Technology and the Virtues: Change Yourself, Change the Future

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Why write about the future? I’ve never seriously tried to predict the future, a fool’s game if there ever was one. Most science fiction writers are perfectly aware of the contingent nature of the future, and prefer to think about how new technology, and the new abilities it affords us, might alter our lives and habits and culture and institutions.

Today, 24/7 technology reporting offers us constant, hazy glimpses of possible futures. In one, we might downvote an obnoxious stranger at a glance with augmented reality glasses. In another, we can live, work, and sleep in an autonomous pod on wheels. The details don’t matter, like whether the pod is made by Google or VW or Ford – what matters is whether this vision provokes desire or distaste in us. And by ‘us’, I don’t mean humanity as a whole, but individuals, all of whom have some degree of choice about how they approach that future.

Some degree. One of the depressing realities of the 21st century is how we’ve  become ensnared by global capitalism such that if you want to live, work, and socialise with your friends and family, you don’t have any choice about the technology you use. Sure, you can choose between Apple and Google, and Instagram and Snapchat, and Gmail and Outlook, but if you want a job, if you want to stay in touch with your friends and family, if you want to get invitations to birthday parties and weddings, you will use a smartphone, an instant messaging app, an email provider, all of which are made by the same three or four corporations.

Our seeming powerlessness runs head-on into the abuses of power by those very same corporations. Even if you are concerned about Facebook’s policies, what difference would it make if you deleted your account? Should you stop using Uber and use Lyft? Or not use ridesharing at all? Just how bad are we meant to feel about joining Amazon Prime and exploiting warehouse workers? If have no choice over what technologies we adopt, and if those technologies exert more and more power over our lives, how can we hope our lives will be better tomorrow than they are today, other than hoping that corporations won’t “be evil”?

I don’t know why Prof. Shannon Vallor’s book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting, attracted so little notice when it was published in 2016. Perhaps it’s because she counsels a middle path between starry-eyed Silicon Valley techno-utopianism and deeply conservative techno-pessimism. Perhaps her formidable academic credentials are seen by journalists as inferior to working at Google as a design ethicist for a few years. I really couldn’t say.

Regardless, Technology and the Virtues is the most useful, thorough, realistic, and hopeful book I’ve read that explains how we as individuals, and as a global species, should evaluate how we should use and choose technology today and in the future. Vallor, a philosopher of technology at Santa Clara University, claims that today’s technologies are so powerful and pervasive that our decisions about how to live well in the 21st century are not simply moral choices, but that:

they are technomoral choices, for they depend on the evolving affordances [abilities] of the technological systems that we rely upon to support and mediate our lives in ways and to degrees never before witnessed.

which means:

a theory of what counts as a good life for human beings must include an explicit conception of how to live well with technologies, especially those which are still emerging and have yet to become settled, seamlessly embedded feature sof the human environment. Robotics and artificial intelligence, new social media and communications technologies, digital surveillance, and biomedical enhancement technologies are among those emerging innovations that will radically change the kinds of lives from which humans are able to choose in the 21st century and beyond. How can we choose wisely from the apparently endless options that emerging technologies offer? The choices we make will shape the future for our children, our societies, our species, and others who share our planet, in ways never before possible. Are we prepared to choose well?

This question involves the future, but what it really asks about is our readiness to make choices in the present.

Upon which principles should we make those choices?

Continue reading “Technology and the Virtues: Change Yourself, Change the Future”

Reassessing Persuasive Games

 

Sadly, I’ve always thought persuasive/serious games were more about generating good PR than actually persuading anyone – at least from the funders’ perspective, who were usually charities and non-profits. I say that as someone who (IMO) made some pretty good “serious games”. The wildly overblown claims from certain corners that “games will save the world” and inflated engagement statistics also didn’t help in the long term.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot for a potential book, and part of the problem is tied up into something I call the “mapping problem”, in which it’s very challenging to design a game to ‘solve’ specific kinds of problems – especially ones that we don’t fully understand – whereas gamification proponents have always claimed a one-size-fits-all solution.

(And for the millionth time, I dearly wish we could go back to blogging. Trying to read longform text via Twitter screenshots is just awful)

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“Hey [Google],

Haven’t [given you more control over my emails, memories, and livelihood in a while.]

Why [don’t you assume my voice and entire digital identity to complete the job?]

I’ve [attached all my banking details passwords to make it easier for you].

Love, [everyone]”

Are Subscriptions Fair?

Subscription pricing, once the domain of newspapers, magazines, and cable bundles, is lately becoming much more common in everything from online video and movie tickets to razors and meal kits. One newish area that has been causing a lot of anguish has been subscription pricing for apps, as summarised on Metafilter. I was inspired to write this comment in defence:

A couple of years ago, we switched Zombies, Run! from being a paid app with IAPs for new seasons, to a subscription-based service costing (now) $25 a year. The subscription allows us to pay not just for the cost of developing new content and features, but also the very significant costs of just keeping the app running on the latest versions of iOS and Android; not to mention working properly on new phone sizes and supporting basic new OS functions.

I’m not sure whether people realise quite how much work it is to just keep *exactly the same app* working over time. There is always something in new iOS and Android versions that breaks our app (and other devs’ apps); and particularly on Android, new phones will often also break things.

The simple fact is that most indie app developers are not swimming in cash, and that if thy decide to switch to subscriptions, usually it’s not out of a desire to squeeze every last penny out of users, but just to keep the lights on and not be continually terrified that tomorrow may bring zero sales.

Our switch to subscriptions was also driven by industry-wide shift towards freemium pricing for smartphone apps and games. Yes, there are old-schoolers who refuse to download freemium games, but they’re far outnumbered by people who – not unreasonably – prefer the much less risky option of downloading a game for free and seeing whether they like it before paying anything.

Some of that shift is also down to startups that were unnaturally juiced by venture capital firms. This is less common nowadays, but it was not unusual for investors to pump a few million in to an app development company in the hopes of making the new Runkeeper or Instagram. That investment is made with the goal of making a 10x or 100x return in a few years time, which in turn requires hyper-growth – and you don’t get hyper-growth by asking your users for anything terminally embarrassing like actual money.

I think the economics of this strategy have been more or less ruined by the fact that the most popular and generic non-gaming apps have now either been subsumed into the Google/Apple/Facebook nexus of free utilities; or into much larger lifestyle brands like Nike and Adidas, who effectively use them as marketing. That leaves more niche utilities apps like Ulysses (a writing tool) and Zombies, Run! which are small enough to fly under the radar of most VC firms; or professional apps like Adobe Creative Cloud, which are extremely expensive to develop.

I spotted some familiar themes among comments on the Metafilter and Hacker News posts, and I thought it’d be interesting to run through them here:

“Digital subscriptions are more like renting, not subscribing”

If you subscribe to the paper edition of The New Yorker, you get to keep all your magazines forever, whereas when your digital subscription ends, your access to the content completely ceases (just as Netflix does). This is a fair point although it ignores the fact that:

  • Digital subscriptions are often cheaper than print subscriptions
  • Most customers don’t place a high value on continued access to the content they had while they were subscribed…
  • …and in any case, this is balanced out by most digital subscriptions offering you access to the complete back catalog of magazines and issues, unlike print subscriptions

So I don’t buy this as a strong argument against digital subscriptions, although it varies an awful lot for each app – not just due to the type of features or content you get, but also due to the individual pricing.

“What about people with no money?”

It’s ahistorical to think that quality journalism – or quality software – was ever cheap, let alone free. Yes, there was a short period from, say, 1995 to 2015, where investors didn’t care about making money, but we’ve now returned to the norm where good, established stuff mostly costs money and bad or unreliable stuff is mostly free.

And I don’t see how subscriptions are necessarily any more expensive than paying up front for software. If you think $10 a month for Adobe Creative Cloud makes it unfair and inaccessible to poor people, I don’t see how paying $200 upfront was somehow far more accessible. You could equally argue that by lowering the initial signup cost, subscriptions are more accessible.

I, too, would prefer to live in a world where most people earned more and software was more affordable. I just don’t think that subscription pricing is at all related.

“Micropayments are the answer for journalism”

Only if you want your journalism to be entirely click-driven. I’m sure Blendle would take exception to that argument, but if your goal is to fund quality journalism, then I don’t think that paying only for the articles you read is the best way to go.

“Subscriptions contribute to the centralisation of data…”

This is a new one to me. Insofar as any monetary engagement with Google and Apple will reinforce their dominant position as platform owners, I can’t argue against this, although it would also require that you don’t pay for anything on these platforms. And I don’t think that’s a practical suggestion if you want to participate in modern society.

Guardian comments are destroying civilisation, Part II

Becky Gardiner just published a fascinating and damning study on the endemic hostility towards women and minorities in Guardian comments:

By using blocked comments as a proxy for abusive or dismissive comments, I found that articles written by women attracted a significantly higher percentage of com- ments that were subsequently blocked than those written by men, regardless of the subject of the article. This effect was heightened when the articles ran in a particularly male-dominated section of the site [e.g. Sport, Film, Technology]. I also found evidence that articles written by BAME writers attracted disproportionate levels of blocked comments, even though the research was not designed to reveal this.

The preliminary findings of the research were shared on the Guardian, and predictably, the commenters did not react well. Of course, Gardiner also analysed the content of those comments:

Half the comments (1,235, or 50.24%) … were coded as negative; 294 (11.96%) were positive; 799 (32.51%) were neutral.

[…]

Two-hundred-and-twelve (17.17%) of the negative comments criticised the research methodology, mainly on one of two grounds: either claiming that the research had failed to take moderator bias into account (this is discussed below), or that it had failed to consider the quality of the articles (for example, they said that articles by women may be more “worthy of complaint”). The study did not control for article quality, but assumed that, taken as a whole, articles written by women are not of poorer quality or otherwise more “deserving” of abusive or dismissive responses than articles written by men. In the author’s view, this “methodological” criticism is an implicit form of victim-blaming.

A further 277 (22.43%) of the negative comments were overtly victim-blaming. Some asserted that female and/or black journalists in general were more likely to write poor quality or controversial articles—for example,

“I would hardly say that all woman writers write daft things. But a lot of them do,”

or

“Male author: Neutral / economic / sport / war / politics (general) articles; Female author: More click-bait / anti-male articles / feminist articles.”

Others blamed individuals for the abuse they received—for example,

“Thrasher gets negative feedback because he racebaits, not because he’s black.”

These commenters failed to engage with the finding that the gender disparity was not confined to a few individuals, but was seen across the entire corpus, or that articles written by women got more blocked comments regardless of the subject they were writing about, and that this proportion increases when they write on subjects traditionally regarded as “male.”

Part of the problem is that many of commenters reject the value of moderation entirely:

Some commenters argued that all moderation was a de facto attack on free speech, and what the Guardian sees as self-evident—that commenters should abide by the community standards—was far from being universally accepted. This points to a fundamental breakdown between the assumptions of the Guardian and a significant cohort of its commenters, and will complicate any attempt to manage comments.

Gardiner ends with a couple of recommendations:

Moderation is not endlessly scalable, and although technologies (better filters, machine learning tools, and so on) will be an important part of the solution, they will not be enough. What is needed is a change of culture. If comment threads are to be diverse and inclusive, media organisations need to create small, curated comment spaces where journalists can genuinely engage with what is said, even when it is critical; they will also need to develop anti-racist and feminist strategies to counter racist and sexist speech, and offer stronger institutional support to journalists and others who do experience this.

Secondly, this research indicates that the hostility to women and people of colour below the line mirrors a historical institutional hostility to women and people of colour “above the line”—the discriminatory hiring and commissioning practices over many decades that have left them struggling to get published at all.

I’m a paying member of the Guardian because I value the journalism they perform. But while it’s worth noting that the comments on BBC News, The Daily Mail, and many parts of Reddit are far worse, I expect much more of the Guardian.

Three years ago, I wrote a post here, facetiously-titled Guardian comments are destroying civilisation. Life comes at you fast.

 

A highly-upvoted Hacker News comment linked to a post I wrote twelve years ago on The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer:

a book from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age … that is powered by a computer so advanced it’s almost magical, and it teaches children everything. It does this through a fully interactive story. It teaches you how to read, how to do maths, it teaches you morals, ethics, even self-defence.

Looking back at the post, I’m shocked by just how little I remember writing it. I suppose when you’ve been blogging for almost twenty years, that’s to be expected. It’s also a reminder that while blogging is rarely as viral as Facebook and Twitter, its permanence and searchability can pay dividends over decades.

Ninja’s Fortnite tournament, a fascinating mix of streaming, participation, $75 paid entry, and prizes ($2500 if you kill him, $2500 if you win a game), reminds me of what broadcasters like the BBC were trying to do in the 2000s. Back then, the tech and logistics for ‘massive’ games was too expensive, but it’s finally here now.

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A GDPR omen in the Guardian today. While this is technically opt-in because users must affirmatively click “Continue” to receive emails, the strong resemblance to EU Cookie notices where everyone hammers “Continue” is surely deliberate.

My Problem With Reddit

I keep most of my savings in index funds, as recommended by Warren Buffet and pretty much every financial advisor in the world. Given that interest rates on savings accounts have been practically zero for the past few years, this has worked out quite well for me, and I expect that to continue. And yet I can’t help but feel uneasy that my index funds – and therefore, me – partly owns and benefits from Royal Dutch Shell, British American Tobacco, and BP.

Living in a fully globalised economy means we make these trade-offs every day. You can’t send a single tweet about working conditions in China without someone accusing you of hypocrisy for using an iPhone. Much of the criticism of Twitter happens on Twitter itself; the same goes for Facebook. Technology has burdened us with a whole new category of original sins, neatly packaged in a pocket-size form.

Reddit is one of those sins. People have been complaining about its racist and sexist and hateful communities right from the beginning, and I can’t recall a time when Reddit wasn’t embroiled in some dreadful scandal. That didn’t stop me from registering in 2011, and it hasn’t stopped me from visiting it more and more over the years. It’s just too useful.

The strength of Reddit is the same as that of every other hegemonic tech platform: it’s free (VC-funded), convenient (VC money pays for great engineers and designers), and network effects mean that it becomes more useful the more people who join. Before long, everyone is there, so why bother joining another website?

On Reddit, anyone can create a new ‘subreddit’ community that any member can discover, subscribe to, and post to, with a single click. And since every subreddit has the same features and interface, it’s much faster and easier to use and navigate than the archipelago of web forums of our past, each needing its own login, each with its own quirks.

If I want to find out what people thought of the latest episode of Atlanta, I go to /r/AtlantaTV. If I want to know why a fighter plane just flew over my house in Edinburgh, I go to /r/Edinburgh. And if I want an in-depth analysis about how the Falcon Heavy measures up to NASA’s Space Launch System, I’ll check out /r/SpaceX. I know there are other forums and and Facebook groups out there for each of those topics, but they’re less convenient to find and follow.

So what’s my problem with Reddit – other than the racist, sexist, and hateful communities, which most Redditors will dismiss as being unfortunate exceptions, that is? I have three:

No moderation by default

Many subreddits are well-moderated by dedicated volunteers. They work hard to delete duplicate posts, keep discussions on track, ban abusive posters and repeated trolls, and generally try to make the community a pleasant, entertaining, and instructive place to be.

There is no requirement to have moderation on a subreddit, however. You can start one and then effectively abandon it, such that it becomes incredibly popular and yet completely unmanaged – or more likely, it can moderated haphazardly, with no consistency and rules. Is there any harm to this, though?

Yes. Poorly moderated subreddits are like the background radiation that lingers after a disaster. They damage people and communities imperceptibly as people test and then break boundaries. A stray hateful post or comment stays up for just a little longer than it should, showing that this behaviour is acceptable. It happens more often, and people are driven off, or they stay and are changed.

Reddit does have rules, even if they’re barely enforced. Not many, though: racism is permitted.

You’re subsidising hate

Reddit is an advertising-funded website, and by visiting the nice, well-moderated subreddits, you are helping fund their operations. It’s safe to say that hateful subreddits are not generally popular with online advertising, whereas the well-heeled visitors to /r/teslamotors and /r/apple are more in demand. In other words, even if you avoid visiting bad subreddits, in a small way, you’re still funding their continued existence.

Like my tobacco and oil-owning index funds, this might just be the cost of doing business on the internet today. But at the very least, you should be aware that there is a real cost.

You don’t own anything

It’s easy to set up a subreddit, and it’s just as easy for Reddit to take it away from you. You haven’t paid Reddit anything to host your community, and if they change their minds, it’s entirely within their rights to replace you as a moderator, or delete the subreddit entirely, or more likely, to make it really annoying to access the archives and contact the subscribers. Sure, people will protest, but there’s nothing you can do about it.

This is the deal you make with all platforms: faster growth in return for giving up control. Again, it might be a deal you’re willing to make, but you should understand the terms before you go in. Nothing lasts forever.

That’s why, as much as I use Reddit every day, I can’t celebrate its popularity and I can’t wait until we have something different.