From Facebook: An Update on Building a Global Oversight Board

We’re sharing the progress we’ve made in building a new organization with independent oversight over how Facebook makes decisions on content.

Brent Harris, Director of Governance and Global Affairs at Facebook has an interesting blog post that provides An Update on Building a Global Oversight Board (Dec. 12, 2019). Facebook is developing an independent Global Oversight Board which will be able to make decisions about content on Facebook.

I can’t help feeling that Facebook is still trying to avoid being a content company. Instead of admitting that parts of what they do matches what media content companies do, they want to stick to a naive, but convenient, view that Facebook is a technological facilitator and content comes from somewhere else. This, like the view that bias in AI is always in the data and not in the algorithms, allows the company to continue with the pretence that they are about clean technology and algorithms. All the old human forms of judgement will be handled by an independent GOB so Facebook doesn’t have to admit they might have a position on something.

What Facebook should do is admit that they are a media company and that they make decisions that influence what users see (or not.) They should do what newspapers do – embrace the editorial function as part of what it means to deal in content. There is still, in newspapers, an affectation to the separation between opinionated editorial and objective reporting functions, but it is one that is open for discussion. What Facebook is doing is a not-taking-responsibility, but sequestering of responsibility. This will allow Facebook to play innocent as wave after wave of fake news stories sweep through their system.

Still, it is an interesting response by a company that obviously wants to deal in news for the economic value, but doesn’t want to corrupted by it.

The weird, wonderful world of Y2K survival guides

The category amounted to a giant feedback loop in which the existence of Y2K alarmism led to more of the same.

Harry McCracken in Fast Company has a great article on The weird, wonderful world of Y2K survival guides: A look back (Dec. 13, 2019).The article samples some of the hype around the disruptive potential of the millenium. Particularly worrisome are the political aspects of the folly. People (again) predicted the fall of the government and the need to prepare for the ensuing chaos. (Why is it that some people look so forward to such collapse?)

Technical savvy didn’t necessarily inoculate an author against millennium-bug panic. Edward Yourdon was a distinguished software architect with plenty of experience relevant to the challenge of assessing the Y2K bug’s impact. His level of Y2K gloominess waxed and waned, but he was prone to declarations such as “my own personal Y2K plans include a very simple assumption: the government of the U.S., as we currently know it, will fall on 1/1/2000. Period.”

Interestingly, few people panicked despite all the predictions. Most people, went out and celebrated.

All of this should be a warning for those of us who are tempted to predict that artificial intelligence or social media will lead to some sort of disaster. There is an ethics to predicting ethical disruption. Disruption, almost by definition, never happens as you thought it would.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019

Modern Warfare 2019 (MW19) illustrates the difficulties of trying to create a first-person-shooter (FPS) that meets player expectations of the genre while also making it politically sensitive. On the one hand players expect a campaign of set pieces with different weapons (from silenced pistols to drones), different types of action (stealth to blowing things up), and different settings around the world (or off it.) On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a story which would justify the killing of so many people – so many that you can have “fun.” Without zombies or nazis it is hard to find clearly bad guys.

MW19 tackles this by trying a post-modern “forever war” setting. Most of the scenes take place in a fictional Urzikstani which feels like some mix of Kurdish Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A central character is the leader of the Urzikstani resistance, Farah Kadim, who seems modelled on the Kurdish women fighters fighting in Syria. She leads the Urzikstan Liberation Force (ULF) and you actually get to play her in a couple of the scenes.

A forever war setting like Urzikstani makes sense if you are trying to reboot a franchise by creating a setting that can sustain lots of subsequent games. It creates a context for special operations forces of the sort that people like to play. You can have all sorts of different missions with interesting playable spec-op/SAS type characters drawn from earlier instalments and remixed. Above all you can have a combination of lots of Russians and terrorists to fight.

The depressing thing is how the game draws attention to what seems to be a never ending series of conflicts set in motion by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The game, deliberately or not, serves as an essay of how forever wars keep going and metastasizing – how they are maintained by superpowers and others who can’t avoid meddling, even as objectives change. In the Piccadilly scene of MW19 you see how these distant wars on terrorism don’t end anything, but can engender more terrorism brought back home to haunt us. Forever wars are not just convenient fodder for FPS games, they are hell for those living in the war zones and one thing the game does a good job of showing is that hell. What it doesn’t do is show the longer term effects from mass migration to trauma/PTSD.

There are some deliberately disturbing scenes like where you are waterboarded and a scene where you can choose to participate in the using of family hostages to extract information. There are times where it is hard to tell the difference between civilians and combatants and part of the game is not killing the innocent. There is a scene called the highway of death which is visually modelled on the original in Iraq, though the game scene takes place after the massacre; but here it is the Russians who were the perpetrators which conveniently rewrites history. Reviewers have questioned what could be called this gamification of torture and history (see this interview with the narrative director).

To me this game nicely raises the question of whether a game in general, or an FPS in particular can deal ethically, accurately and sensitively with war. MW19 doesn’t look away from the horrors of modern war, but risks minimizing them as entertainment. MW19 tries to deal with this new state of never ending war, but doesn’t really say anything about it. It doesn’t want to glorify war, but it does want to make the simulation fun so it has to be careful not to condemn shooting. Like any expensive game/movie it seems to carefully step back from any conclusions that would alienate customers other than the game legitimizing rhetoric of exceptionalism. This is where the heroes that you get to play somehow are justified in “taking the gloves off” and doing things that would be war crimes, or at least against orders. This rhetoric of exceptionalism, where you the player are always excused from the rules that others live by, can desensitize us to the importance of rules, processes and orders. It encourages us to think everything can be solved by a Rambo figure who does what no one else can. What would the world be like if everyone did so? Why don’t we look for reliable solutions to things like wars rather than exceptional heroes that will solve it for us? Can games deal with the complexity of systems and wars?

See reviews like:

Digital Synergies Launch Event

Today I gave a short talk at the Digital Synergies Launch Event. The launch included neat talks by colleagues including:

I showed and talked about – The Dictionary of Worlds in the Wild. This is a social site where people can upload pictures of text outside of books and documents and tag the words – text like tatoos, graffiti, store signs and other forms of public textuality.

Engaged Humanities Partnerships Between Academia And Tribal Communities

Last week the Oregon Humanities Center put on a great two-day conference on Engaged Humanities Partnerships Between Academia And Tribal Communities that I attended. (See my conference notes here.) The conference looked at ways that the humanities can partner with indigenous communities.

One of the highlights was Jennifer O’Neal’s talk about the importance of decolonizing the archives and work she is doing towards that. You can see a paper by her on the subject titled “The Right to Know”: Decolonizing Native American Archives.

I talked about the situation in Canada in general, and the University of Alberta in particular, after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

TOKYO IDOLS: A Look at an Intriguing, Disturbing Culture | Film Inquiry

Tokyo Idols (2017) is a fascinating look at the idol culture in Japan. Directed by Kyoko Miyake it mostly follows an older (19) idol called Rio and her fans. The documentary confronts the creepiness of older men who find it too much work to have real relationships with women, but also shows their vulnerable side. These men spend all their savings on following idols and it gives them a sense of belonging. Miyake shows how the men (and some women) form fan clubs and follow their idol. It shows the constrained hand-shake meetings and photo opportunities that they pay for. It makes the connection to otaku culture and Akihabara.

The documentary nicely shows what it is like for the hard-working idols. For Rio it is a full time job, she has to practice, she has daily live sessions on the internet and she even packages up the schwag she sells. She even goes cycling around Japan (with live internet connection?) in order to connect to fans outside of Tokyo and to try to boost her popularity. As this TOKYO IDOLS review points out, you can’t help rooting for her.

What the documentary doesn’t cover much is the big idol stables like AKB48. Rio manages herself, but most idols are managed by professionals. I would have liked to learn more about that side of the business.

50th Anniversary of the Internet

Page from notebook documenting connection on the 29th, Oct. 1969. From UCLA special collections via this article

50 years ago on October 29th, 1969 was when the first two nodes of the ARPANET are supposed to have connected. There are, of course, all sorts of caveats, but it seems to have been one of the first times someone remote log in from one location to another on what became the internet. Gizmodo has an interview with Bradley Fidler on the history that is worth reading.

Remote access was one of the reasons the internet was funded by the US government. They didn’t want to give everyone their own computer. Instead the internet (ARPANET) would let people use the computers of others remotely (See Hafner & Lyon 1996).

Interestingly, I also just read a story that the internet (or at least North America, has just run out of IP addresses. The IPv4 addresses have been exhausted and not everyone has switched to IPv6 that has many more available addresses. I blame the Internet of Things (IoT) for assigning addresses to every “smart” object.

Hafner, K., & Lyon, M. (1996). Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York: Simon & Shuster.

HyperCard at the Internet Archive

Screen Shot of Internet Archive HyperCard Collection

The Internet Archive is now collecting HyperCard Stacks and has an emulator so they can be run in the browser. If you have old ones to contribute you can upload them to (which has a nerdy HyperCard like interface.)

Like many, I learned to program multimedia in HyperCard. I even ended up teaching it to faculty and teachers at the University of Toronto. It was a great starting development environment with a mix of graphical tools, hypertext tools and a verbose programming language. It’s only (and major) flaw was that it wasn’t designed to create networked information. HyperCard Stacks has to be passed around on disks. The web made possible a networked hypertext environment that solved the distribution problems of the 1980s. One wonders why Apple (or someone else) doesn’t bring it back in an updated and networked form. I guess that is what the Internet Archive is doing.

For more on the history of HyperCard see the Ars Technica article by Matthew Lasar, 30-plus years of HyperCard, the missing link to the Web.

What is cool is that artists are using HyperCard to make art like Formality* discussed in the previous post.


Formality* Screen Shot

Formality* is an interactive in browser art work about filling out forms to apply to “The Neighbourhood”. Formality* was developed in HyperCard by Ewan Atkinson and plays with the retro development environment. Having spent a lot of time on HyperCard I loved Atkinson’s use of the environment – he even has agents that can advise you (reminiscent of Brenda Laurel’s work). Formality* is part of a larger work called The Neighbourhood Project – it makes you wonder about how one becomes part of communities and the processes of applying to belong.

ParityBOT: Twitter bot

ParityBOT is a chatbot developed here in Edmonton that tweets positive things about women in politics in response to hateful tweets. It send empowering messages.

You can read about it in a CBC story, Engineered-in-Edmonton Twitter bot combats misogyny on the campaign trail.

The bot follows all women candidates in the election and uses some sort of AI or sentiment detection to identify nasty tweets aimed at them and then responds with a positive message from a collection crowdsources from the public. What isn’t clear is if the positive message is sent to the offending tweeter or just posted generally?

ParityBOT was developed by ParityYEG which is a collaboration between the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute and scientist Kory Mathewson.