TW Reads – About that Facebook study

5 articles that show how to elevate a conversation about big data, the tech industry and the scientific community.

The more I read people’s reactions to this study, the more I’ve started to think the outrage has nothing to do with the study at all. There is a growing amount of negative sentiment towards Facebook and other companies that collect and use data about people. In short, there’s anger at the practice of big data.

–danah boyd

Observing the kerfuffle around the Facebook “emotion contagion” study this week, one could see two typical reactions:

  • “How could they do this? This is outrages!“
  • “What are you angry about? Everybody is doing this all the time!“

But besides all the typical gut reactions, I was hoping that a more nuanced discussion would be triggered by this. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Here are our favorite articles about the Facebook study and connected topics that show how a conversation can be elevated by looking deeper and trying a more balanced approach, minding the complexity that comes with these kinds of topics.

Zeynep Tufekci in Facebook and Engineering the Public

Tufekci was one of the first to react, speaking mostly to the research community, demanding that it speaks to (new) power and uses it’s methods and models to investigate the manipulative abilities of tech companies.

To me, this resignation to online corporate power is a troubling attitude because these large corporations (and governments and political campaigns) now have new tools and stealth methods to quietly model our personality, our vulnerabilities, identify our networks, and effectively nudge and shape our ideas, desires and dreams. These tools are new, this power is new and evolving. It’s exactly the time to speak up!

danah boyd in What does the Facebook experiment teach us?

boyd first looked in detail at how “informed consent” works and the context of scientific research today. She then analyzes what we can learn about the public’s fear of big data by examining the reactions to the study.

Information companies aren’t the same as pharmaceuticals. They don’t need to do clinical trials before they put a product on the market. They can psychologically manipulate their users all they want without being remotely public about exactly what they’re doing. And as the public, we can only guess what the black box is doing.

Kate Crawford in The Test We Can—and Should—Run on Facebook

Crawford suggests that Facebook should do an experiment. They should let people opt-in to take part in research studies.

There is a tendency in big data studies to accord merit to massive sample sizes, regardless of the importance of the question or the significance of the findings. But if there’s something we’ve learned from the emotional contagion study, a large number of participants and data points does not necessarily produce good research.

Whitney Erin Boesel in Facebook’s Controversial Experiment: Big Tech Is the New Big Pharma

Boesel points to the difficult distinction between human subject research and data science in big data projects like this one. Another consequence is that the lines between corporate research and academic research are blurring with data companies offering lucrative jobs to scientists.

We need to create new basic standards for social and behavioral research, and these standards must apply equally to corporations and institutions, to market researchers and academic researchers, to data scientists and social scientists alike.

What they all talk about is the new power that these data companies hold, which demands a much bigger sensibility towards their users and in handling their data. In my opinion, this is maybe the biggest issue that the tech companies and the big data industry is facing right now.

Anab Jain in Valley of the Meatpuppets

With an increase in monitoring, surveillance, AI and big data, this ambiguity, this sense of uncertainty and unconnectedness will become more pronounced. Invisible wars over autonomy will become a recurring leitmotif of the 21st century.

All of this connects tremendously to a talk Anab Jain gave at Future Everything this year and which she posted this week.
She looks at the topic of power from a surveillance point of view, but goes much, much deeper to reveal the patterns that influence us and the approaches that will help us to create our own way.

As designers we believe it is important to think about wider complexities in order to challenge the deeper assumptions about technological power and control.

Highly recommended reading!

What we read this week (17 May)

Skepticism about Big Data, the hiccups that come with replacing employees with robots, “social lasers of cruelty,” Google’s new cutting-edge toy and the bizarre story of a con man and government collaborator.

Quote of the week

Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Articles of the week

  • Foreign Policy: Think Again: Big Data
    Kate Crawford, prinicipal researcher at Microsoft, makes the case for curbing our enthusiasm when it comes to Big Data and instead employing more caution and forethought. Most of the concerns she highlights here stem from the fact that data out of context can be misconstrued, and can therefore be a liability.
  • Caixin Online: Why Foxconn’s Switch to Robots Hasn’t Been Automatic
    Johannes’ recent talk at re:publica discussed what happens when machines replace us at work. Foxconn is an interesting example of a company in the midst of just such a transition, and demonstrates many of the social and logistic difficulties that come with the territory.
  • Smithsonian Magazine: What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web?
    Jaron Lanier is another voice advocating caution to the techno-utopians – a group he used to belong to. He’s especially critical of the notion of the “wisdom of the crowd”: “This is the thing that continues to scare me. You see in history the capacity of people to congeal—like social lasers of cruelty. That capacity is constant.”
  • New York Times Bits Blog: Google Buys a Quantum Computer
    The D-Wave quantum computer that was in the news a while back has been bought by Google and NASA, who are collaborating to work on AI and machine learning. Take note of the other companies and organizations mentioned in this article – it’s an interesting crew.
  • Wired Threat Level: Drugstore Cowboy
    A long read and a crazy story about a con man who cooperated with the US government to nab Google for supporting illegal drug sales through AdWords.

Week 103

Back from vacation at last, we’re starting to experiment with a 4-day-work-week and got a lot more coming up.

I’m back from my first two-week vacation since 2004. It’s been some time since I’ve felt that recharged. So let’s get straight back to work.

The 4-Day Workweek

As you might have read on our blog, we are starting a two-months experiment with a 4-day workweek on October 1st. Well, it depends on how you define work if you want to count the fifth day as work or not. Anyway, from October, Igor and I will be taking four days a week to completely focus on projects and client work. We won’t take the fifth day completely off, but use it more for inspiration and open-minded exploration.

Personally, I’ve been fascinated with this approach that companies like Google and 37signals have spearheaded, for quite a while. In a work day full of temptations to multitask between strategy development, researching and inspiration coming in, it’s sometimes hard to concentrate. I’ve been experimenting with having dedicated time slots for different tasks throughout the day for some time. Taking it to the next level with doing it on a weekly base seems the obvious next step.

We will keep you posted about the experiment here in the week notes. If you want to know more right now, check out the article.

Coming up

I will be joining Klaas Bollhoefer from The unbelievable Machine on Thursday to deliver a keynote at the Big Data Congress in Offenbach. We will talk about how we tend to forget about the end-users in our big-data-projects and how they won’t take it anymore. It’s going to be fun.

On Friday, I will be in Vienna to finish off a project with our new friends at Men on the Moon.

A bit further out, I will be attending the Playful conference in London on October 19. Really looking forward to this one as just reading about the conference last year left me with a lot to think about.

PS: We’re still looking for a new office space somewhere in Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg.

What we read this week (7 Sep)

On a 5-year-old digital agency’s learnings, a software company’s unusual structure and philosophy, what the Quantified Self has to do with Robert Pattinson, big data and the “digital nervous system,” and the complicated relationship between waste and creativity.

Quote of the week

It sure is hard to see your ideas as hypotheses to be tested, instead of the utterly genius solutions that you’re so certain they are.

Tim Malbon

Articles of the week

What we read this week (28 Oct)

What a reading list we have for you this weekend. Grab yourself a good cup of coffee, and dig in.

  • The Post-Functional Paradigm: Why all designs are compensations for telepathy and teleportation Our friend Mark Jensen (@marks), currently working as a design intern at Google, sums up his thesis on post-functional design as a paradigm. Fantastic work.
  • Emo Touch Screen Future Toby Barnes of Mudlark started a somewhat ironic tumblelog: Emo Touch Screen Future features (often somewhat failed or misguided) visions of how touch screens will revolutionize our day-to-day lives.
  • FT: Good news and bad news for news on the iPad The Pew Research Center found out that US tablet owners consume tons of news on their tablets but do it mostly in the browser and are not very willing to pay for it.
  • Playful: Flying cars & iPads We’ve heard only good things about Playful Conference by all accounts (we had tickets but couldn’t make it). Mary Hamilton has picked up the topic of future nostalgia and written this beautiful post around it. Similar to some stuff we’ve been thinking about recently. Here’s a good summary by our friend Kars from Hubbub here.
  • Pretty Cluetrain The Cluetrain Manifest in one page, for extra easy consumption.
  • Fast Company: Bill Nguyen, The Boy In The Bubble Fast Company portraits Bill Nguyen, the founder of Color, a photo sharing app for the iPhone that has become synonymous for over-eager venture capitalists throwing money at startups based on nothing but buzz words and hype.
  • BoingBoing: An interview with David Eagleman Some great thoughts about our perception of time, near-death-experience and deja vues with neuroscientist and author David Eagleman.
  • Cleantech: How big data will help manage a world of 7 billion people By this time next week, the world will have 7 billion people in it, according to the United Nations, and by 2050 there are supposed to be 9 billion people in the world. This rapid population growth will fundamentally change the way populations use resources like energy, water and food, and corporations, governments and NGOs will increasingly turn to analytics, software and big data tools to manage how to deliver these resources to the populations that need them.
  • Nieman Journalism Lab: Word clouds considered harmful “Every time I see a word cloud presented as insight, I die a little inside.” We agree. Data visualization is an art form, or a craft. Peeling away layers and layers of data sets to surface the story hidden inside, adding context, supporting insight. And then there’s word clouds, that show you nothing but how many times a word was mentioned. Excellent stuff.
  • Wieden+Kennedy: Why We’re Not Hiring Creative Technologists WK’s Igor Clark on Creative Technologists: “Clearly many non-technical factors are involved, but there is one simple and concrete thing we can do: stop hiring “creative technologists”. Hire coders. Reject compromise on this front, and resist pressure to give in to it. Only hire people to work at the crossover of creative and technology if they have strong, practical, current coding skills.”