Wise Guys on WHO Radio - February 27, 2016
Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.
In the news this week
As tools like crowdsourcing find their way into academic research, people are facing an interesting question: If that work then leads to a paper, should the contributors be cited by their natural names or can they use their online pseudonyms (usernames) instead? To some, the pseudonym may be a more valuable and descriptive identity than the natural name.
The state of Iowa has an initiative in place to let schools offer classes that they cannot afford or otherwise manage to offer in-house. The Iowa House just unanimously approved a bill to let schools look online for options when that process doesn't work out.
Facebook can only really grow if the billions of people who don't have reliable Internet access become Internet users and join the site, so the company has a vested interest in expanding Internet access all over the world. In order to do that efficiently, they need to know where the people are. Thus the company is working on taking artificial intelligence and applying it to known data about the world (like satellite imagery) to come up with much more granular detail about where people can be found. They're having the Earth Institute at Columbia University review the data for quality, and Facebook then says it will make the data available on an open-source basis later this year. Facebook estimates that about 3 billion people worldwide have Internet access, and 4 billion don't. The population maps are mainly useful to Facebook when seeking to decide where to use wireless hotspots, where to use cellular-type service, and where they might have to turn to satellites or UAVs to deliver connectivity. It's estimated right now that 95% of the world's population is within reach of mobile phone service, but if those estimates are based on faulty data, then it may impede the necessary infrastructure investments to expand access. That's where better population-density mapping has a role to play. Of course, the research is being done with Facebook's private benefit in mind, but the spillover benefits from better mapping have the potential to do a lot of social good, like aiding in disaster planning and recovery.
The bookstore touts itself as a refuge from connectivity overload, but isn't the idea of a bookstore fundamentally to connect people with access to more information than they could possibly ever want to use? Maybe it makes people feel better, but disconnecting isn't necessarily a better way of life.
Google took billions of photos that included location data and fed them into a database. They then turned that database into a system that tries to identify the locations shown in new pictures based upon what it already knows about the rest of the world. Naturally, it's working better in places like tourist destinations that are well-documented than in remote areas, but it's apparently generally much better than human beings are at the same test. The Google system was able to at least get to the right continent about half of the time.
Mercedes is replacing robots in some of its plants with human workers, because it's easier to give a person detailed instructions than it is to reprogram the robots. Mercedes is trying to deliver more customized vehicles right off the assembly line, and people are their most efficient choice for now. This is actually a lesson learned long ago by Honda, which emphasizes the value of using people to do work because people can improve and innovate while automation cannot. There's a role for both, of course. We're better off when machines augment or supplement human work, labor, and thinking.
A new plugin for weblogs and sites using the WordPress publishing tool will create parallel sites that cooperate with Google's "AMP" project to accelerate the delivery of pages on mobile devices. WordPress and Google share a common interest in keeping people on the public Internet rather than behind "walled gardens" like Facebook.
They can be submerged (IP68) and go back to accepting MicroSD cards. Samsung killed that feature in the Galaxy S6, so its revival is welcomed.
Teddy Roosevelt once said that school is a wonderful adjunct to the home, but a terrible substitute for it.
In our modern world, I think a remix of that quotation is in order: Cyberspace is a wonderful adjunct to democracy, but a terrible substitute for it.
Maybe everyone has always held strong opinions on, well, everything. But maybe it's more the case that the ease of expression has amplified the emotions involved.
That's probably just fine, but we need to be careful about substituting the act of expression for real acts of citizenship. Sharing an article endorsing Bernie Sanders or a meme started by Ted Cruz isn't the same as doing something to stoke democracy.
And to the extent that the "sharing economy" spills over into the "over-sharing culture", we are in danger of dropping the ball on the little things that make society work.
I don't have any firm evidence -- just anecdotal observations -- but I suspect that there's an inverse correlation between the extremity of a person's views and the amount of effort they commit to doing things like volunteering.
There's a lot that could be better about our country. I have no doubt about that. But I also think that when you're actually involved in getting your hands dirty with trying to make something better, it's much easier to see that everything isn't exactly going to someplace very hot in a handbasket.
Moreover, when we do things on a local and real-world level -- like volunteering at the library or visiting lonely people at a retirement home or (like I do) serving on the board of a credit union -- we have to cooperate with people who may share none of our political views in order to do something constructive.
Just like we worry about people becoming radicalized when they encounter ISIS propaganda online (and make no mistake about it -- that's happening), we ought to think about our own risk of radicalization. Maybe it doesn't go to the extent that we would ever think about committing a crime, but perhaps it does take some of us to the point that we fail to see the "other side" as being just as American and as patriotic as ourselves.
Disagreement is wonderful, but it's far too easy to get sucked into games of extremism one-upsmanship and purity tests when we spend too much of our time online and too little of it on the things that matter offline. It has become frighteningly simple to become hooked on a diet of modern-day propaganda and to become part of an echo chamber of unproductive anger. That wasn't supposed to be the promise of the Internet. It's supposed to broaden our horizons, not limit them.
Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves how best to unplug from time to time so that we don't start to believe our own hype. But what's important is that we all do it. I've watched perfectly sensible people get sucked into conspiracy theories and borderline-scary movements thanks to what they read online, and though most of them seem to shake out of it sooner or later, not everybody does. And those who do sometimes spend a long, long time in the wilderness.
We can all inoculate ourselves against this pattern -- and we should -- by grounding ourselves in things that are small and achievable in the real world. That's where democracy really comes together -- on the small, local scale. Given the amount of anger that's out there, perhaps we all owe it to ourselves to unplug a little more often and to spend a little more time getting our hands dirty where our help is needed.
Listen again on-demand
- Podcast of this episode - segment 1 (For the good of the country, know when to unplug)
- Podcast of this episode - segment 2 (Should screen names and pseudonyms have a place in academic journals?)
- Podcast of this episode - segment 3 (Facebook is mapping the world)
- Podcast of this episode - segment 4 (WordPress hitches its star to Google for faster Internet browsing)