Tag Archives: Google

Digital Echo Chambers

This article is longer than my usual blog, but please bear with me; the issues below affect all of us, and they are important to become aware of; after all, you can only keep an eye on something you see.

I watched a fascinating TED talk recently about an African American man, Theo E.J. Wilson, who went “undercover” online as a white supremacist.  He did it in order to try and understand where some of the internet trolls who were attacking him were coming from, and to try and discover where they were getting their “information” and ideas from.  His findings were insightful.

He discovered something that has become more and more obvious to me lately, and that is that we all live online in “digital echo chambers”.  The definition of echo chamber is “A room or other enclosed space that is highly conducive to the production of echoes, particularly one that has been designed and built for this purpose.  An insular communication space that is of no interest to outsiders or refuses their input.”

The echo chamber is harmless, though annoying, when it comes to shopping or interest feeds; but it can be catastrophic when it comes to life decisions and social or political views.

“If you surround yourself with voices that echo similar opinions to those you’re feeding out, they will be reinforced in your mind as mainstream, to the point that it can distort your perception of what is the general consensus.”

Alan Martin, Wired

Echo Chmaber

Big Brother

The question growing in my mind is, am I telling algorithms online what I want to see/hear/learn, or visa versa?  I’ll give a few examples of what I mean:

Sitting at my dining table chatting over a tea with a friend, our cell phones sat off to one side.  We were chatting about holidays, and she spontaneously mentioned Mallorca (Spanish islands).  The next time we looked online, we both had ads for Mallorca.  This has happened many times – that a live conversation in a private home, with no online searches previously made, have resulted in ads, or articles popping up in suggestions; the conclusion is that Google is listening in on your life.  If you don’t have your phone on airplane mode and your cameras blocked (I keep small post-its on both front and back cameras on my phones, as well as my laptop’s camera), chances are you’re giving away a lot more than you want to.  If you tend to say your passwords out loud as you’re typing them in, you may be giving them away.

Facebook & co.

Facebook, theoretically a social media site to connect with your friends, in reality decides what it is you see, and whose activities you see in your feed.  I haven’t been on Facebook regularly for several months now as I removed it from my home tabs on my browser; that one move has saved a lot of time otherwise being wasted!  Now, when I look on Facebook, I literally see the home feed activities from only a handful of friends out of 300+; most of what I now see in my home feed is Facebook ads, FB suggestions, memories they’ve selected, and unrelated video stream suggestions.  They’re trying to draw me in; but they’ve missed the memo that I’m only there for real connections with friends, and I intend to keep it that way.  Maybe I should turn on my phone’s Wi-Fi and say that out loud… [Keep in mind that Facebook, or Amazon, or Google are not “they” as in human faces seeing your information; they are algorithms designed to harvest it.]

The more time you spend online, the clearer your digital fingerprint becomes; the more the algorithms know about your likes and interests, the more they will feed you just that information.  The dark side of this is that, if someone has temptations in a particular area, they will be bombarded by tailor-made algorithmic choices, guiding them toward the thing they may be trying to avoid.  A recent article in our local newspaper stated that, according to Netzsieger, a comparison portal, 25% of all searches online are related to pornography.  Let that statistic sink in a moment.

.Com is not .Com

And were you aware of the fact that, if you are outside of the borders of the US, a certain monopolistic shopping portal beginning with “Amaz” has been discriminating against you?  The prices you see are not the prices an American within the borders of the US are seeing.  I found this out recently when I was running a sale on one of my books; the sales price was 99 cents; the usual price is $2.99.  But when I went on (I am a registered kindle customer at .com) to see if the sale had begun, the only price I saw was $3.56.  That’s nearly a 20% price increase; no sale in sight.  When I asked them about it, they gave a fluff algorithmic answer, but did not address the real issue.  And they never answered my question whether I, as author, am being paid commission on the higher price or not.

It makes me wonder what else they’re not telling me as both author and as customer, and what else they’ve been charging me more for (likely, everything) than if I lived within the borders of the US; as a result, I’ve taken my online shopping elsewhere.  I will be doing further investigation into this, and if you do online shopping, I would recommend you do the same, and call them on the carpet about it – write complaint emails, and make your voices heard!  Have friends in other countries check out the prices on the same website and product, and compare.

[Now I have another example of the digital eavesdropping:  I’ve been typing up this article in my Word program on my laptop – not directly into the WordPress blog; when I went onto Google to refresh my memory about percentage calculation, I began typing in, “how to calculate” – and it filled in “percentage” – with NO previous such search on my part… they didn’t choose “exchange rate” or any other more common option of mine…]

Breaking Out

So, how can we break out of our digital echo chambers and mess with the results of algorithms?  There are quite a few ways, actually:  Below are a few links to articles about that very topic.  I would encourage you to get informed, and put into action various methods to burst the digital bubble, and breathe in the fresh air outside your echo chamber.

Five Ways to Break Out of Your Online Echo Chamber

You can break out of your echo chamber – and here’s how

How To Break Out Of An Echo Chamber – Your Bubble

 Escape the echo chamber: How to fix your Facebook News Feed

5 Super Easy Ways to Eliminate Your Echo Chamber

Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Under-researched and overhyped

 

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Living in an Algorithmic World

Back in the good ol’ days, we just shouted at the photocopier that we were sure was out to get us, as it ate the only hand-typed copy of our document.  Then dawned computers – albeit without luxuries-cum-necessities such as Windows.  I remember writing business letters in DOS.

Now, our lives are controlled by machines, and to a large extent, like proverbial frogs in a boiling pot of water, we don’t even recognize the fact – or if we do, we simply don’t know what to do about it.  But we have an advantage that we didn’t have way back then:  A voice on an international platform… blogs.

What’s brought this topic up recently is a string of frustratingly pointless emails back and forth with algorithms.  Around Christmas, Pinterest introduced a new feature – sections within boards.  It’s a great feature, theoretically, especially if you have tons of boards or tons of pins in said boards.  Theoretically.  While migrating my massive collections of pins to new sections, Pinterest constantly blocked me with their “spam filter”; when I did get things done, after the fact, they simply LOST three entire sections (not all at once… one here, one another day, one two days ago)!  Now comes the useless algorithmic runaround.  They have a limited number of options which you are required to choose from among; if your query is out of the “beginners problems” categories, you’re out of luck.  I have never, not once, reached an actual human on Pinterest Help.  I did once receive a response from some “one” named “Charlie” – but from the response, it was not human – just another algorithm.  They neither help solve problems, take responsibility, or offer an apology.  It is what it is, take it or stuff it.

2001 Hall Pinterest When did “customer service” become pointless?  The moment companies realized that they could make money off of the masses without actually bothering with them, that’s when.  If that sounds cynical, it probably is – and I don’t often let things ruffle me, but honour is one area that will always get up my nose, as I have a strong sense of justice:  When companies or people stop honouring those around them with common courtesies, they will hear about it from me.  If Pinterest refuses to add customer service (not just “customer processing”) to their list of skills, it will only be a matter of time before someone comes up with an alternative service with that issue as their strong point; and every disgruntled person of the “mass” will leave Pinterest in the dust, including me.  Because despite what some of these online upstart companies seem to think, humanity and human customers should always be the top priority; after all, we can and will make our own decisions, and we will go where we feel wanted, and taken care of.

Algorithms are everywhere; some are more intelligent than others.  If you have any amount of online presence, chances are that mega-sites like Google know more about you than your own mother.  So what can we frogs do?  Unless you’re willing to jump off-grid and become a cyber recluse (which isn’t an option for authors, writers, or most people in the civilized world these days), then let your voice be heard:  Write about it on your blog, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook – wherever you have a voice.  When we’re loud about it, we will be heard; it will stir others to action; it may be a single drop of water, but it may be the one that eventually causes the dam to burst.

If you don’t want to make those waves, then I’d suggest you just pour yourself a piña colada, topped with one of those little bamboo umbrellas, lean back and enjoy the sauna while you can.  And if you decide to go for a swim while you’re in there, just watch out for the phishing lines…

frog-in-a-pot

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Google is a Verb

Recently I was chatting with a few friends, and the topic of finding information came up; I was surprised that it hadn’t even occurred to them that they could find such information online.  Time and again, I meet such people.  It is a modern phenomenon that we have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips; Google has become so ubiquitous with searches that it’s made it into dictionaries as a verb, and yet it seems that some people have still not realised its potential.

Granted, there is a lot of static out there:  Misinformation (whether intentional or unintentional), nonsense, and useless clutter (someone’s grandkid’s cousin’s uncle’s birthday party, or videos that need massive editing before they’re much use but they’re online nonetheless).  But if you know how to search, there’s a world of information out there to be had; you need to use discernment, and – especially if using the information as a basis for an article, or in writing a novel – you need to get cross-references and confirmation.  But I’ve found that the people I’ve talked to on this topic can’t seem to get past the static and therefore seem to have difficulty in viewing cyberspace as a serious information source.

The downside of so much ready knowledge with easy access is that people no longer need to memorise or learn information themselves – they can just grab their phone and look it up.  The upside of it is that, if people make proper use of it, they can learn so much more than previous generations ever even had access to.  The photo below, gone viral, is of a school class sitting in front of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”; while it appears that they are bored and inattentive to what is around them, they’re actually using the museum’s app to learn more about the photo and the painter as part of a school assignment.  Notice that they’re interacting with each other, and even helping each other.  Hopefully part of the assignment was also to study the painting with their eyes.

Teens using museum app

I do a LOT of research online; for some of my books, I’ve done odd searches which I’m certain mess with the algorithms of Google & co.  I’ve searched for the average size of a human corpse and the distinctions between a coffin, casket and cist (I started getting ads for funeral services after that); how to throw a kris dagger vs. a regular dagger; tide tables; sunrises, sunsets and moon phases in the 9th, 18th and 21st centuries; native flowers to Britain in the Georgian period; medicine at sea; the effects of various soil compositions on a corpse and artefacts, postmortem forensics, and dozens of other bizarre topics.  In my free time, I do a wide variety of crafts and cooking, and so my Pinterest pins multiply like rabbits in the dark!  Just click on my gravatar link to have a peek through my cupboards there.

If you put your mind to learning how to do anything, you can find instructions for it somewhere online.  A few weeks ago, I wanted to reupholster our office chairs (they are the kind that has a hard plastic frame at the back and underside of the seat).  I found a Youtube video that showed how to take them apart, and within an hour I had the first chair dismantled, reupholstered and reconstructed.  As Amelia Earhart said, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is mere tenacity.”  I find that, in talking with friends, they often don’t know how to begin searching, and I think that’s the key:  They don’t try because they don’t know how to start, and so they can’t learn how to do it – learning by trial and error.  Failure is merely success in progress, but the point is that progress requires action… movement.

For writers, cyberspace is worth its weight in gold; no library could hold the amount of information available to us at our fingertips; no university could teach the wide range of topics available online; no video library could contain the staggering amount of documentaries, DIY instruction videos, and step-by-step how-tos.

What was the most recent thing you searched for online?  Was your search successful?  How much time did it take you to find what you were looking for?  Please describe it briefly in a comment below!

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Obscurities: Darkling

The use of Darkling over time.  Source:  Google

The use of Darkling over time. Source: Google

Darkling comes from Middle English derkelyng, and the verb darkle is a back formation thereof.  As a noun it means either darkness or a (fantasy) creature that lives in the dark.  It can also appear as an adjective meaning dark or darkening, or something that is obscure, unseen, or happening in the cover of darkness.  As an adverb it means in the dark or obscurity.

There is a Darkling Beetle, and a poem by Thomas Hardy called The Darkling Thrush, though the more usual use of the word is to be found in Science Fiction, e.g. in Star Trek Voyager, Marvel Comics, and a wide range of fantasy characters on the dark side of the fence.

According to the Urban Dictionary, you are a darkling if you are more sarcastic than charming, or if you are a geek, but a cool one.  Another application might be a portmanteau word from dark and darling.

Obscure 2

 

 

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