A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. 

Harper’s has published A Letter on Justice and Open Debate that is signed by all sorts of important people from Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood to J.K. Rowling. The letter is critical of what might be called “cancel culture.”

The letter itself has been critiqued for coming from privileged writers who don’t experience the daily silencing of racism or other forms of prejudice. See the Guardian Is free speech under threat from ‘cancel culture’? Four writers respond for different responses to the letter, both critical and supportive.

This issue doesn’t seem to me that new. We have been struggling for some time with issues around the tolerance of intolerance. There is a broad range of what is considered tolerable speech and, I think, everyone would agree that there is also intolerable speech that doesn’t merit airing and countering. The problem is knowing where the line is.

That which is missing on the internet is a sense of dialogue. Those who speechify (including me in blog posts like this) do so without entering into dialogue with anyone. We are all broadcasters; many without much of an audience. Entering into dialogue, by contrast, carries commitments to continue the dialogue, to listen, to respect and to work for resolution. In the broadcast chaos all you can do is pick the stations you will listen to and cancel the others.

Call for Papers for Replaying Japan Journal, Issue 3

The Replaying Japan Journal has issued a call for papers for Issue 3 with a deadline of September 30th, 2020. See the Current Call for Papers – Replaying Japan. The RJJ publishes original research papers on Japanese videogames, game culture and related media. We also publish translations, research notes, and reviews.

The RJJ is available online and in print, published by the Ritsumeikan (University) Center for Game Studies (See the RCGS English Pamphlet too). Inaba, Mitsuyuki is the Editor in Chief and Fukuda, Kazafumi is the Associate Editor. I and Jérémie Pelletier-Gagnon are the English Editors.

Articles in either Japanese or English are accepted. The Japanese Call for Papers is here.

Documenting the Now (and other social media tools/services)

Documenting the Now develops tools and builds community practices that support the ethical collection, use, and preservation of social media content.

I’ve been talking with the folks at MassMine (I’m on their Advisory Board) about tools that can gather information off the web and I was pointed to the Documenting the Now project that is based at the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia with support from Mellon. DocNow have developed tools and services around documenting the “now” using social media. DocNow itself is an “appraisal” tool for twitter archiving. They then have a great catalog of twitter archives they and others have gathered which looks like it would be great for teaching.

MassMine is at present a command-line tool that can gather different types of social media. They are building a web interface version that will make it easier to use and they are planning to connect it to Voyant so you can analyze results in Voyant. I’m looking forward to something easier to use than Python libraries.

Speaking of which, I found a TAGS (Twitter Archiving Google Sheet) which is a plug-in for Google Sheets that can scrape smaller amounts of Twitter. Another accessible tool is Octoparse that is designed to scrape different database driven web sites. It is commercial, but has a 14 day trial.

One of the impressive features of Documenting the Now project is that they are thinking about the ethics of scraping. They have a Social Labels set for people to indicate how data should be handled.

Sexism in the Gaming Industry

Once again we are reading about sexism in the video game industry. The New York Times has a story from June 23rd on how Dozens of Women in Gaming Speak Out About Sexism and Harassment. We have heard these stories regularly since GamerGate though many of these focus on behaviour of Twitch stars. One hopes there will be some change.

Kenzie Gordon, who is doing a PhD here at the U of Alberta described why we have this persistent sexism in gaming,

The gaming industry is particularly conducive to a culture of misogyny and sexual harassment, Ms. Gordon said, because straight white men have “created the identity of the gamer as this exclusive property.” When women, people of color or L.G.B.T.Q. people try to break into the industry, she said, the “toxic geek masculinity” pushes back in ways that often lead to sexual abuse and bullying.

One positive change is happening at Ubisoft. Endgaget has a story on how the Ubisoft CEO lays out a plan to change the company’s toxic culture. This is after complaints including an extensive post by Chelsea O’Hara on Breaking My Silence at Ubisoft Toronto.

These concrete developments at companies like Ubisoft are in contrast with what happened a year before in 2019 when there was a backlash against victims who called out their harassers after indie developer Alec Holowka committed suicide. As the Wired article by Laurie Penny Gaming’s #MeToo Moment and the Tyranny of Male Fragility points out, the trolls attacked the victims using the logic that they should have known Holowka was fragile and let him be.

The message is clear: Men’s mental health matters more than women’s. Men’s suffering and self-loathing is treated as a public concern, because men are permitted to be real people whose inner lives and dreams matter. Who cares, then, how many women they destroy along the way?

What is the TikTok subculture Dark Academia?

School may be out indefinitely, but on social media there’s a thriving subculture devoted to the aesthetic of all things scholarly.

The New York Times has an article answering the question, What is the TikTok subculture Dark Academia? It describes a subculture that started on tumblr and evolved on TikTok and Instagram that values a tweedy academic aesthetic. Sort of Hogwarts meets humanism. Alas, just as the aesthetics of humanities academic culture becomes a thing, it gets superseded by Goblincore or does it just fade like a pressed flower.

Now we need to start a retro Humanities Computing aesthetic.

CEO of exam monitoring software Proctorio apologises for posting student’s chat logs on Reddit

Australian students who have raised privacy concerns describe the incident involving a Canadian student as ‘freakishly disrespectful’

The Guardian has a story about CEO of exam monitoring software Proctorio apologises for posting student’s chat logs on Reddit. Proctorio provides software for monitoring (proctoring) students on their own laptop while they take exams. It uses the video camera and watches the keyboard to presumably watch whether the student tries to cheat on a timed exam. Apparently a UBC student claimed that he couldn’t get help in a timely fashion from Proctorio when he was using it (presumably with a timer going for the exam.) This led to Australian students criticizing the use of Proctorio which led to the CEO arguing that the UBC student had lied and providing a partial transcript to show that the student was answered in a timely fashion. That the CEO would post a partial transcript shows that:

  1. staff at Proctorio do have access to the logs and transcripts of student behaviour, and
  2. that they don’t have the privacy protection protocols in place to prevent the private information from being leaked.

I can’t help feeling that there is a pattern here since we also see senior politicians sometimes leaking data about citizens who criticize them. The privacy protocols may be in place, but they aren’t observed or can’t be enforced against the senior staff (who are the ones that presumably need to do the enforcing.) You also sense that the senior person feels that the critic abrogated their right to privacy by lying or misrepresenting something in their criticism.

This raises the question of whether someone who misuses or lies about a service deserves the ongoing protection of the service. Of course, we want to say that they should, but nations like the UK have stripped citizens like Shamina Begum of citizenship and thus their rights because they behaved traitorously, joining ISIS. Countries have murdered their own citizens that became terrorists without a trial. Clearly we feel that in some cases one can unilaterally remove someones rights, including the right to life, because of their behaviour.

The bad things that happen when algorithms run online shops

Smart software controls the prices and products you see when you shop online – and sometimes it can go spectacularly wrong, discovers Chris Baraniuk.

The BBC has a stroy about The bad things that happen when algorithms run online shops. The story describes how e-commerce systems designed to set prices dynamically (in comparison with someone else’s price, for example) can go wrong and end up charging customers much more than they will pay or charging them virtually nothing so the store loses money.

The story links to an instructive blog entry by Michael Eisen about how two algorithms pushed up the price on a book into the millions, Amazon’s $23,698,655.93 book about flies. The blog entry is a perfect little story about about the problems you get when you have algorithms responding iteratively to each other without any sanity checks.

MIT apologizes, permanently pulls offline huge dataset that taught AI systems to use racist, misogynistic slurs

Vinay Prabhu, chief scientist at UnifyID, a privacy startup in Silicon Valley, and Abeba Birhane, a PhD candidate at University College Dublin in Ireland, pored over the MIT database and discovered thousands of images labelled with racist slurs for Black and Asian people, and derogatory terms used to describe women. They revealed their findings in a paper undergoing peer review for the 2021 Workshop on Applications of Computer Vision conference.

Another one of those “what were they thinking when they created the dataset stories” from The Register tells about how MIT apologizes, permanently pulls offline huge dataset that taught AI systems to use racist, misogynistic slurs. The MIT Tiny Images dataset was created automatically using scripts that used the WordNet database of terms which itself held derogatory terms. Nobody thought to check either the terms taken from WordNet or the resulting images scoured from the net. As a result there are not only lots of images for which permission was not secured, but also racists, sexist, and otherwise derogatory labels on the images which in turn means that if you train an AI on these it will generate racist/sexist results.

The article also mentions a general problem with academic datasets. Companies like Facebook can afford to hire actors to pose for images and can thus secure permissions to use the images for training. Academic datasets (and some commercial ones like the Clearview AI  database) tend to be scraped and therefore will not have the explicit permission of the copyright holders or people shown. In effect, academics are resorting to mass surveillance to generate training sets. One wonders if we could crowdsource a training set by and for people?

What coding really teaches children

You’ve seen movies where programmers pound out torrents of code? That is nothing like reality. Most of the time, coders don’t type at all; they sit and stare morosely at the screen, running their hands through their hair, trying to spot what they’ve done wrong. It can take hours, days, or even weeks. But once the bug is fixed and the program starts working again, the burst of pleasure has a narcotic effect.

Stéfan pointed me to a nice opinion piece about programming education in the Globe titled, Opinion: What coding really teaches children. Clive Thompson that teaching programming in elementary school will not necessarily teach math but it can teach kids about the digital world and teach them the persistence it takes to get complex things working. He also worries, as I do, about asking elementary teachers to learn enough coding to be able to teach it. This could be a recipe for alienating a lot of students who are taught by teachers who haven’t learned.

Internet Archive closes the National Emergency Library

Within a few days of the announcement that libraries, schools and colleges across the nation would be closing due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, we launched the temporary National Emergency Library to provide books to support emergency remote teaching, research activities, independent scholarship, and intellectual stimulation during the closures.  […]

According to the Internet Archive blog the Temporary National Emergency Library to close 2 weeks early, returning to traditional controlled digital lending. The National Emergency Library (NEL) was open to anyone in the world during a time when physical libraries were closed. It made books the IA had digitized available to read online. It was supposed to close at the end of June because four commercial publishers decided to sue. 

The blog entry points to what the HathiTrust is doing as part of their Emergency Temporary Access Service which lets libraries that are members (and the U of Alberta Library is one) provide access to digital copies of books they have corresponding physical copies of. This is only available to “member libraries that have experienced unexpected or involuntary, temporary disruption to normal operations, requiring it to be closed to the public”. 

It is a pity the IS NEL was discontinued, for a moment there it looked like large public service digital libraries might become normal. Instead it looks like we will have a mix of commercial e-book services and Controlled Digital Lending (CDL) offered by libraries that have the physical books and the digital resources to organize it. The IA blog entry goes on to note that even CDL is under attack. Here is a story from Plagiarism Today:

Though the National Emergency Library may have been what provoked the lawsuit, the complaint itself is much broader. Ultimately, it targets the entirety of the IA’s digital lending practices, including the scanning of physical books to create digital books to lend.

The IA has long held that its practices are covered under the concept of controlled digital lending (CDL). However, as the complaint notes, the idea has not been codified by a court and is, at best, very controversial. According to the complaint, the practice of scanning a physical book for digital lending, even when the number of copies is controlled, is an infringement.