Thursday, December 15, 2016

2016: Fake News, Echo Chambers, Filter Bubbles and the "De-Augmentation" of Our Intellect

Silicon Valley, we have a problem!

The 2016 election has made it all too clear that growing concerns some of us had about the failing promise of our new media were far more acute than we had imagined. Stuart Elliott recently observed that "...the only thing easier to find than fake news is discussion of the phenomenon of fake news."

But as many have noted, this is a far bigger problem than just fake news (which is a reasonably tractable problem to solve). It is a problem of echo chambers and filter bubbles, and a still broader problem of critical thinking and responsible human relations. While the vision has been that new media could "augment human intellect," instead, it seems our media are "de-augmenting" our intellect. It is that deeper and more insidious problem that I focus on here.

The most specifically actionable ideas I have about reversing that are well described in my 2012 post, Filtering for Serendipity -- Extremism, "Filter Bubbles" and "Surprising Validators,"which has recently gotten attention from such influential figures as Tim O'Reilly and Eli Pariser. (Some readers may wish to jump directly to that post.)

This post aims at putting that in the broader, and more currently urgent context. As one who has thought about electronic social media, and how to enhance collaborative intelligence, and the "wisdom"/"madness" of crowds since the 1970s, I thought it timely to post on this again, expand on its context, and again offer to collaborate with those seeking remedies.

This post just touches on some issues that I hope to expand on in the future. This is a rich and complex challenge. Even perverse: as noted in my 2012 post, and again below, "balanced information may actually inflame extreme views." But at last there is a critical mass of people who realize this may be the most urgent problem in our Internet media world. Humanity may be on the road to self-destruction -- if we don't find a way to fix this fast.

Some perspectives -- augmenting or de-augmenting?

Around 1970 I was exposed to two seminal early digital media thinkers. Those looking to solve these problems today would do well to look back at this rich body of work. These problems are not new -- only newly critical.
  • Doug Engelbart was a co-inventor of hypertext (the linking medium of the Web) and related tools, with the stated objective of "Augmenting Human Intellect."  His classic tech report memorably illustrated the idea of augmenting how we use media, such as writing to help us think, in terms of the opposite -- we can de-augment the task of writing with a pencil by tying the pencil to a brick! While the Web and social media have done much to augment our thinking and discourse, we now see that they are also doing much to de-augment it.
  • Murray Turoff did important early work on social decision support and collaborative problem solving systems. These systems were aimed as consensus-seeking (initially focused on defense and emergency preparedness), and included the Delphi technique, with its specific methods for balancing the loudest and most powerful voices. 
Not so long after that, I visited a lab at what is now Verizon, to see a researcher (Nathan Felde) working with an experimental super-high resolution screen for multimedia (10,000 by 10,000 pixels, as I recall -- that is more than 10 times richer than the 4K video that is just now becoming generally available). He observed that after working with that, going back to a then-conventional screen was like "eating dinner through a straw" -- de-augmentation again.

Now we find ourselves in an increasingly "post-literate" media world, with TV sound bites, 140 character Tweets, and Facebook posts that are not much longer. We increasingly consume our media on small handheld screens -- mobile and hyper-connected, but displaying barely a few sentences -- eating food for our heads through a straw.*

What a fundamental de-augmentation this is, and why it matters is chillingly described in "Donald Trump, the first President of our Post-Literate Age," A Bloomberg View piece by Joe Weisenthal:
Before the invention of writing, knowledge existed in the present tense between two or more people; when information was forgotten, it disappeared forever. That state of affairs created a special need for ideas that were easily memorized and repeatable (so, in a way, they could go viral). The immediacy of the oral world did not favor complicated, abstract ideas that need to be thought through. Instead, it elevated individuals who passed along memorable stories, wisdom and good news.
And here we begin to see how the age of social media resembles the pre-literate, oral world. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other platforms are fostering an emerging linguistic economy that places a high premium on ideas that are pithy, clear, memorable and repeatable (that is to say, viral). Complicated, nuanced thoughts that require context don’t play very well on most social platforms, but a resonant hashtag can have extraordinary influence. 
Farad Manjoo gives further perspective in "Social Media’s Globe-Shaking Power," closing with:
Mr. Trump is just the tip of the iceberg. Prepare for interesting times.
Engelbart and Turoff (and others such as Ted Nelson, the other inventor of hypertext) pointed the way to doing the opposite -- we urgently need to re-focus on that vision, and extend it for this new age.

Current voices for change

One prominent call for change was by Tim O'Reilly, a very influential publisher, widely respected as a thought leader in Internet circles. He posted on "Media in the Age of Algorithms" and triggered much comment (including my comment referring to my 2012 post, which Tim recommended).

Another prominent voice is Eli Pariser, who is known for his TED Talk and book on The Filter Bubble, a term he popularized in 2011. He recently created a collaborative Google Doc, which, as reported in Fortune," has become a hive of collaborative activity, with hundreds of journalists and other contributors brainstorming strategies for pushing back against publishers that peddle falsehoods" (I am one, contributing a section headed "Surprising Validators). The editable Doc is apparently generating so much traffic that a read-only copy has been posted!

Shelly Palmer did a nice post this summer, "Your Comfort Zone May Destroy The World." We need to not just exhort stepping outside our comfort zones, which few will do unaided, but to make our media smart about enticing us to do that in easy and compelling ways.

The way forward

As I said, this is a rich and complex challenge. Many of the obvious solutions are too simplistic. As my 2012 post begins:
Balanced information may actually inflame extreme views -- that is the counter-intuitive suggestion in a NY Times op-ed by Cass Sunstein, "Breaking Up the Echo" (9/17/12).   Sunstein is drawing on some very interesting research, and this points toward an important new direction for our media systems.
Please read that post to see why that is, how Sunstein suggests we might cut through that, and the filtering, rating, and ranking strategies I suggest for doing that. (The idea is to find and highlight what Sunstein called "Surprising Validators" -- people who you already give credence to, who suggest that your ideas might be wrong, at least in part -- enticing you to take a small step outside your comfort zone, and re-think, to see things just a bit more broadly.)

I hope to continue to expand on this, and to work with others on these vital issues in the near future.

Supporting serious journalism

One other critical aspect of this larger problem is citizen-support of serious journalism -- not chasing clicks or commercial sponsorship, but journalism for citizens. My other blog on FairPay addresses that need, most recently with this companion post: Panic in the Streets! Now People are Ready to Patron-ize Journalism!


*Relying on smartphones to feed our heads reminds me of my disappointment with clunky HyperCard on early Macs (the first widely available hypertext system -- nearly 20 years after the early full-screen demos that so impressed me!), with its tiny "cards" instead of pages of unlimited length. How happy I was to see Mosaic and Netscape browsers on full-sized screens finally appear some 5 years later. We are losing such richness as the price of mobility! (I am writing this with a triple-monitor desktop system, which I sorely miss when away from my office, even with a laptop or iPad. And I admit, I am not great at typing with just my thumbs. ...Does anyone have a spare brick?)

[Image:  Thanks to Eli Pariser and Shelly Palmer for the separate images that I mashed up for this post.]

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Universal Basic Income and a new Economics of Abundance -- "When looms weave by themselves, man's slavery will end"

Universal Basic Income (UBI) has become a hot topic, as noted in a recent NY Times article by Farhad Manjoo.  Confronting the rise of automation and robots, even libertarians and conservatives are warming to the idea of a universal income provided by the government, and some prominent technology VCs have become very interested. What we face is a new economics of abundance, and it will have many pervasive ramifications we can only dimly foresee -- some sooner than we may think.

The roots of this idea go back as far as Aristotle: “When looms weave by them­selves, man's slavery will end.” I read this quote in a 1964 NY Times article on automation, and it helped set the path of my "user-centered" career in technology. I wrote a high school essay taking off on it, extrapolating how it enabled utopias that blended Bellamy's "Looking Backward" and Wells' "Men Like Gods." Of course that was over 50 years ago, and my youthful utopian views were less seasoned with experience and pragmatism, but the core idea I expressed then still stands up:
...This raises the question whether the product of human labor is necessarily limited. The answer is that it most certainly is not. In this century a messiah has arisen -- perhaps Messiac* might be a better name for this role of automation. As Aristotle said, "when looms weave by themselves man' s slavery will end." The looms are now beginning to weave.
...One can easily conceive a giant automated complex, call it Messiac, that can produce nearly unlimited quantities of goods with only the labor of a few operators and repairmen. Similarly, farms can be improved greatly in efficiency by automation and eventually synthetic, mass-producable foods will be developed. Messiac could thus provide all with everything they needed or desired. It would not only eliminate poverty, but also remove all cause for stealing -- it is easier to push a few buttons for something than to steal it. Any individual who did not want to would not even need to work. The necessary labor would be of sufficient interest and lightness that volunteers could handle it. This remaining work would be of a professional nature and as such would have a high degree of interest... Messiac is thus an economic system that is far more utopian than that of the best traditional utopia.
It is timely that UBI is getting attention just as I have embarked on a much narrower and more immediate quest to develop a step toward that economics of abundance, based on some more sophisticated economics. While we undertake the long conversation about UBI, and the first baby steps on this road, there is a little-recognized opportunity for a related change in that direction.

Digital content and services already weave by themselves -- in the sense that they can be infinitely replicated at almost no cost. This has already caused great turmoil in the content industries -- journalism and music have been in crisis, and TV/video is not far behind. Content can be free, but who will work to create it, and how will they be compensated?

In my other blog, I suggest that the answer is in FairPay, a radically new strategy for pricing that adaptively seeks win-win compensation for creating products and services. Since there is no scarcity with digital, there is no invisible hand to allocate scarcity. Instead we need an invisible handshake, an agreement to set prices fairly to sustain creators, based on allocating "share of wallet" (whether hard-earned dollars, or UBI allowances).  FairPay suggests a simple, pragmatic mechanism for balancing power between consumers and creators/producers to agree on an equitable share of wallet.

Check it out. I suggest FairPay will shed light on how we will live soon, and even more so in a future world where all the looms weave by themselves.

*That was the era where computers had names like UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer), ENIAC, and EDSAC.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Cuba's Digital Future -- Market Incentives, Resource Allocation, and FairPay as a New Path

My recent one-week People-to-People tour in Cuba presented a fascinating contrast to our market economy and suggests an interesting path forward for Cuba. I was focused mostly on what I saw of the real economy (there is not yet much of a digital economy), but on reflection, realized that Cuba's digital future could be unusually interesting. 

I began to think that the new FairPay strategy for more efficient and more customer-friendly pricing (especially for digital content and services) might fit particularly nicely with Cuba's desire to modernize and privatize its economy without giving up on its strong social values. Maybe Cuba has an opportunity to find a unique path to creating a new kind of market for user-centered media services.

Cuba's evolving real economy

What I saw of the real economy presented a sharp lesson in how essential markets are to providing incentives for productivity and efficient resource allocation. My tour program contacts presented an impressive view of how Cubans have applied socialist ideas resourcefully to develop sustainable production of food and provide strong education and medical care, but the backdrop was one of inefficiency and wasted potential.

  • Most striking was the story of the owner/driver of the beautifully maintained 1950's Ford convertible serving as tourist taxi that I had a short ride in. He had been an experienced medical doctor with a specialty, who was making $80 per month (actually 80 CUCs, but close enough -- a very good salary for Cuba). Now, as as a taxi driver who owns an attractive car, he makes $80 per day! -- 20-30 times as much as he made as a medical specialist!  What a waste of education and scarce skills!
  • Similar surprises were apparent under the surface in farms and food markets, the low standard of living of most of the population, and the striking decay of pre-revolution buildings and other infrastructure.
  • The food markets in particular showed the contrast of government ration books and subsidized prices for a very limited selection of basic food items, combined with gradually increased acceptance of a level of black market trade in more scarce and desirable items.
  • Modest efforts at allowing private development of restaurants ("paladares"), some of which were very nice, also presented a striking (but still very limited) contrast in how market incentives fuel productive enterprise.
A Q&A session with Reuters economic correspondent Marc Frank (in Cuba for over 20 years) added an interesting perspective on Raul Castro's ongoing efforts to shift toward more private enterprise and prepare Cuba to more fully participate in the world market -- now likely to accelerate with the thaw in US relations and a probable end to our trade embargo.

(Of course my understanding of the Cuban economy is quite limited -- these are just my impressions from what I saw in my one week there.)

Cuba's future digital economy

While Internet use and literacy in Cuba is low and will take time to grow, this cultural/economic climate raises the interesting idea that the new FairPay strategy for digital services might be especially relevant to development of user-centered media services for Cuban consumers. 
  • A core objective of the Cuban economy has been the socialist/communist ideal of "to each according to his need," The problem has been that the "from each according to his ability" does not work well (incentives are too weak), and the combination fails to provide efficient allocation of resources. That has led toward privatization -- but with conventional pricing practices, privatization does not deliver "to each according to his need."
  • FairPay creates a market solution to this problem -- not by hoping that productivity will be achieved "from each according to his ability," but by providing direct profit incentives for producers to learn what each consumer wants and what they should pay, and to produce the digital services that are desired accordingly. More like payment from each according to the value received (and willingness to pay fairly for that, to the extent able), and profit to the producer as a fair share of the actual value created
Consider the contrast between FairPay and conventional pricing models for digital:
  • Both conventional models and FairPay seek to enable businesses to price their services in the way that realistically maximizes profits.
  • Conventional models for pricing digital services, like freemium (and soft paywalls), may provide limited free services to all who want them, but support themselves by charging set prices for more advanced "premium" services. That prices the premium services out of reach of many consumers who can't justify that set price, but who would happily pay less. That is a loss to the market because digital services can be replicated at almost no cost, to serve a very wide population of consumers who would gain value from such services. Thus the value these services could bring to the wider market is wasted, as explained in my post: Beyond the Deadweight Loss of "All You Can Eat" Subscriptions.
  • FairPay seeks to maximize profit by finding the right price for each consumer who finds value in a service. It does this by using an adaptive process to set win-win prices tailored to each consumer's needs: based on usage, value obtained, and ability to pay. FairPay exploits the unlimited replication of digital -- a lack of scarcity that makes rationing unnecessary. FairPay seeks to approximate an individually fair (and affordable) price for each consumer -- adapting over the life of the relationship -- to ensure that production is sustainably supported and incentivized, 
  • The FairPayZone blog explains in detail how that works in a market-driven, dynamically adaptive way. FairPay is aimed at broad use in the current market-based environment of the US and most of the world. But the wondrous new economics of abundance in digital markets now makes it possible to achieve many of the ideals of socialism out of a profit-driven market-based system, in ways that are not yet widely recognized. 
So perhaps, as Cuba expands its Internet infrastructure to enable wide use, FairPay will resonate as a way to achieve its ideals of fairness in a market-driven way. Businesses can seek profits, and do so in a way that adapts to the needs (and resources) of each individual consumer. 
  • For most of the world, FairPay can be viewed as adding a kinder, gentler (and smarter, more efficient) touch to the invisible hand -- what I refer to as an invisible handshake
  • For Cuba, FairPay may be seen as adding new market drivers to a social handshake, to make it more productive and economically efficient (at least in the digital realm, and perhaps more widely).
For a full introduction to FairPay see the Overview and the sidebar on How FairPay Works at There is also a guide to More Details (including links to a video).  (While most of my posts on FairPay are on the FairPayZone blog, this one seemed better suited to this blog.)