Donald Trump to launch social media platform called Truth Social

The former president, who remains banned from Facebook and Twitter, has a goal to rival those tech giants

The Guardian and other sources are covering the news that  Donald Trump to launch social media platform called Truth Social. It is typical that he calls the platform the very thing he is accused of not providing … “truth”. Trump has no shame and routinely turns whatever is believed about him, from fake news to being a loser, into an accusation against others. The king of fake news called any story he didn’t like fake news and when he lost the 2020 election he turned that upside down making belief that the election was stolen (and he therefore is not a loser) into a touchstone of Republican belief. How does this end? Do sane Republicans just stop mentioning him at some point? He can’t be disproved or disagreed with; all that can happen is that he gets cancelled. And that is why he wants us to Follow the Truth.

Facial Recognition: What Happens When We’re Tracked Everywhere We Go?

When a secretive start-up scraped the internet to build a facial-recognition tool, it tested a legal and ethical limit — and blew the future of privacy in America wide open.

The New York Times has an in depth story about Clearview AI titled, Facial Recognition: What Happens When We’re Tracked Everywhere We Go? The story tracks the various lawsuits attempting to stop Clearview and suggests that Clearview may well win. They are gambling that scraping the web’s faces for their application, even if it violated terms of service, may be protected as free speech.

The story talks about the dangers of face recognition and how many of the algorithms can’t recognize people of colour as accurately which leads to more false positives where police end up arresting the wrong person. A broader worry is that this could unleash tracking at another scale.

There’s also a broader reason that critics fear a court decision favoring Clearview: It could let companies track us as pervasively in the real world as they already do online.

The arguments in favour of Clearview include the challenge that they are essentially doing to images what Google does to text searches. Another argument is that stopping face recognition enterprises would stifle innovation.

The story then moves on to talk about the founding of Clearview and the political connections of the founders (Thiel invested in Clearview too). Finally it talks about how widely available face recognition could affect our lives. The story quotes Alvaro Bedoya who started a privacy centre,

“When we interact with people on the street, there’s a certain level of respect accorded to strangers,” Bedoya told me. “That’s partly because we don’t know if people are powerful or influential or we could get in trouble for treating them poorly. I don’t know what happens in a world where you see someone in the street and immediately know where they work, where they went to school, if they have a criminal record, what their credit score is. I don’t know how society changes, but I don’t think it changes for the better.”

It is interesting to think about how face recognition and other technologies may change how we deal with strangers. Too much knowledge could be alienating.

The story closes by describing how Clearview AI helped identify some of the Capitol rioters. Of course it wasn’t just Clearview, but also a citizen investigators who named and shamed people based on photos released.

Replaying Japan 2020

Replaying Japan is an international conference dedicated to the study of Japanese video games. For the first time this year, the conference is held online and will combine various types of research contents (videos, texts, livestreams) on the theme of esport and competitive gaming in Japan.

This year the Replaying Japan conference was held online. The conference was originally going to be in Liège, Belgium at the Liège Game Lab. We were going to get to try Belgian fries and beer and learn more about the Game Lab. Alas, with the pandemic, the organizers had to pivot and organize an online conference. They did a great job using technologies like Twitch and Minecraft.

Keiji Amano, Tsugumi (Mimi) Okabe, and I had a paper on Ethics and Gaming: A Content Analysis of Annual Reports of the Japanese Game Industry presented by Prof. Amano. (To read the longer conferencer paper you need to have access to the conference materials, but they will be opening that up.) We looked at how major Japanese game companies frame ethical or CSR (corporate social responsibility) issues which is not how ethics is being discussed in the academy.

The two keynotes were both excellent in different ways. Florent Georges talked about First Steps of Japanese ESports. His talk introduced a number of important early video game competitions. 

Susana Tosca gave the closing keynote. She presented a nuanced and fascinating talk on Mediating the Promised Gameland (see video). She looked at how game tourists visit Japan and interviewed people about this phenomenon of content tourism. This was wrapped in reflections on methodology and tourism. Very interesting, though it raised some ethical issues about how we watch tourists. She was sensitive to the way that ethnographers are tourists of a sort and we need to be careful not to mock our subjects as we watch them. As someone who loves to travel and is therefore often a tourist, I’m probably sensitive on this issue.

Sean Gouglas Remembers Stéfan Sinclair

Sean Gouglas shared these memories of Stéfan Sinclair with me and asked me to post them. They are from when they started the Humanities Computing programme at the University of Alberta where I am lucky to now teach.

In the summer of 2001, two newly-minted PhDs started planning how they were going to build and then teach a new graduate program in Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta. This was the first such program in North America. To be absolutely honest, Stéfan Sinclair and I really had no idea what we were doing. The next few months were both exhausting and exhilarating. Working with Stéfan was a professional and personal treat, especially considering that he had an almost infinite capacity for hard work. I remember him coding up the first Humanities Computing website in about seven minutes — the first HuCo logo appearing like a rising sun on a dark blue background. It also had an unfortunate typo that neither of us noticed for years. 

It was an inspiration to work with Stéfan. He was kind and patient with students, demanding a lot from them but giving even more back. He promoted the program passionately at every conference, workshop, and seminar. Over the next three years, there was a lot of coffee, a lot of spicy food, a beer or two, some volleyball, some squash, and then he and Stephanie were off to McMaster for their next adventure. 

Our Digital Humanities program has changed a lot since then — new courses, new programs, new faculty, and even a new name. Through that change, the soul of the program remained the same and it was shaped and molded by the vision and hard work of Stéfan Sinclair. 

On the 6th of August, Stéfan died of cancer. The Canadian Society for Digital Humanities has a lovely tribute, which can be found here: https://csdh-schn.org/stefan-sinclair-in-memoriam/. It was written in part by Geoffrey Rockwell, who worked closely with Stéfan for more than two decades. 

Celebrating Stéfan Sinclair: A Dialogue from 2007

Sadly, last Thursday Stéfan Sinclair passed away. A group of us posted an obituary for CSDH-SCHN here,  Stéfan Sinclair, In Memoriam and boy do I miss him already. While the obituary describes the arc of his career I’ve been trying to think of how to celebrate how he loved to play with ideas and code. The obituary tells the what of his life but doesn’t show the how.

You see, Stéfan loved to toy with ideas of text through the development of software toys. The hermeneuti.ca project started with a one day text analysis vacation/hackathon. We decided to leave all the busy work of being an academic in our offices, and spend a day in the TAPoR lab at McMaster. We decided to mess around and try the analytical equivalent of extreme programming. That included a version of “pair programming” where we alternated one at the keyboard doing the analysis while the other would take notes and direct. We told ourselves we would just devote one day without interruptions to this folly and see if together we could take a project from conception to some sort of finished result in a day.

Little did we know we would still be at play right until a few weeks ago. We failed to finish that day, but we got far enough to know we enjoyed the fooling around enough to do it again and again. Those escapes into what we later called agile hermeneutics, to give it a serious name, eventually led to a monster of a project that reflected back on the play. The project culminated in the jointly authored book Hermeneutica (MIT Press, 2016) and Voyant 2.0, both of which tried to not only think-through some of the potential of the play, but also give others a way of making their own interpretative toys (which we called hermeneutica). But these too are perhaps too serious to commemorate Stéfan’s presence.

Which brings me to the dialogue we wrote and performed on “Reading Tools.” Thanks to Susan I was reminded of this script that we acted out at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in June of 2007. May it honour how Stéfan would want to be remembered. Imagine him smiling at the front of the room as he starts,

Sinclair: Why do we care so much for the opinions of other humanists? Why do we care so much whether they use computing in the humanities?

Rockwell: Let me tell you an old story. There was once a titan who invented an interpretative technology for his colleagues. No, … he wasn’t chained to a rock to have his liver chewed out daily. … Instead he did the smart thing and brought it to his dean, convinced the technology would free his colleagues from having to interpret texts and let them get back to the real work of thinking.

Sinclair: I imagine his dean told him that in the academy those who develop tools are not the best judges of their inventions and that he had to get his technology reviewed as if it were a book.

Rockwell: Exactly, and the dean said, “And in this instance, you who are the father of a text technology, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not study the old ways; they will trust to the external tools and not interpret for themselves. The technology which you have discovered is an aid not to interpretation, but to online publishing.”

Sinclair: Yes, Geoffrey, you can easily tell jokes about the academy, paraphrasing Socrates, but we aren’t outside the city walls of Athens, but in the middle of Urbana at a conference. We have a problem of audience – we are slavishly trying to please the other – that undigitized humanist – why don’t we build just for ourselves? …

Enjoy the full dialogue here: Reading Tools Script (PDF).

The Man Behind Trump’s Facebook Juggernaut

Brad Parscale used social media to sway the 2016 election. He’s poised to do it again.

I just finished reading important reporting about The Man Behind Trump’s Facebook Juggernaut in the March 9th, 2020 issue of the New Yorker. The long article suggests that it wasn’t Cambridge Analytica or the Russians who swung the 2016 election. If anything had an impact it was the extensive use of social media, especially Facebook, by the Trump digital campaign under the leadership of Brad Parscale. The Clinton campaign focused on TV spots and believed they were going to win. The Trump campaign gathered lots of data, constantly tried new things, and drew on their Facebook “embed” to improve their game.

If each variation is counted as a distinct ad, then the Trump campaign, all told, ran 5.9 million Facebook ads. The Clinton campaign ran sixty-six thousand. “The Hillary campaign thought they had it in the bag, so they tried to play it safe, which meant not doing much that was new or unorthodox, especially online,” a progressive digital strategist told me. “Trump’s people knew they didn’t have it in the bag, and they never gave a shit about being safe anyway.” (p. 49)

One interesting service Facebook offered was “Lookalike Audiences” where you could upload a spotty list of information about people and Facebook would first fill it out from their data and then find you more people who are similar. This lets you expand your list of people to microtarget (and Facebook gets you paying for more targeted ads.)

The end of the article gets depressing as it recounts how little the Democrats are doing to counter or match the social media campaign for Trump which was essentially underway right after the 2016 election. One worries, by the end, that we will see a repeat.

Marantz, Andrew. (2020, March 9). “#WINNING: Brad Parscale used social media to sway the 2016 election. He’s posed to do it again.” New Yorker. Pages 44-55.

260,000 Words, Full of Self-Praise, From Trump on the Virus

The New York Times has a nice content analysis study of Trump’s Coronavirus briefings, 260,000 Words, Full of Self-Praise, From Trump on the Virus. They tagged the corpus for different types of utterances including:

  • Self-congratulations
  • Exaggerations and falsehoods
  • Displays of empathy or appeals to national unity
  • Blaming others
  • Credits others

Needless to say they found he spent a fair amount of time congratulating himself.

They then created a neat visualizations with colour coded sections showing where he shows empathy or congratulates himself.

According to the article they looked at 42 briefings or other remarks from March 9 to April 17, 2020 giving them a total of 260,000 words.

I decided to replicate their study with Voyant and I gathered 29 Coronavirus Task Force Briefings (and one Press Conference) from February 29 to April 17. These are all the Task Force Briefings I could find at the White House web site. The corpus has 418,775 words, but those include remarks by people other than Trump, questions, and metadata.

Some of the things that struck me are the absence of medical terminology in the high frequency words. I was also intrigued by the prominence of “going to”. Trump spends a fair amount of time talking about what he and others are going to be doing rather than what is done. Here you have a Contexts panel from Voyant.

Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber

As most of you know, I left Uber in December and joined Stripe in January. I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past couple of months about why I left and what my time at Uber was like. It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind, so here we go.

The New York Times has a short review of Susan Fowler’s memoir, Her Blog Post About Uber Upended Big Tech. Now She’s Written a Memoir. Susan Fowler is the courageous engineer who documented the sexism at Uber in a blog post, Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber — Susan Fowler. Her blog post from 2017 (the opening of which is quoted above) was important in that drew attention to the bro culture in Silicon Valley. It also led to investigations within Uber and eventually to the co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick being ousted.

Continue reading Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber

The Secret History of Women in Coding

Computer programming once had much better gender balance than it does today. What went wrong?

The New York Times has a nice long article on The Secret History of Women in Coding – The New York TimesWe know a lot of the story from books like Campbell-Kelly’s From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: a History of the Software Industry (2003), Chang’s Brotopia (2018), and Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018).

The history is not the heroic story of personal computing that I was raised on. It is a story of how women were driven out of computing (both the academy and businesses) starting in the 1960s.

A group of us at the U of Alberta are working on archiving the work of Sally Sedelow, one of the forgotten pioneers of humanities computing. Dr. Sedelow got her PhD in English in 1960 and did important early work on text analysis systems.

The Digital Humanist

Fiormonte_DH_Cover_Front_CP_WEB

On Thursday I was part of a conference here in Verona (see my conference notes) that celebrated the seminar I led at the University of Verona and the English publication of The Digital Humanist by Domenico Fiormonte, Francesca Tomasi, and Teresa Numerico (with a Preface by me). This is the English adaptation/translation of their 2010 Italian book which has finally come out in English. Here is the edited text of my presentation. (Thanks to Domenico for helping me with the Italian!)


Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Today we are here to celebrate the end of a laboratory on digital humanities and a beginning with the publication of the The Digital Humanist: A Critical Inquiry by Domenico Fiormonte, Teresa Numerico and Francesca Tomasi.

Oggi si celebra la fine questa laboratorio che abbiamo creato insieme e una la publicazione in Inglese del libro L’umanista digitale che è stato pubblicato per la prima volta in Italiano nel 2010 e poi aggiornato e tradotto in inglese da Desmond Schmidt e Christopher Ferguson.

The English publication of this book is important to the book because part of what makes it “A Critical Inquiry” is that it questions the universality of English. I use the word universality in two senses, both of which are to be questioned:

First, that there is an assumption that we need a universal language or metalanguage – a dream of philosophers, a dream that can be said to have led to the idea of a universal machine or computer,

E secondo, uso la parola universale per il modo in cui l’Inglese invade l’informatica, dai motori di recerca ai linguaggi di programmazione, come abbiamo sentito oggi nelle presentazioni degli studenti.

Il filosofo della scienza e della tecnologia, Langdon Winner, ha scritto un bel testo dal titolo: “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” In questo articolo Winner cerca di navigare tra due posizioni opposte – quella del determinismo tecnologico che sostiene che ogni messaggio è determinato dal tecnologia–

And, he argues that neither can technologies be said to be neutral – the argument of so many technologists that relieves them of the need to take responsibility for what they develop.

Instead Winner argues that we have to attend to the artefacts themselves – some bring baggage or structure experience and some less so.

One of the great contributions of this book is just such a critical attending to the digital artefacts themselves – especially those like search engines or electronic texts that are important to us in the humanities.

Questo libro, invece di parlare dell’informatica in generale – parla delle tecnologie che usiamo come umanisti e ci aiuta a capire l’importanza del nostro lavoro – infatti direi che ci aiuta capire come dobbiamo assumerci la responsabilità per le nostre technologie.

As Heidegger and others point out, sometimes the hardest thing to do is to notice technologies that we use every day like the glasses on the end of our nose. We need to find ways back to noticing the systems of ready-to-hand in which we navigate our desires and dreams. That includes for Heidegger also noticing the way language itself structures our thinking.

But how can we do that? How can we attend? What practices can we draw on from the humanities?

Lev Manovich in an online essay talks about the comedy of breakdowns as an interruption that forces us to notice technology – something that was normal in Russia, but isn’t normal in the West.

Siegfried Zielinski – in Deep Time of the Media proposes an archaeology that pays attention to the failed technologies – the branches that have been left out of the origin myths.

This book provides, I think, three other, uniquely humanities ways into thinking again about technology:

First, it is written from the margins – at least the linguistic margins of an Anglophone discourse of technology (and digital humanities.) It was first written in Italian and draws on an Italian humanities computing tradition. The book reminds us to pay attention to language, so important to the humanities and technology too.

Second, it historicizes the technologies we take for granted – looking, for example, at key figures who imagined our cybernetic future.

Terzo, questo libro non soltanto guarda agli artefatti e ai sistemi in un modo critico, ma guarda anche ai modi in cui noi organizziamo il discorso accademico sull’informatica umanistica – direi che tratta le digital humanities come artefatto umano che deve anche essere criticato, specialmente perché siamo ciechi ai modi nei quali l’organizzazione della disciplina segue la cultura anglo-sassone. The digital humanist ci chiede di criticare come siamo e potremmo essere dei digital humanists. Questa è un questione di ethos – come viviamo con la tecnologia, come ci organizziamo per porre attenzione alla tecnologia

E’ per questo che raccomando questo libro specialmente a voi dotorandi.

For those of you just discovering the digital as a subject for humanities attention I recommend this book – it is a way in for humanists.

Voglio concludere con un commento sulla presentazione dei libri – se un libro e come una neonato – un natio come ne parlava Vico –è anche importante come il libro viene educato insegnato e interpretato.

Remember the lesson of Frankenstein. The tragedy is not that he was made of parts, but that he was abandoned at birth. The same can be said of the digital humanities – a field made of parts.

Questa e la seconda volta che aiuto a presentare questo libro. La prima volta è stata la settimana scorsa a Roma. Direi che addesso sono diventato un presentatore con esperienza nell’ allevamento. Posso annuciare il tour?

As I was just saying in Italian, this is the second time I present this book – and I’ve chosen to do it in two tongues – English and Italian. In this I’m drawing on a Canadian political tradition of bilingual presentations which I have always admired. Such bilingual talks weave two languages to make something that is not a universal language but is free of the particular blindness of a particular language.

My reason for switching is that if we are to avoid the universalizing tendency of technologies of thinking like language we have to habituate ourselves to travel back and forth translating and thinking across. That used to be obvious to the humanities, but we seem to have forgotten that discipline.

Attraversare le lingue è qualcosa che voi Italiani dovete fare per forza – per noi anglo-sassoni è una nuova esperienza – troppo volte aspettiamo che l’atro venga da noi invece di incontrarci a metà strada.

Nel frattempo, The Digital Humanist è un importante tentativo che attraversa Italiano e Inglese per invitarci tutti a dialogare.