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Rant


Usually I appreciate the commentary on TechCrunch. Even though it's often short-sighted and hyperbolic, I usually think they get the big picture ideas right and hit on the stuff that we really should be debating. But Paul Carr's recent article called Facebook Breached My Privacy, And Other Things That Whiny, Entitled Dipshits Say is so stupid, but at the same time so indicative of the ways that many tech. folks are stupid, that I just have to point it out.

Usually, I know, I'd lay down 750 words on it. No one ever accused me of brevity. But this is actually pretty simple. I'll encapsulate Carr's argument in a few sentences, then present my own.

Carr: People who complain about privacy on the web should shut up. They are deluded about what today's social systems are really like. They shouldn't put anything about themselves on the internet that might be a problem, and they should control all others who might do the same. "Blaming Facebook’s flaky approach to privacy for the ills of the exhibitionist generation is just yelling at the stable door, long after the horse has bolted."

Me: Carr sounds like an ignorant elitist jackass calling all the rest of us "whiny, entitled dipshits" just because we don't want to live by the lowest common denominator of privacy, whatever Facebook decides is best for its bottom line. It's ridiculous for a geeky, tech-savvy internet journalist who spends all his waking hours trying to understand online social systems to crap on people who do other things with their time by calling them whiny and entitled. Get a clue, buddy. People like you might code the web, but it's people like us who make it work. Learn to live by our rules, not the other way around. Expecting people to learn how to 100% control all the content they share online, and then do the same for everyone else around them is pure fantasy. If the horse has bolted, then lock the fucking stable door and we'll just hang with the chickens and the pigs.

I'm not going to rehash the Google Buzz fiasco. But by this point we've learned a few interesting tidbits about how this disaster happened:

  1. Google rushed the product to launch, bypassing their normal testing process.
  2. They tested Buzz internally with their 20,000 employees, but no one sounded the privacy alarm, or perhaps no one sounded it loudly enough.

It's point #2 that's fascinating to me. When it came out, Buzz was so obviously broken to so many people, not just researchers and geeks, but many in the general public. How did 20,000 Google employees miss that? And what does that say about Google's internal culture?

I began to think about this more when I noticed a news story about how Google and other top Silicon Valley firms are claiming that the demographics of their workforces are trade secrets, refusing to release them. Really? Seems like kind of an obvious cover-up there. Google is an engineering culture, and engineers tend to be overwhelmingly white and male. And what does a white, male engineering culture get you? Buzz, apparently, and a ridiculous inattention to common sense privacy concerns.

I don't mean to bash on Google – they're far from the only company that's predominately white, male, and engineering dominated. But until now I think Google and others have played that card as an asset. They're proud of the fact that they don't have any social scientists around. They think they don't need them. There are lots of computer scientists and engineers who are now creeping into social spaces, claiming they can use massive data and computing to solve the hard problems that social scientists haven't been able to solve. Well, I call BS (a thousand times BS!), and I use Buzz as Exhibit A. I'm no longer shocked that some computer scientists can be that naive and narrow minded. But I still don't understand what's so hard about saying that we need each other. Smart at one thing != smart at everything.

So, do I think Google's internal culture will change? Not in the short term, and maybe not at all. Not unless they suddenly hire a slew of social scientists and put them in positions with real power over engineers, product direction. But I hope this Buzz experience could be the start of a slow realization that algorithms have no answers, they have no whys. They have stunningly small amounts of nuance and subtlety, which is where I'd argue real wisdom lies. And apparently they don't have much common sense either.

Southern Gentleman

The Southeastern Conference (SEC) in NCAA college football is run, I'm guessing, by some good 'ol boys in linen suits who split their time equally between mint juleps and spitting contests. They've tried to ban fans at any SEC football game from using Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media during the game. They also want to ban cell phone pictures or videos. It's no surprise what's going on here – the SEC has a ginormous ($3 billion) contract with CBS and ESPN, and the guys with the cee-gars are getting nervous.

But that was yesterday. Today, someone pulled those guys' heads out of their asses, and they've done a (partial) about face. Tweet away, but still no cell phone video. I'm sure that many words have been spent talking about how backwards and out of touch these guys are. Social media doesn't replace traditional media. Embrace social media, and it can enhance traditional media. The notion that fans with cell phones are the competition, the enemy, the revenue-killers doesn't have much of a future.

What I wonder is: who's giving these guys advice? Or rather than bad advice, are they just getting no advice at all? This is hardly the first time a large corporate entity or conservative institution has utterly failed to grasp what social media is for. Has no on realized that, at the very least, they need to talk to a consultant who was born after 1975? If an idea (social media) is a technology, then I suppose we'll just call these guys the laggards. But it's hard to believe that anyone in the big business of football has missed the last two years so completely that they still revert to a protectionist attitude. Huge market for new consultancy!

Lately, Michael Arrington at TechCrunch has been on a crusade against handshakes, which he thinks are gross, 'medieval' and germ spreading. He suggests we ought to do away with hand shaking.

This is very stupid. Sure, you could accuse Arrington of being anti-social or a germophobe. You might be right on both counts. But I'd like to accuse Arrington of making no sense. Here's why. I'm sure that handshakes spread germs, especially when people don't wash their hands. You touch your nose, your face, and then you shake, and that seems gross when you focus on it. But people touch their noses and faces all the time, and then they touch lots of things. They touch the bus rail, the conference table, the shopping cart, or the pen you loaned them. They pat you on the back, or they bump your fist (let's not single out the palm – backs of hands can be gross too).

Their germs (and yours) are literally EVERYWHERE. That's why not washing hands is such a problem – germs that go anywhere but down the drain with soap can be a public health hazard.

But here's why Arrington's crusade is just a pet peeve, and nothing like a sensible argument: if germs are everywhere, compared to the baseline rate, how much more likely are you to be exposed to something by shaking hands than not? I'd argue the additional danger is infinitesimal, if it exists at all. Does anyone know of studies on this? I bet you'd have to shake A LOT of hands, and then suck on your own hands, to be at any increased risk at all. And even then, the answer is to wash YOUR hands, not stop shaking hands. Or else stop touching things altogether, get a plastic bubble, and die alone.

That said, there are clearly a lot of people who think it's gross and don't want to shake hands. They shouldn't have to. I understand it's not always (or even usually) a rational thing. But those folks can't hide behind some false claims about germs. They should just admit that they don't like the practice, and deal with the awkward situations it will produce. That means you, Arrington.

I just noticed a story in the NY Post (via Slashdot) about a New York City program to pay 4th and 7th graders for doing well on assessment tests. $250 for 4th graders, $500 for 7th graders. This is an awful idea, for a whole bunch of reasons spelled out in Alfie Kohn's excellent book Punished by Rewards. I'll spell out two of my favorites:

  1. The question isn't what happens when you pay for grades, it's what happens when you stop. Kohn's book is all about what economists call Crowding Out and social psychologists call the corruption effect of extrinsic incentives. The basic idea is that when you pay someone to do something they might have their own reasons for doing anyway, you remove the intrinsic incentive (i.e. curiosity, love of learning) and replace it with the extrinsic one ($$$$). You create the expectation of being paid for grades and school work. That would be fine if we could pay kids indefinitely – and, for that matter, if we could pay for all the hard things that you learn to stick to because school is hard. But we can't. So I don't really care how kids do when they're being paid. I care how they do after they stop getting paid. I would put big money that the results of a longitudinal evaluation (which I'm guessing no one will ever do) would show few appreciable gains as a result of the program once the $$ is gone.
  2. Paying for grades is exploitative. The kids in this program are almost all in low-income schools. They're people for whom $250 or $500 could be a lot of money. I realize that's the point – if it weren't enough money it wouldn't be motivational. But it's also taking advantage of poverty, and putting kids in a position of stress. Parents may put pressure on kids, and kids may put pressure on themselves. Again, I realize that's the point. The program is built on the (false) notion that paying for grades is okay because it leads to educational improvement. But, as I explained above, it doesn't, and it won't. So then it just becomes exploitation. If we're gonna pay poor kids for grades, why not find under-achieving kids with medical problems, and trade health care for grades? Or find kids with immigration problems and trade citizenship for grades? Oh, do those ideas sound too sleazy?

What's interesting is that this program is the brain-child of Harvard Economist Roland Fryer through Harvard's EdLabs. This guy clearly knows his stuff, is generally a rising star, and he should absolutely know better. This is the worst kind of narrow-minded economics. I was hoping we'd moved beyond it.

The biggest problem with the new Green-fad is its focus on carbon footprint. First of all, there are lots of metrics to measure the environmental impact of a product or an activity. Looking only at carbon misses other important issues like sustainable materials, toxic manufacturing processes, and local social and ecosystems. Even more than that, though, is the fact that everything we do has a carbon footprint, so talking about the footprint of any one thing is meaningless without a relative comparison.

Driving to the store releases a given amount of carbon, but so does walking. The average person contributes about 800g of carbon to the atmosphere each day just by walking around. Go for a run and you're hurting the environment. Don't go for a run and you get fat. Obesity is linked to a whole variety of diet-related chronic diseases, so you'll be visiting the doctor more often. Hopefully they're close, so you can walk. If you can't walk, then maybe you don't go, so eventually you die. Personally, I want to be cremated, but I bet that incinerator puts out some serious CO2. Burial? Gotta dig a hole (lots of breathing there). Shit. Maybe I should just go running.

So, here's Alex Wissner-Gross, the smart-as-hell physicist of the hour who chooses to delve into other issues, estimating that each Google search releases 5g of carbon. News flash, Alex. Being smart at one thing doesn't necessarily make you smart at other things.

I can't speak to how correct the estimate is – I'm sure Alex is very good with numbers. And I'm sure Google will come out right away and say he's wrong. The point is, 5g for a Google search is meaningless. The only question is whether 5g is more or less than our alternative. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Google, Yahoo!, MS, Ask all start competing for the title of the world's greenest search engine. In fact, I'm going to go ahead and predict that this very thing will happen in 2009, further distracting people from real environmental problems, real environmentally-friendly decisions.

I don't get it. More than a year ago Andrew Keen, author of the useless book Cult of the Amateur, came to the iSchool and got absolutely flattened in a debate with Paul Duguid. He couldn't articulate any meaningful points at all against a debater and an audience who are well versed in research and practice in online contexts. He made a fool of himself, and ended up saying, in almost as many words, that he's just doing all this for the money, and he doesn't really feel strongly about it all.

So I guess we know why Keen is still talking, but why is anyone still listening? Keen is on NPR's Science Friday show right now, repeating the same old alarmist crap, denouncing online anonymity, promoting legislation on internet speech, and generally suggesting we should make new media more like old media.

But maybe it's easy to answer the question of why we're still listening too. It's a pretty well established phenomenon in social psychology that people tend to accept evidence that supports things they already believe and reject even obvious evidence to the contrary. It's all about cognitive dissonance – once we've committed to a position we work to avoid conflict with that position. So, for years the media primed us to believe that the internet was making us all ignorant porn fiends, that it was isolating us, creating a haven for terrorists, and exposing our children to pedophiles. Then, along comes Keen at an opportune moment, in search of some easy money, and applying the same old argument to the user-generated content phenomena around Web 2.0. I guess that's why people are still listening.

This morning on KQED's Forum was an interesting discussion about the current financial crisis we're all in. The show's moderator brought up what I think is one of the most fasinating issues in this whole adventure: treading the line between responsibility and bailout. A lot of people have cried foul, for example, at the notion of spending huge sums to bail out banks and the auto industry when those companies have been so badly managed for so long that they've basically run themselves into the ground. I tend to agree with this outlook.

What made me angry, though, was listening to the commentator arguing against bailing out individuals who are in trouble with their personal finances (mortgages, etc.) using a personal responsibility argument like this: Hey, look, I'm responsible, I have a budget, I spend within my means, and I don't take on loans I can't afford. Why should people who were irresponsible get bailed out while I have to foot the bill?

Why? Because deciding to bail out people with bad mortgages is on totally different ground than deciding to bail out the auto industry. On the one hand we have sophisticated industries staffed with executives, lawyers, accountants, etc. who have had all the opportunity and agency in the world, and have chosen badly, irresponsibly, and run their companies into the ground. These are people who should have known better, who were greedy and imprudent, and now have their hand out because they've noticed that the door to the vault is wide open.

On the other hand we have consumers who've made bad decisions. But they have not made decisions on the same playing field as the corporations, and they've also not made them on the same playing field as your adverage upper-middle class KQED commentator. When lenders were giving out loans to anyone who asked, when media messages push imprudent credit practices, when individuals – as a result of personal choice, yes – but also as a result of a huge variety of socio-structural economic issues are less well equipped to evaluate their financial choices and make sound decisions, is it fair to hold them to the same standards as Ford, GM, Bear Stearns, etc.? Is it fair to hold them to the same standards as more privileged, educated individuals? I say: no. We do not live in a world where the playing field is flat and even, and everyone is equipped and informed equally and so we can just invoke a simple argument for personal responsibility. We need a bit more understanding there.

At the same time, personal responsibility is key. I don't know where the line is. But invoking a blanket personal responsibility argument, failing to take the nature of the world into account, is wrong, it's narrow-minded, and its ethnocentric.

1st, I'm perfectly aware that I'm using blogging as a way of avoiding the stress of preparing for quals., thank you.

Now, I'm hopping back on-board the Andrew Keen is an Idiot bus. His latest narrow minded commentary is that the economic downturn will mean the end of Web 2.0's 'free labor' movement. Knol will thrive, Wikipedia will fail, etc., etc., etc.

Here are a few reasons why this will absolutely not happen, Wikipedia will be fine, and we'll all keep participating on the internet:

  1. Keen's commentary is narrow minded in the same way that Wired editor Chris Anderson's is (See this recent Wired article), but in the opposite direction. Anderson said the future of the web is FREE. Keen says the future of the web is $$. The truth is: both AND neither. People who participate in Wikipedia or Flickr or blogs may not reap their rewards in cash (some of them do, of course) but they do reap rewards. They connect with other people. They come to identify with social groups. They feel smart, they feel like their knowledge and opinions are valued and unique. They get reputational benefits and status rewards. Yes, I know – the economists are chomping at the bit to tell you that reputational benefits are just future cash rewards when your smart blog helps get you a better job. Sure, that's part of it, but not all of it. The point is, both Anderson and Keen are zeroed in on cash at the expense of all the other rewards (in econospeak: externalities) out there. Maybe that's because they're trying to cultivate a readership. But it's also a common point of view – reduce everything to numbers because that's what fits in my spreadsheet.
  2. Other rewards – let's call them social psychological rewards – are insulated from economic crisis. Sure, if you're about to starve or the police are knocking at your door to evict you, you might be spending less time on the internet. Social psychological rewards are great, though, because you can keep right on getting them when you lose your job and can't pay your bills. You can take solace in the constancy of community, and the fact that you still make a difference somewhere. Do people stop watching TV when they lose their jobs? Do they stop eating, smoking, knitting, running, hanging out with friends, or whatever it is they do to feel normal, even good? Nope. In fact, they often bury themselves in those things. Keen admits this himself, but for him it's because people who are out of a job will have nothing better to do. For me it's because of the rewards.
  3. Furthermore, most people don't have the expectation of monetary reward. This is the fundamental economic fallacy – people don't go around trying to convert their lives into economic gain. Sure, most models will assume that, but it's only part of the picture. There are so many other preferences, values, social interactions that figure in to the choices we make. We're not all marching around with dollar signs in our eyes. I just think it wouldn't occur to most people to think 'Now that I'm out of a job, I'd better get paid for blogging!' because that's not what it's about for them. Keen seems to be the only one screaming that these people should be paid, and that's because (as I said above), he's so stubbornly ignorant of the other benefits they receive.

In an easily recognizable, but nonetheless idiotic, ploy to sell magazines, Wired's editor-in-chief Chris Anderson has published a short article called The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. In it he claims that the mere availability of data on a huge scale means that theories and models are unnecessary. As long as we have statistics that can pick trends, correlations out of the madness, we don't need the scientific method anymore.

I'll let this excellent rebuttal by John Timmer at Ars Technica do most of the work in explaining why Anderson's argument is so flawed it should never had been printed. (Ah hah! More evidence against Andrew Keen's argument for the return of the old-school editor! Anderson's crap would never have passed muster on Wikipedia.)

For me, the most important rebuttal is about falsification and repair. Without theories that we can test, how can we know we're wrong? What will being wrong look like? Without reasoned explanations for why things happen, how will we know what to do when things break? The reason that scientists are so wary of correlations is because they offer no explanatory power – they're misleading as often as not. If we act on them, completely ignorant of the underlying mechanism, we don't learn anything at all. Anderson's most staggeringly ignorant move is to suggest that theories and models are somehow unnecessary simply because they're often wrong. Wha? I guess the benefit of never having a model or a theory is that if you make no assumptions or predictions no one can ever disprove you.

I'd be willing to dismiss Anderson entirely if, presented differently, he wouldn't have otherwise tackled an interesting topic. As Timmer says, certainly the availability of massive data is changing the way we do science. But the end of theory? C'mon, Chris, that's ridiculous, and a transparent attempt to appeal to the data-heads that read Wired. This point of view is SO common, at least around San Francisco. I'm amazed that otherwise smart people would adopt such an ignorant, arrogant point of view. Fighting this kind of thinking is depressing. It reminds me of something Anthony Bourdain said about his most hated chef nemesis, Rachel Ray. (I noted this in a previous post.)

Complain all you want. It’s like railing against the pounding surf. She only grows stronger and more powerful. Her ear-shattering tones louder and louder. We KNOW she can’t cook… She’s a friendly, familiar face who appears regularly on our screens to tell us that “Even your dumb, lazy ass can cook this!” Wallowing in your own crapulence on your Cheeto-littered couch you watch her and think, “Hell…I could do that. I ain’t gonna…but I could–if I wanted! Now where’s my damn jug a Diet Pepsi?

A lazy, soulless, superficial, inexplicably popular idea. It's days are numbered, though. I predict that inside of 5 years, Google is going to hit the wall on its data-center driven problem solving. They'll call for more cowbell, find there's none to be had, and return to the land of the living where the rest of us live.

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