”

“A strong news industry is critical to building an informed community. Giving people a voice is not enough without having people dedicated to uncovering new information and analyzing it. There is more we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable — from growing local news, to developing formats best suited to mobile devices, to improving the range of business models news organizations rely on.” — Mark Zuckerberg in Building Global Community

Like Adrienne Lafrance, also Carole Cadwalladr doesn’t think Zuckerberg’s manifesto is ill-intentioned, though we should be worried by its implications.

“And one response to his letter is to think it’s inspiring, touching, even, that there’s a billionaire out there who wants to build an ‘infrastructure.’ a word he uses 24 times, that ‘prevents harm, helps during crises and rebuilds afterwards,’” she notes in Mark Zuckerberg says change the world, yet he sets the rules.

“But here’s another response: where does that power end? Who holds it to account? What are the limits on it? Because the answer is there are none. Facebook’s power and dominance, its knowledge of every aspect of its users’ intimate lives, its ability to manipulate their — our — world view, its limitless ability to generate cash, is already beyond the reach of any government.

Because what Zuckerberg’s letter to the world shows is that he’s making a considered, personal attempt to answer … the wrong question. He is wrestling with the question of how Facebook can change the world. Whereas the question is: do we actually want Facebook to change the world? Do we want any corporation to have so much unchecked power?”

“Or to put it another way: a company with no oversight and accountability that uses an algorithm that it allows no one to see is developing an AI that will decide if you are or aren’t a terrorist. What could possibly go wrong?” — Carole Cadwalladr in Mark Zuckerberg says change the world, yet he sets the rules

“It’s a good question, though I’m not sure there is any world that we all want, and if there is one, I’m not sure Mark Zuckerberg is the guy I’d appoint to define it,” Nicholas Carr writes in response to Zuckerberg’s question whether we are building the world we all want.

“And yet, from his virtual pulpit, surrounded by his 86 million followers, the young Facebook CEO hesitates not a bit to speak for everyone, in the first person plural. There is no opt-out to his ‘we.’ It’s the default setting and, in Zuckerberg’s totalizing utopian vision, the setting is hardwired, universal, and nonnegotiable,” Carr writes in Zuckerberg’s world.

“No one wants to break a butterfly on a wheel, even if the butterfly is a billionaire. And only a fool would look to an official communiqué from the CEO of a big company for honest, subtle thinking about complicated social issues. And yet, in Zuckerberg’s long message, there is one moment of clarity, when he states the plain truth: ‘Social media is a short-form medium where resonant messages get amplified many times. This rewards simplicity and discourages nuance.’ The medium, he continues, often ‘oversimplifies important topics and pushes us toward extremes.’ This insight might have led Zuckerberg to a forthright accounting of the limitations of Facebook as a communications system. He might have pointed out that while Facebook is well designed for some things — banter among friends, the sharing of photos and videos, the coordination of group actions (for better or worse), the circulation of information in emergencies, advertising — it is ill designed for other things. It’s lousy as a news medium. It’s terrible as a forum for political discourse. It’s not the place to go to get a deep, well-rounded view of society. As a community, it’s pretty sketchy. And, he might have concluded, if you expect Facebook to solve the problems of the world, you’ve taken me far too seriously.”

“Nastiness, envy, chauvinism, mistrust, distrust, anger, vanity, greed, enmity, hatred: for Zuckerberg, these aren’t features of the human condition; they are bugs in the network.” — Nicholas Carr in Zuckerberg’s world

In Journalism fights for survival in a post-truth era, Jason Tanz writes:

“If readers are the new publishers, the best way to get them to share a story is by appealing to their feelings — usually not the good ones. A recent paper in Human Communication Research found that anger was the ‘key mediating mechanism’ determining whether someone shared information on Facebook; the more partisan and enraged someone was, the more likely they were to share political news online. And the stories they shared tended to make the people who read them even more furious. ‘You need to be radical in order to gain market share,’ says Sam Lessin, a former vice president of product management at Facebook. ‘Reasonableness gets you no points.’

In other words, we have gone from a business model that manufactures consent to one that manufactures dissent — a system that pumps up conflict and outrage rather than watering it down.”

“Before social media, a newspaper editor had the final say as to which stories were published and where they appeared. Today, readers have usurped that role. An editor can publish a story, but if nobody shares it, it might as well never have been written.” — Jason Tanz in Journalism fights for survival in a post-truth era

On a technologized world

“The frequency with which technology works precariously has been obscured by culture’s obsession with technological progress, its religious belief in computation, and its confidence in the mastery of design. In truth, hardly anything works very well anymore,” author and game designer Ian Bogost writes in Why Nothing Works Anymore. Technology seems to have its own purposes.

“So many ordinary objects and experiences have become technologized — made dependent on computers, sensors, and other apparatuses meant to improve them — that they have also ceased to work in their usual manner. It’s common to think of such defects as matters of bad design. That’s true, in part. But technology is also more precarious than it once was. Unstable, and unpredictable. At least from the perspective of human users. From the vantage point of technology, if it can be said to have a vantage point, it’s evolving separately from human use.”

Most of technology’s failures don’t even seem like failures as “users have so internalized their methods that they apologize for them in advance. The best defense against instability is to rationalize uncertainty as intentional — and even desirable.” A common response is to add even more technology to solve the problems caused by earlier technology. But why would new technology reduce rather than increase the feeling of precarity? The more technology multiplies, the more it amplifies instability.

Author and award-winning game designer Ian Bogost

“There is a dream of computer technology’s end, in which machines become powerful enough that human consciousness can be uploaded into them, facilitating immortality. And there is a corresponding nightmare in which the evil robot of a forthcoming, computerized mesh overpowers and destroys human civilization. But there is also a weirder, more ordinary, and more likely future — and it is the one most similar to the present. In that future, technology’s and humanity’s goals split from one another, even as the latter seems ever more yoked to the former. Like people ignorant of the plight of ants, and like ants incapable of understanding the goals of the humans who loom over them, so technology is becoming a force that surrounds humans, that intersects with humans, that makes use of humans — but not necessarily in the service of human ends. It won’t take a computational singularity for humans to cede their lives to the world of machines. They’ve already been doing so, for years, without even noticing.”

“Technology’s role has begun to shift, from serving human users to pushing them out of the way so that the technologized world can service its own ends. And so, with increasing frequency, technology will exist not to serve human goals, but to facilitate its own expansion.” — Ian Bogost in Why Nothing Works Anymore

A bit more …

“Humanity has proven its ability to rise to the challenge posed by dangerous new technologies — in the 1950s and ’60s many ­people expected the Cold War to end in a nuclear holocaust. That didn’t happen. After thousands of years in which war seemed to be an inevitable part of human nature, we changed how international politics functioned. I hope we’ll also be able to rise to the challenge of technologies like AI and genetic engineering, but we don’t have any room for error,” says Yuval Harari in a recent interview with WIRED.

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Yuval Harari, historian and best-­selling author. His latest book is Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

In your book you predict the emergence of two completely new religions. What are they?

[YH] “Techno-humanism aims to amplify the power of humans, creating cyborgs and connecting humans to computers, but it still sees human interests and desires as the highest authority in the universe. Dataism is a new ethical system that says, yes, humans were special and important because up until now they were the most sophisticated data processing system in the universe, but this is no longer the case. The tipping point is when you have an external algorithm that understands you — your feelings, emotions, choices, desires — better than you understand them yourself. That’s the point when there is the switch from amplifying humans to making them redundant.”

How so?

[YH] “Take Google Maps or Waze. On the one hand they amplify human ability — you are able to reach your destination faster and more easily. But at the same time you are shifting the authority to the algorithm and losing your ability to find your own way.”

What does this mean for Homo sapiens?

[YH] “We become less important, perhaps irrelevant. In the humanist age the value of an experience came from within yourself. In a Dataist age, meaning is generated by the external data processing system. You go to a Japanese restaurant and have a wonderful dish, and the thing to do is take a picture with your phone, put it on Facebook, and see how many likes you get. If you don’t share your experiences, they don’t become part of the data processing system, and they have no meaning.”

Make America great again. Take back control… From politics to culture, we have been gripped by a wave of nostalgia. In an article for the Guardian on the dangers of nostalgia, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid, calls on storytellers to look ahead with hope.

“Take back control? Make America great again? Restore the caliphate? We can do better than these. Storytellers, now is the time to try.” — Mohsin Hamid

“Nor is the realm of technology resistant to nostalgia. Quite the opposite. On our dominant social networks we are pulled out of the present moment to constantly shape and examine and interact with carefully curated pasts. Through technology the past is made real to us in a way that it never has been before. I can see myself five seconds ago, and my first girlfriend five hours ago, and my first child five months ago, and my first dog five years ago, and my first smile in my mother’s arms five decades ago, and I can sift endlessly through these archives of past moments, commingle them with present choices and likes and filters, and craft new past-present hybrids, dancing across time, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, commenting, watching, playing, mesmerising myself as the world outside my screen goes unnoticed for increasingly long interludes. Those of us who thought Jorge Luis Borges was a pioneer of magical realism were mistaken; he was a pioneer of science fiction.”

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“I had left one world and entered another” — Mohsin Hamid in Lahore. (Photograph: Ed Kashi/VII/Corbis)

“Why are we so strongly attracted to nostalgia today? In part, I think, because the pace of change is accelerating. Despite our close relationship with technology, at this point in our evolution human beings are still animals, and animals struggle to adapt to change that occurs too rapidly. Given enough time, polar bears might migrate off the Arctic ice, evolve darker coats, find a different diet and thrive in a new, warmer climate. But if the ice on which they depend disappears in a few decades, they are likely to die. Our adaptive capacity is far greater, but we too experience change as stress. The world my grandparents grew up in would not have been that strange to their grandparents. Yes, the few cars on the roads would have been striking, as would the few houses lit by electricity. But the world my children are growing up in is far more disconcerting to my parents: a world of wirelessly connected digital devices, roboticised factories, genetically modified crops and daily flights from Lahore to Rio de Janeiro, to Sydney.”

“We are growing terrified of the future. Soon we might merge with our technology, reprogramming our cells and adding computers to our neural circuitry, becoming in the process ever more adaptive to change, and less stressed by it — but for now this prospect offers scant reassurance. Instead we see upheaval and uncertainty ahead. At the same time, the tools we have evolved to deal with upheaval and uncertainty, and with the inevitability of our own mortality, are being undermined. Families are being scattered across the globe. Religion is being repurposed for political gain and consequently emptied of spirituality. Clan and tribe and nation are being challenged by hybridity.”

“The whole idea of design as being about taste is an idea I think we’ve grown beyond. The British Design Council was set up in the 40s and 50s with a Reithian mission to save people who knew no better from their own tastes. And that produced a very chilly, arrogant, narrow view of what the world was. So there were campaigns to stamp out appliqué wheatsheef patterns on the side of toasters, for example. There was an exhibition in the early days of the museum at the Boiler House, which was called Taste, and Stephen Bailey, the then-director, thought it would be a good idea to put things he approved of on easels, and things he didn’t like on dustbins. You can’t run a museum containing only things you like. Design is not an object or thing. Design is not taste,” says Deyan Sudjic, the long-standing director of the Design Museum, in the Guardian.

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“It’s not primarily designed as a lemon squeezer. It’s designed as a gift — to be wrapped and handed over.” — Sudjic on the famous Philippe Starck-designed lemon squeezer.

Sudjic compares it instead to mathematics or philosophy — a way of seeing the world and make sense of it. “If you look at anything carefully enough — whether it’s the inside of a smartphone, which tells you about today’s economic system; or this rather extraordinary furniture, which may or may not be useful; or that pen — all of these things, if you ask enough questions about them, will reveal a lot about the way we live, who we are, what we value, what we don’t value, how we use things.”

Dick Bruna, the prolific Dutch illustrator and author, who has died aged 89, is best known as the creator of the iconic, minimalist rabbit Nijntje or Miffy, who became a star of children’s literature. Describing how he worked, Bruna said: “For a book of 12 pictures I make at least a hundred.” Each was drawn with a paintbrush specially trimmed by Bruna; as he got older, and despite the success of all his books, he said it got harder and harder to get the image exactly right. Miffy’s eyes and mouth were especially problematic: “That’s all you have. With two dots and a little cross I have to make her happy, or just a little bit happy, a little bit cross or a little bit sad — and I do it over and over again. There is a moment when I think yes, now she is really sad. I must keep her like that.” (source: the Guardian)

Dick Bruna, creator of Miffy, in his studio in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 2010. (Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian)

“Bruna very much continues a Dutch tradition which we call the ‘klare lijn’ — you could translate it as the clear line, or you could just call it simplicity,” said Taco Dibbits, the director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which in 2015 organized an exhibition devoted to a half-century of Mr. Bruna’s art and graphic designs. “You see that’s he’s part of a tradition going from Pieter Saenredam through Vermeer to Mondrian.” (source: The New York Times)

Dick Bruna’s style was influenced by Matisse, Picasso and the graphic design of the De Stijl movement. (Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian)

“When Stefano Boeri imagines the future of urban China he sees green, and lots of it,” writes Tom Phillips in ‘Forest cities’: the radical plan to save China from air pollution.

“Office blocks, homes and hotels decked from top to toe in a verdant blaze of shrubbery and plant life; a breath of fresh air for metropolises that are choking on a toxic diet of fumes and dust. Last week, the Italian architect, famed for his tree-clad Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) skyscraper complex in Milan, unveiled plans for a similar project in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing.”

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An artist’s impression of Liuzhou’s plans for a ‘Forest City.’

“The architect said believed Chinese officials were finally understanding that they needed to embrace a new, more sustainable model of urban planning that involved not ‘huge megalopolises’ but settlements of 100,000 people or fewer that were entirely constructed of green architecture.’ What they have done until now is simply to continue to add new peripheral environments to their cities,’ he said. ‘They have created these nightmares — immense metropolitan environments. They have to imagine a new model of city that is not about extending and expanding but a system of small, green cities.’”

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Alvin Toffler

“Nobody knows the future with certainty. We can, however, identify ongoing patterns of change.” — Alvin Toffler

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