The Reading Problem.

Reading enlightensWe’ve all encountered it. We post an article on some social network and someone comments without reading the article, or not reading it properly.

As someone who writes, I went through the stages of grief about it. I can apathetically report that I don’t care as much as I used to about it. Many people tend to skim headlines, sharing them without thought, and then blaming the Russians or whoever the headline targets for everything.

As someone who reads, I’m confounded by it. When I read that skim reading is the new reading, some of it began to make sense:

…As work in neurosciences indicates, the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading… — 

The bad news is that anyone who read that didn’t skim it, and therefore doesn’t need to understand it on a personal level. The good news is that there are people thinking about it.

But there are other things, things that also need to be addressed. Some people don’t even skim articles, they skim headlines – and in a rush, for whatever reason, they share it. Before you know it, things with no actual truth to them, or just enough to be shared, inundate the entire web.

Issues, too, of framing with technology come into context.

And what it really boils down to is that, aside from how much we might like to think people who are demonstrably susceptible to all of this are ignorant, as a society we generate a lot of things to read. Publishers understand the need for sticky headlines and ‘cover art’, and are good at it.

People don’t have enough time to deep read things, and they don’t want to be left out of an accelerating world – but are proud of themselves when they can type out the 4 letters, ‘TLDR’.

People who figured all of this out long ago have capitalized on it. Fake News, coupled with Big Data analysis of what people are interested in, allows some impressive amount of sharing of information that should probably be tossed in a pyre of literacy.

So, what to do as a writer? Well, the answer to that is simple: Keep writing.

And, as a global citizen on the Internet? Deep read. Don’t skim. Encourage others to do it.

 

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The Networking of Truth And Falsehood: ‘Fake News’

MissionThere is an incessant debate over truth right now, the same as there ever is, branded this time as ‘fake news’.

It has everyone mistrusting everyone, everything – everyone but the least ethically or cognitively competent, willful or not. It’s the elephant on the chest of social media companies, traditional media companies fighting for business relevancy in a networked world, and we, the factually impaired.

In all of this, we focus on the lack of truth. Yet, where we find truth we find precision, and where we find precision, we find error. When we talk about fake news, we’re really talking about the innocuous stories fed to the media – social and traditional – that spread not because they’re good, but because they’re catchy. ‘Sticky’, as marketers would say.

The Basics

Truth itself is a fickle thing. We seek objectivity in our subjective experiences of life, and only when we master these subjectivities do we diminish error and improve the precision. Again, where we experience precision, we experience error – they cannot exist without each other.

There are seconds of truth.
There are minutes of truth.
There are degrees of truth.

It’s all trigonometry to an extent, which fuzzy logic measures by weight, but it’s there – particularly when reconciling two versions of the truth. When we get three versions of the truth, it gets more complicated. When we get 10 versions of the truth, it’s even more exponentially complicated. So we do what humans do – we simplify when we’re overwhelmed. When we’re scared, it might become about race or about people ‘over there’, a wide net that catches innocent and guilty simply to catch the guilty.

Aggregating Truth

All of this used to be more manageable when we had fewer versions of the truth. The Internet came along and gave us the metaphorical 10,000 monkeys typing out their own versions of Shakespeare all over the Internet. Most monkeys simply regurgitate the same stuff they read somewhere else, hoping to make their audience click around their site to get a little bit more advertising revenue. When you drill down, there are actually very few monkeys that come up with the best versions and they’re not the same all the time.

But the monkeys that come up with the most popular versions aren’t necessarily the best – and the best versions are not always popular. Network powered societies amplify this and we’re network powered, so much so we cannot truly conceive versions of truth as easily. Facts have become croutons on a low carb salad – almost extinct, if not extinct.

And it all happens faster. Where we might have gotten news once a day with the printing press, twice a day with the television, thrice with the radio, we have versions of truth on tap 24/7, where the first to cover something gets the prized advertising revenue no matter how uninformative and perhaps wrong the coverage is.

Because we simplify. It’s human nature. We ’round off’. We estimate. We guess. We find comfort in opinions and op-eds that get more clicks with less facts. And those that want to insert stories to spread can get their research done through aggregate data mined from social networks and your local grocery store.

We find in life that when the people around us make better decisions, we ourselves get better choices. We find that when we make better decisions, those around us get better choices.

And we find that the opposite is also true.

Rethink where you get your content. Re-assess your connections in what they share, reassess what you read and if none of it makes you uncomfortable, you’re not reading facts but your own fiction, cherry picked from the 10,000 monkeys including the ones who take joy in feeding nonsense to the masses.

Go find Shakespeare. Don’t trust the monkeys. An if you’re one of the monkeys, my word, at least try to get something in with the filler.

Facebook, Google, et al: It’s Not The Data, It’s The Context.

ContextsDylan Curran recently published Are you ready? Here is all the data Facebook and Google have on you – an article which should open the eyes of anyone who uses Facebook or Google.

It’s a good article, and it shows how much data people give up freely – who doesn’t have a Gmail account or a Facebook page these days? – but it’s lacking something that most people miss, largely because they’re thinking of their own privacy or lack of it.

I requested my data from the sites – Facebook had 384 megabytes on me, and my Google Data I will get on April 7th since I opted for 50 gigabytes. All this data, though, is limited to what I have done.

It lacks the context. We are all single trees in the forest, and these companies aren’t so much in the habit of studying trees by themselves. They have the data of the forest of trees. That context, those interactions, you can’t really download. The algorithms they have derive data from what we hand over so willingly because it costs us nothing financially.

So, while they can give us our data, and some companies do, they can’t give us someone else’s data – so we only get the data on that single tree, ourselves. We learn only a small amount of what their algorithms have decided about us, and while Facebook has a way to see some of what their algorithms have decided about you, they are not compelled to tell you everything about your digital shadow. Your digital shadow has no rights, yet is used to judge you.

What’s your context? That’s the real question. It’s what they don’t show you, what they have decided about you from your habits, that they don’t truly share. That is, after all, their business.

Know that, be conscious of it… and don’t be an idiot online, no matter how smart you think you are. Everything you do is analyzed by an algorithm.

Self-Defeating Social Media

Grunge Warning Sign - Do Not Read This SignActivism is very trendy on social media and in social networks. Someone in your network, I’m sure, is intent on saving something – be it trees, wildlife, the environment, some poor misunderstood politician, or something else. Everyone.

It gets to be too much and borders on defamation (or jumps solidly on it) at times. For example, imagine a posting of the rear of a car with accompanying text, “This person threw a bag of kittens on the ground and drove off!”. Horrible, right?

Now imagine that the pictured car is yours. “Wait!”, you’ll say, “But I didn’t do that!” And social media will roar back, “No, no, you did, you’re being dishonest!”

Let’s assume good. Let’s say it wasn’t you. Not very brilliant of the person who started that meme, was it? We forget to question what we see and hear on social media, we refuse to ask questions, and we go with the flow. A few of us unpopular folks take a moment and make a decision whether it merits sharing, but most people don’t seem to have enough brain cells to have that conversation in their brain.

People have died over that stuff when it comes to bombings and other things. I’m waiting for the lawsuits to start rolling in.

In Trinidad and Tobago, there are people posting about hunting out of season, selling animals illegally, etc. The system is allegedly corrupt – I don’t know firsthand, so I say alleged because I have to be responsible for what I write and share. That reporting to authorities has not netted any arrests is frustrating, I imagine – but, too, there’s a lot of frustration about crime and what is popularly seen as the inefficacy of law enforcement.

Be that as it may, it has become trendy to re-post things where people appear to be doing things illegally. Selling monkeys, for example. In a perfect world, one would send that to the authorities and the authorities would do their jobs… and people would get arrested. This, allegedly, is not working, so instead this stuff gets re-posted, shared across networks…

And of course, everyone’s upset, and the only thing that can compete with cute animal videos is what people are upset about. Now take a moment. This guy, because people are upset with him, got his post to go viral. Speculation – if he had monkeys to sell, he was more likely to find a buyer. And, if he has a brain, he’ll learn not to post such things where authorities might start paying attention and prosecuting people.

If authorities do actually want to do something, they’re now trying to find someone who may well know that he’s been made. With just enough brain cells, he ducks it and learns his lesson.

In so many ways, re-posting things can be counter-productive to the intended result.

Think first. Post later.

Having good intentions is not enough, and never will be.

A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Social Media

Grim JoyI used to be heavily involved in social media; some might think I still am when I’ve simply become more efficient and have sculpted my networks. In all, though, I rate myself a curmudgeon – a ‘a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person.’

This is not to say that I am a curmudgeon, but I imagine that there are some people who send me things who now believe I am a curmudgeon. Wishing people happy birthday on social media with a click is silly. A deluge of images of politicians leaves me feeling dirty in ways a shower cannot cure, a stream of people who believe Putin masterminded everything from the Presidential Election in the U.S. to their lost sock makes me roll my eyes, watching building blocks of uninformed opinion become representative of otherwise intelligent people is the intellectual equivalent of being assaulted with gift wrapped feces.

David over at Raptitude figured out that he could have more time to do things with his experiment. Yet even as a curmudgeon, I have to point out that social media, social networks and the humans that use them are a part of our lives – we just don’t need to exist on their plane; they need to exist on ours.

What that means is we should understand that it’s typically not very important, and we should be OK with telling people not to send us crap on WhatsApp, Facebook messenging, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever crackpost (that was a typo but I like it) network that people use as echo chambers to feel good about themselves.

We shouldn’t have to think of ourselves as curmudgeons to do this.  We can control what we take in simply by telling people what we don’t want to spend our time on –  be it the stale joke networks on whatsapp to the in depth discussion on doomed men’s fashion, from the cute puppy videos to the insane amount of posts about adopting animals, etc. In my spare time, I don’t want that to be what defines me.

No, I’d rather define myself than be molded into an acceptable image of what society likes. We are society.

Eschewing the Networks Of Noise

Social Media Signals

On one side is the gigantic internet, a miracle of fine articulation, which turns out the tabloid newspaper: on the other side are the contents of the tabloid itself, symbolically recording the most crude and elementary states of emotion.

I wish that I had written that but I didn’t. I simply switched ‘printing press’ with ‘Internet’ on a quote of Lewis Mumford (Technics and Civilization, 1934).

Someone mentioned that they would add me to some Whatsapp group this morning, but I didn’t have a smart phone – and they did so in a way that hinted at me being some stick-in-the-mud. I have no doubt that they see me as such, but as I responded, “If it weren’t for all the shit being posted, I might bother with it.”

“Yadda yadda yadda”

Case in point. Nothing of worth but implicitly saying, “I don’t care what you think”.

There’s only one suitable response to that, and they got it.

The signal to noise ratio of networks all over bugs me. I suppose part of that is the way that I grew up when minutes on a landline were a cost and thus one got the most value that one could. I suppose that my time in the military reinforced that, where you didn’t waste time in communication – and in dealing with ambulances from the Emergency Department in a Naval Hospital, where communication had to be clear, concise, and devoid of noise. I suppose it was reinforced even more with the SOAP notes that we wrote – quickly, accurately, no noise, anticipating what the reader would be looking for and making those things clear so that a month later you wouldn’t be asked questions about it.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a value to ‘noise’, I won’t disagree, but there is no value when it crosses a certain threshold. This threshold varies between people, and I’ll admit that I have a lower threshold than most that has increased with age.

A perfect example was using Whatsapp group to organize a Hindu funeral. It worked out fairly well despite only fragments of information being shared, and I used my own old smartphone on a wireless network to participate. Towards the end, though, it became a place where people were playing. Jokes inappropriate for a funeral were being posted, and other nonsense that didn’t pertain to the subject of the group were being posted.

Others on Whatsapp were interrupting my day with ancient memes I’d already seen on Facebook and Twitter. They meant well, but to me, what was it? Noise.

During all of this time, I was thinking of getting a smartphone here in Trinidad and Tobago – a period of months, and maybe soon enough I will, but right now I don’t want one because I don’t want to pay more to get less through both phone and service.

Am I the only one that feels this way? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t really care right now. I see children walking around with smartphones, and when I see that I wonder who is teaching them how to communicate clearly and concisely? If 20 and 30 somethings – much less 40 year olds and upward – can’t communicate clearly, do we wonder at the confusion that has become social media – a place of poorly communicated emotion, of poorly communicated ideas?

Society, with all the wonders of technology so well dressed in the palms of their collective hands, seems to be more interested in communicating the tabloid rather than the textbook, and while the tabloid most certainly has it’s place, we need more textbook in my opinion.

After all, competing with it has infected ‘news’ media…

Crisis Informatics

DisasterPeople who have known me over the years know I’ve always had a passion for responding to disasters. I can’t tell you why it is that when most people are running away, I have a tendency to run in – something I did before I became a Navy Corpsman (and learned how to do better because of). Later became a stab on what this is about by first enabling the capture of the data itself by enabling the communication. I even worked a year at a company that does weather warnings and other emergency communication, and was disappointed at how little analysis was being done on the data.

Years later, I now read ‘The Data of Disasters‘. Some folks have been working on some of the things that I had been thinking about and working on as I had time, and they seem to have gotten further. I’m excited about since the Alert Retrieval Cache was necessarily closed and didn’t gain the traction I would have liked – and open systems present issues with:

  • Context: A post may be about something mentioned prior (a.k.a. ibid) but not tagged as such because of size limitations.
  • Legitimacy: Whether a source is trustworthy or not, and how many independent sources are reporting on something.
  • Timeliness: Rebuilding a timeline in a network full of shares/retweets can pose a problem because not everyone credits a source. If you go by brute force to find source date and times, you can pull on threads – but you’re not guaranteed of their legitimacy in unit time.
  • Perspectives: GIS allows for multiple perspectives on the same event in unit time.
  • Reactions: When possible, seeing when something at a site changes when all of the above can change in unit time.

It gets a bit more complicated from there – for example, languages can be difficult particularly with dialects and various mixes of languages (such as patois in the Caribbean, where I got into all of this). There’s also a LOT of data involved (big, quick and dirty data) that needs to be cleaned before any analysis can happen.

This is all why I envisioned it all to be a closed system, but the world believes differently, interjecting pictures of food with actual information of use. Like it or not, there’s data out there.

The expansion of data from a source over unit time, as mentioned in their paper on Crisis Informatics , is not something  I had thought of. I imagine they’re doing great work up there at the Department of Information Science in the College of Media, Communication and Information at CU Boulder.

I’ll be keeping an eye out on what else they publish. Might be fun to toss a beowulf cluster at some data.

Social Networks Don’t Make Sense To You?

3D Social NetworkingI was sitting by myself eating lunch, with only my Kindle as company, when I heard from a voice from another table say that they didn’t understand how to use LinkedIn.

A few other people agreed. One or two shook their heads in not-so-mock consternation. Having overheard this group before – beware solitary people with Kindles eating lunch – I knew that these were business folk. Marketers. Salespeople. And while there was a part of me that wanted to say something, I decided to be quiet and consider what they said.

After all, they’re right.

They don’t understand it. They owned that. In the grand scheme of things, that really isn’t a failure – social networks are hardly transparent in how they work, and they do allow people to think that it’s about the members of the community when the bottom line says it is not. There’s no shame in not understanding how social networks work, or don’t. There’s no shame in that at all, and coming to that conclusion within a moment or two, I listened some more.

I mean, really, social networks suck. They almost always show us things that we don’t want to see while somehow failing to show us what we need to see. Renowned sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, said that social networks are traps – and largely, they are.

This leads us to the first thing you need to understand.

Social Networks Are Not About You

I know, I know, we all would like to think so as we impress upon each other our politics, our perspectives and our silliness – not to mention kittens.

Follow the logic:

  • The social network belongs to a company. =>
  • The company isn’t altruistic, it needs to make money. =>
  • The company makes money based on advertising and selling what they find out about you. =>
  • You are the product that buys and whose information is sold.

An antiquated perspective would say, “Well, then we’re in charge!”. The idea that you could control what is bought of you and sold to you is a bit naive at best; at worst it’s a simple matter of giving yourself away in bytes.

So then we like to think that, like a casino or lottery, we will come out the winner when no one else is beating the house. A few do. The majority will not. Despite your best efforts, you’re likely to be a part of the majority rather than the minority.

If that sounds bleak, well, shucks, I apologize for being the guy who gives you the news, but I do expect you to thank me at some point when it sinks in.

Now that we have established that it isn’t about you, you’re ready for the second point.

Social Networks Are Not Designed For You.

Wow, I’m just pulling down your worldview. It’s a bummer, I know, but someone pretty intelligent said to me recently, “the person who reads the reports makes the decisions, not the one who uses the user interface” (take a bow, M.E.). That summarizes it quite well.

The people who pay for your data and who pay the owner of the social network to sell you stuff are the ones who drive the interface. You’re just a statistic. They might tell you that they’re warm and fuzzy human beings, but that warm and fuzzy goes away fast when the black line falters.

And yet, I must make the final point.

Social Networks Can Benefit You.

When you realize that you’re just a squirrel in their world trying to get your nut, you learn how to gather your nuts by paying attention.

The first rule of being popular on a social network – something I’ve never tried to do except professionally – is not to be like everyone else. Your posts need to represent what you want your digital shadow to be seen for.

If you have a business, you should stand out not just with better products and services – what do you mean you don’t have those? Go get them and then finish reading this– you have to stand out. The best and easiest way to stand out is to be yourself. Don’t just post things about your company. Post things that people find interesting, and if you have good salespeople and marketers, they can give you input so you can at least fake it to the demographics you’re looking for.

If you’re an individual, take the risk of being yourself. Don’t post pictures of your food. Don’t use a professional network to explore your love life candidly. Use the funny shaped thing inside your skull, equidistant between your ears.

You may not be popular.

You’ll have a presence, and really, that’s the only way to leverage a social network your way. Be interesting, or as close to interesting as you (or your company) can abide.

I encourage you to read this LinkedIn post as well:

Your Personal Brand and LinkedIn