A Need For Patches

Brick-Moji Thinking face by Ochre Jelly on Flickr - public domain Aug 4 2022Yesterday I was just sitting around and thinking about a bunch of sentient beings on a moon of some planet way off in imaginary-land and ended up thinking a bit about education. I don’t think it was profound, really, but I think it might be of use when we think about society and how it pushes and pulls based on the bias of what we consider to be intelligent, and what we consider to be educated.

Those of us who have truly explored our world and the minds in it understand that an educated mind isn’t necessarily intelligent, and that an intelligent mind doesn’t necessarily have to be educated. Even then, we can’t decide if there is a bias in testing – some say yes, there is a bias, and some say no. Now here’s where it gets warped: The people that made it through the education system are the ones considered to be experts, saying that if there is bias, it’s negligible because other people who made it through an education system say so. I’m not an expert and won’t pretend to be, but my experience in my life shows me that there is bias, and not just of the educational system but of the systems that feed into the educational systems. It’s complex.

Spoiler: I don’t know the answer, and given my own experience I’ll say that there is room for a lot of thinking about it beyond what is said by either side of that debate.

In my mind, it’s perfectly fine to entertain more than one side of a conversation. It doesn’t mean that I have to charge off and defend arguments on one side or the other, it means I should be tearing them apart and trying to see what’s wrong with what everyone is saying and figure it out myself so that I can have an opinion on my own. That, I think, is what learning should be, and by extension I think that’s what education should prepare use to do – not recite memorized things to pass tests.

In an age of social media, where everyone is snapping off witty one liners and dropping to ad hominem attacks when they don’t work, I think we forget that we should be thinking more and typing less.

Oddly enough, my Twitter feed provided me with, “Thoughts Without a Thinker: Cognitive decline in an age of brilliance“. John Nosta writes of the Medieval era when there was a Trivium that consisted of Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. From there, the Quadvrium, or ‘subects’, were taught:

“…Each of the three part play an important role in a student’s educational foundation. Grammar helped students to understand the structure of language and how it worked. Dialectic helped them to ask questions and probe beneath the surface of things. And Rhetoric helped them to express their understanding in a clear and persuasive way. In a very basic way, the Trivium taught students how assimilate and process information — in other words, how to think!…”

It’s something I didn’t know and thus a pleasure to read.

My comparisons are generally with the German University because I’d read, “Academic Freedom in the Age of the University” (Walter Metzger, 1961), where Metzger wrote quite a bit about Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and Lehrnefreheite (freedom to learn), which are not quite the same but I imagine built from the Trivium and Quadvrium and inherited from it. Perhaps some scholar will correct me, I look forward to that.

In the days of the Trivium, things were a bit simpler. There weren’t things like atoms, or software. In fact, calculus wasn’t around til Leibniz and Newton came up with it at the same time independently. The world was about observation and interpretation. Education was simpler because there was less to learn, and what we learn at this point by the end of a secondary school education likely exceeded a full education in that period, which took significantly more time.

In the last century alone, the leaps and bounds we have made in science alone are mind-boggling. Consider that Penicillin, invented by Alexander Fleming, in 1928. That’s less than 100 years ago, and now we’ve not only treated infections, we have created vaccinations that protect us from various diseases. We know so much more. Granted, we may not learn this stuff in secondary school, but we probably should. 

But this leads us to the education system itself. Consider what Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens (2018):

“…You also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything. They are incorporated into fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions…”

In Medieval times, the Trivium would have gone with the imagined order of the class divisions, the Church (likely Catholic in that period), and so on. In modern America, it would be the freedom, individuality, and so on – derived from, oddly enough, the Church where all souls were considered equal, and thus we get from the Declaration of Independence:

“…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

Harare takes that apart and rebuilds it in his book in an interesting and some may think disturbing way, but the point is that there is a change in that imagined order. There’s nothing wrong with the imagined order, but we have to understand that these are all imagined orders of the way things are that, unless we have had some part in changing the imagined order, it was the way it was. In the same breath, we can talk about how that Declaration of Independence didn’t apply to former slaves of African descent, and how how Malcolm X pointed out that, “We did not land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.” 

That imagined order where slavery was permissible in the United States went away. Educational segregation went away in an uproar with young Linda Brown at the center. And the imagined order changed.

In 1920, women in the United States were recognized as having the right to vote through the 19th Amendment. Again, the imagined order changed.

That’s just the big stuff. There’s a lot in between that happened as well, and all the while, the 1920s saw the beginnings of AM radio broadcasting, the 1930s began FM broadcasting (which your radio likely still uses), television was beginning in parallel… no longer did one have to wait for updates on the world through newspapers. Personal letters may still travel by ship, since the first commercial airplane flights were happening about 100 years ago as well…

Our imagined order of things has shifted significantly. And in all of this, with the advent of social media in the last few decades, we have a generation growing up with a lot of different ‘imagined orders’ around the world competing. In fact right now, the biggest issue seems to be between authoritarian and democratic systems, but there are plenty of other things based on religion and culture as well.

In all of this – all of this – it comes back to what John Nosta wrote within his last paragraph, which I encourage you to read:

“Thoughts are the fabric of society.”

My friends, I do believe we need to patch a few things.






Why Social Media Moderation Fails

Ukrainian Military Tractor Pulling Moscow Parody
A clear parody of a Ukrainian tractor pulling the Moscow.

Moderation of content has become a bit ridiculous on social media sites of late. Given that this post will show up on Facebook, and the image at top will be shown, it’s quite possible that the Facebook algorithms that have run amok with me over similiar things, clear parody, may further restrict my account. I clearly marked the image as a parody.

Let’s see what happens. I imagine they’ll just toss more restrictions on me, which is why Facebook and I aren’t as close as we once were. Anyone who thinks a tractor pulling the sunk Moskva really happened should probably have their head examined, but this is the issue of such algorithms left unchecked. It quite simply is impossible, implausible, and… yes, funny, because Ukrainian tractors have invariably been the heroes of the conflict, even having been blown up when their owners were simply trying to reap their harvests.

But this is not about that.

This is about understanding how social media moderation works, and doesn’t, and why it does, and doesn’t.

What The Hell Do You Know?

Honestly, not that much. As a user, I’ve steered clear of most problems with social networks simply by knowing it’s not a private place where I can do as I please – and even where I can, I have rules of conduct I live by that are generally compatible with the laws of society.

What I do know is that when I was working on the Alert Retrieval Cache way back when, before Twitter, the problem I saw with this disaster communication software was the potential for bad information. Since I couldn’t work on it by myself because of the infrastructural constraints of Trinidad and Tobago (which still defies them for emergency communications), I started working on the other aspects of it, and the core issue was ‘trusted sources’.

Trusted Sources.

To understand this problem, you go to a mechanic for car problems, you go to a doctor for medical problems, and so on. Your mechanic is a trusted source for your car (you would hope). But what if your mechanic specializes in your car, but your friend has a BMW that spends more time in the shop than on the road? He might be a trusted source.

You don’t see a proctologist when you have a problem with your throat, though maybe some people should. And this is where the General Practitioner comes in to basically give you directions on what specialist you should see. With a flourish of a pen in alien handwriting, you are sent off to a trusted source related to your medical issue – we hope.

In a disaster situation, you have on the ground people you have on the ground. You might be lucky enough to have doctors, nurses, EMTs and people with some experience in dealing with a disaster of whatever variety that’s on the table, and so you have to do the best with what you have. For information, some sources will be better than others. For getting things done, again, it depends a lot on the person on the ground.

So the Alert Retrieval Cache I was working on after it’s instantiation was going to have to deal with these very human issues, and the best way to deal with that is with other humans. We’re kind of good at that, and it’s not something that AI is very good at because AI is built by specialists and beyond job skills, most people are generalists.You don’t have to be a plumber to fix a toilet, and you don’t have to be a doctor to put a bandage on someone. What’s more, people can grow beyond their pasts despite an infatuation in Human Resources with the past.

Nobody hires you to do what you did, they hire you to do what they want to do in the future.

So just in a disaster scenario, trusted sources are fluid. In an open system not confined to disasters, open to all manner of cute animal pictures, wars, protests, and even politicians (the worst of the lot in my opinion), trusted sources is a complete crapshoot. This leads everyone to trust nothing, or some to trust everything.

Generally, if it goes with your cognitive bias, you run with it. We’re all guilty of it to some degree. The phrase, “Trust but verify” is important.

In social media networks, ‘fact checking’ became the greatest thing since giving up one’s citizenship before a public offering. So fact checking happens, and for the most part is good – but, when applied to parody, it fails. Why? Because algorithms don’t have a sense of humor. It’s either a fact, or it’s not. And so when I posted the pictures of Ukrainian tanks towing everything, Facebook had a hissy fit, restricted my account and apparently had a field day going through past things I posted that were also parody. It’s stupid, but that’s their platform and they don’t have to defend themselves to me.

Is it annoying? You bet. Particularly since no one knows how their algorithms work. I sincerely doubt that they do. But this is a part of how they moderate content.

In protest, does it make sense to post even more of the same sort of content? Of course not. That would be shooting one’s self in the foot (as I may be doing now when this posts to Facebook), but if you’ve already lost your feet, how much does that matter?

Social media sites fail when they don’t explain their policies. But it gets worse.

Piling on Users.

One thing I’ve seen on Twitter that has me shaking my head, as I mentioned in the more human side of Advocacy and Social Networks, is the ‘Pile On’, where a group of people can get onto a thread and overload someone’s ability to respond to one of their posts. On most networks there is some ‘slow down’ mechanism to avoid that happening, and I imagine Twitter is no different, but that might be just from one specific account. Get enough accounts doing the same thing to the same person, it can get overwhelming from the technical side, and if it’s coordinated – maybe everyone has the same sort of avatar as an example – well, that’s a problem because it’s basically a Distributed Denial of Service on another user.

Now, this could be about all manner of stuff, but the algorithms involved don’t care about how passionate people might feel about a subject. They could easily see commonalities in the ‘attack’ on a user’s post, and even on the user. A group could easily be identified as doing pile ons, and their complaints could be ‘demoted’ on the platform, essentially making it an eyeroll and, “Ahh.These people again.”

It has nothing to do with the content. Should it? I would think it should, but then I would want them to agree with my perspective because if they didn’t, I would say it’s unfair. As Lessig wrote, Code is Law. So there could well be algorithms watching that. Are there? I have no earthly idea, but it’ something I could see easily implemented.

And for being someone who does it, if this happens? It could well cause problems for the very users trying to advocate a position. Traffic lights can be a real pain.

Not All In The Group Are Saints.

If we assume that everyone in our group can do no wrong, we’re idiots. As groups grow larger, the likelihood of getting something wrong increases. As groups grow larger, there’s increased delineation from other groups, there’s a mob mentality and there’s no apology to be had because there’s no real structure to many of these collective groups. When Howard Rheingold wrote about Smart Mobs, I waited for him to write about “Absolutely Stupid Mobs”, but I imagine that book would not have sold that well.

Members of groups can break terms of service. Now, we assume that the account is looked at individually. What happens if they can be loosely grouped? We have the technology for that. Known associates, etc, etc. You might be going through your Twitter home page and find someone you know being attacked by a mob of angry clowns – it’s always angry clowns, no matter how they dress – and jump in, passionately supporting someone who may have well caused the entire situation.

Meanwhile, Twitter, Facebook, all of them simply don’t have the number of people to handle what must be a very large flaming bag of complaints on their doorstep every few microseconds. Overwhelmed, they may just go with what the algorithms say and call it a night so that they can go home before the people in the clown cars create traffic.

We don’t know.

We have Terms of Service for guidelines, but we really don’t know the algorithms these social media sites run to check things out. It has to be at least a hybrid system, if not almost completely automated. I know people on Twitter who are on their third accounts. I just unfollowed one today because I didn’t enjoy the microsecond updates on how much fun they were having jerking the chains of some group that I won’t get into. Why is it their third account? They broke the Terms of Service.

What should you not do on a network? Break the Terms of Service.

But when the terms of service are ambiguous, how much do they really know? What constitutes an ‘offensive’ video? An ‘offensive’ image? An ‘offensive’ word? Dave Chappelle could wax poetic about it, I’m sure, as could Ricky Gervais, but they are comedians – people who show us the humor in an ugly world, when permitted.

Yet, if somehow the group gets known to the platform, and enough members break Terms of Service, could they? Would they? Should they?

We don’t know. And people could be shooting themselves in the foot.

It’s Not Our Platform.

As someone who has developed platforms – not the massive social media platforms we have now, but I’ve done a thing or two here and there – I know that behind the scenes things can get hectic. Bad algorithms happen. Good algorithms can have bad consequences. Bad algorithms can have good consequences. Meanwhile, these larger platforms have stock prices to worry about, shareholders to impress, and if they screw up some things, well, shucks, there’s plenty of people on the platform.

People like to talk about freedom of speech a lot, but that’s not really legitimate when you’re on someone else’s website. They can make it as close as they can, following the rules and laws of many nations or those of a few, but really, underneath it all, their algorithms can cause issues for anyone. They don’t have to explain to you why the picture of your stepmother with her middle finger up was offensive, or why a tractor towing a Russian flag ship needed to be fact checked.

In the end, there’s hopefully a person at the end of the algorithm who could be having a bad day, or could just suck at their job, or could even just not like you because of your picture and name. We. Don’t. Know.

So when dealing with these social networks, bear that in mind.

Constitutionality and Creativity

webRam Singh
the late Uncle Ram, a few years before his death.

Happy Emancipation Day, Trinidad and Tobago.

I have no personal stories related to Emancipation other than my father’s death coinciding some years ago, but I think this falls under ‘Emancipation from Bureaucracy’.

My late great-Uncle on my paternal grandmother’s side was quite a character, someone who lead an interesting life. Before he died, he would visit and he would tell me of his youth, late into the night.

One such story he told me involved his uncle, Simbhoonath Capildeo. As he told the story, as a young man he built his own bicycle. Once built, he rode it to show a police friend at the local police station somewhere in Chaguanas, Trinidad, and was promptly charged with not having a license for his bicycle. This would have happened around the World War II period, perhaps a little after.

There was a time when you needed a license for a bicycle in Trinidad and Tobago, and it ends up the only places you could get such a license were the places that sold them. Having built his own bicycle from spare parts, he couldn’t get a license.

He was a scared young man in the Chaguanas courthouse one day when his Uncle Simbhoo saw him and asked him why he was there. From the way Uncle Ram explained it, he was intimidated by the courthouse, and then having one’s Uncle show up when you’d broken the law just added to his anxiety. Still, he explained to Uncle Simbhoo, and Uncle Simbhoo said he would represent him.

And so he did. From what Uncle Ram said, Simbhoonath Capildeo argued that the law regarding bicycle licenses was unconstitutional since it didn’t allow young, bright people to build their own bicycles, using their own abilities and what was available to do so because licenses were only available from people who sold bicycles. Uncle Ram begged off a bit in the story here since he didn’t understand all the intricacies, but the result was he owed no debt to society for building his own bicycle.

I haven’t tried to verify the story; it was during the times of British rule in Trinidad and Tobago and I’m not sure that records exist for that era anymore, and if they are there, how I would even start looking. I imagine there would be a lot of mundane stuff to leaf through on tattered pages in a dark and dusty room somewhere. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to check it’s veracity, it means it’s a good story and I’d like to believe it. Even if it’s not true, it’s a good story, and we could use a few good stories.

I would like to believe it’s true. And if someone has ideas on how to check, or wants to check independently, feel free to let me know!

It’s no mistake at the time that I had been talking about Lessig’s Free Culture at the time with him.