Archives for posts with tag: technology

The Atlantic By Sara M. Watson
July 1, 2014 11:39 AM

Facebook has always “manipulated” the results shown in its users’ News Feeds by filtering and personalizing for relevance. But this weekend, the social giant seemed to cross a line, when it announced that it engineered emotional responses two years ago in an “emotional contagion” experiment, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

As a society, we haven’t fully established how we ought to think about data science in practice. It’s time to start hashing that out.

Before the Data Was Big…

Data by definition is something that is taken as “given,” but somehow we’ve taken for granted the terms under which we came to agree that fact. Once, the professional practice of “data science” was called business analytics. The field has now rebranded as a science in the context of buzzwordy “Big Data,” but unlike other scientific disciplines, most data scientists don’t work in academia. Instead, they’re employed in commercial or governmental settings.

The Facebook Data Science team is a prototypical data science operation. In the company’s own words, it collects, manages, and analyzes data to “drive informed decisions in areas critical to the success of the company, and conduct social science research of both internal and external interest.” Last year, for example, it studied self-censorship—when users input but do not post status updates. Facebook’s involvement with data research goes beyond its in-house team. The company is actively recruiting social scientists with the promise of conducting research on “recording social interaction in real time as it occurs completely naturally.” So what does it mean for Facebook to have a Core Data Science Team, describing their work—on their own product—as data science?

Contention about just what constitutes science has been around since the start of scientific practice. By claiming that what it does is data science, Facebook benefits from the imprimatur of an established body of knowledge. It looks objective, authoritative, and legitimate, built on the backs of the scientific method and peer review. Publishing in a prestigious journal, Facebook legitimizes its data collection and analysis activities by demonstrating their contribution to scientific discourse as if to say, “this is for the good of society.”

So it may be true that Facebook offers one of the largest samples of social and behavioral data ever compiled, but all of its studies—and this one, on social contagion—only describe things that happen on Facebook. The data is structured by Facebook, entered in a status update field created by Facebook, produced by users of Facebook, analyzed by Facebook researchers, with outputs that will affect Facebook’s future News Feed filters, all to build the business of Facebook. As research, it is an over-determined and completely constructed object of study, and its outputs are not generalizable.

Ultimately, Facebook has only learned something about Facebook.

The Wide World of Corporate Applied Science

For-profit companies have long conducted applied science research. But the reaction to this study seems to suggest there is something materially different in the way we perceive commercial data science research’s impacts. Why is that?

At GE or Boeing, two long-time applied science leaders, the incentives for research scientists are the same as they are for those at Facebook. Employee-scientists at all three companies hope to produce research that directly informs product development and leads to revenue. However, the outcomes of their research are very different. When Boeing does research, it contributes to humanity’s ability to fly. When Facebook does research, it serves its own ideological agenda and perpetuates Facebooky-ness.

Facebook is now more forthright about this. In a response to the recent controversy, Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer wrote, “The goal of all of our research at Facebook is to learn how to provide a better service…We were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook. We didn’t clearly state our motivations in the paper.”

Facebook’s former head of data science Cameron Marlow offers, “Our goal is not to change the pattern of communication in society. Our goal is to understand it so we can adapt our platform to give people the experience that they want.”

But data scientists don’t just produce knowledge about observable, naturally occurring phenomena; they shape outcomes. A/B testing and routinized experimentation in real time are done on just about every major website in order to optimize for certain desired behaviors and interactions. Google designers infamously tested up to 40 shades of blue. Facebook has already experimented with the effects of social pressure in getting-out-the-vote, raising concerns about selective digital gerrymandering. What might Facebook do with its version of this research? Perhaps it could design the News Feed to show us positive posts from our friends in order to make us happier and encourage us to spend more time on the site? Or might Facebook show us more sad posts, encouraging us to spend more time on the site because we have more to complain about?

Should we think of commercial data science as science? When we conflate the two, we assume companies are accountable for producing generalizable knowledge and we risk according their findings undue weight and authority. Yet when we don’t, we risk absolving practitioners from the rigor and ethical review that grants authority and power to scientific knowledge.

Facebook has published a paper in an attempt to contribute to the larger body of social science knowledge. But researchers today cannot possibly replicate Facebook’s experiment without Facebook’s cooperation. The worst outcome of this debacle would be for Facebook to retreat and avoid further public relations fiascos by keeping all its data science research findings internal. Instead, if companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are to support an open stance toward contributing knowledge, we need researchers with non-commercial interests who can run and replicate this research outside of the platform’s influence.

Facebook sees its users not as a population of human subjects, but as a consumer public. Therefore, we—that public and those subjects—must ask the bigger questions. What are the claims that data science makes both in industry and academia? What do they say about the kinds of knowledge that our society values?

We need to be more critical of the production of data science, especially in commercial settings. The firms that use our data have asymmetric power over us. We do them a favor unquestioningly accepting their claims to the prestige, expertise, and authority of science as well.

Ultimately, society’s greatest concerns with science and technology are ethical: Do we accept or reject the means by which knowledge is produced and the ends to which it is applied? It’s a question we ask of nuclear physics, genetic modification—and one we should ask of data science.

by ADAM FRANK

June 11, 2013 2:41 PM ET
Big Data may not be much to look at, but it can be powerful stuff. For instance, this is what the new National Security Agency (NSA) data center in Bluffdale, Utah, looks like.

Big Data may not be much to look at, but it can be powerful stuff. For instance, this is what the new National Security Agency (NSA) data center in Bluffdale, Utah, looks like.

George Frey/Getty Images

New technologies are not all equal. Some do nothing more than add a thin extra layer to the top-soil of human behavior (i.e., Teflon and the invention of non-stick frying pans). Some technologies, however, dig deeper, uprooting the norms of human behavior and replacing them with wholly new possibilities. For the last few months I have been arguing that Big Data — the machine-based collection and analysis of astronomical quantities of information — represents such a turn. And, for the most part, I have painted this transformation in a positive light. But last week’s revelations about the NSA’s PRISM program have put the potential dangers of Big Data front and center. So, let’s take a peek at Big Data’s dark side.

The central premise of Big Data is that all the digital breadcrumbs we leave behind as we go about our everyday lives create a trail of behavior that can be followed, captured, stored and “mined” en-mass, providing the miners with fundamental insights into both our personal and collective behavior.

The initial “ick” factor from Big Data is the loss of privacy, as pretty much every aspect of your life (location records via mobile phones, purchases via credit cards, interests via web-surfing behavior) has been recorded — and, possibly, shared — by some entity somewhere. Big Data moves from “ick” to potentially harmful when all of those breadcrumbs are thrown in a machine for processing.

This is the “data-mining” part of Big Data and it happens when algorithms are used to search for statistical correlations between one kind of behavior and another. This is where things can get really tricky and really scary.

Consider, for example, the age-old activity of securing a loan. Back in the day you went to a bank and they looked at your application, the market and your credit history. Then they said “yes” or “no.” End of story. In the world of Big Data, banks now have more ways to assess your credit worthiness.

“We feel like all data is credit data,” former Google CIO Douglas Merrill said last year in The New York Times. “We just don’t know how to use it yet.” Merrill is CEO of ZestCash, one of a host of start-up companies using information from sources such as social networks to determine the probability that an applicant will repay their loan.

Your contacts on LinkedIn can be used to assess your “character and capacity” when it comes to loans. Facebook friends can also be useful. Have rich friends? That’s good. Know some deadbeats, not so much. Companies will argue they are only trying to sort out the good applicants from the bad. But there is also a real risk that you will be unfairly swept into an algorithm’s dead zone and disqualified from a loan, with devastating consequences for your life.

Jay Stanley of the ACLU says being judged based on the actions of others is not limited to your social networks:

Credit card companies sometimes lower a customer’s credit limitbased on the repayment history of the other customers of stores where a person shops. Such “behavioral scoring” is a form of economic guilt-by-association based on making statistical inferences about a person that go far beyond anything that person can control or be aware of.

The link between behavior, health and health insurance is another gray (or dark) area for Big Data. Consider the case of Walter and Paula Shelton of Gilbert, Louisiana. Back in 2008, Business Weekreported how the Sheltons were denied health insurance when records of their prescription drug purchases were pulled. Even though their blood pressure and anti-depression medications were for relatively minor conditions, the Sheltons had fallen into another algorithmic dead zone in which certain kinds of purchases trigger red flags that lead to denial of coverage.

Since 2008 the use of Big Data by the insurance industry has only become more entrenched. As The Wall Street Journal reports:

Companies also have started scrutinizing employees’ other behavior more discreetly. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina recently began buying spending data on more than 3 million people in its employer group plans. If someone, say, purchases plus-size clothing, the health plan could flag him for potential obesity—and then call or send mailings offering weight-loss solutions.

Of course no one will argue with helping folks get healthier. But with insurance costs dominating company spreadsheets, it’s not hard to imagine how that data about plus-size purchases might someday factor into employment decisions.

And then there’s the government’s use, or misuse, of Big Data. For years critics have pointed to no-fly lists as an example of where Big Data can go wrong.

No-fly lists are meant to keep people who might be terrorists off of planes. It has long been assumed that data harvesting and mining are part of the process for determining who is on a no-fly list. So far, so good.

But the stories of folks unfairly listed are manifold: everything from disabled Marine Corps veterans to (at one point) the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Because the methods used in placing people on the list are secret, getting off the list can, according to Connor Freidersdorf of The Atlantic, be a Kafka-esque exercise in frustration.

A 2008 National Academy of Sciences report exploring the use of Big Data techniques for national security made the dangers explicit:

The rich digital record that is made of people’s lives today provides many benefits to most people in the course of everyday life. Such data may also have utility for counterterrorist and law enforcement efforts. However, the use of such data for these purposes also raises concerns about the protection of privacy and civil liberties. Improperly used, programs that do not explicitly protect the rights of innocent individuals are likely to create second-class citizens whose freedoms to travel, engage in commercial transactions, communicate, and practice certain trades will be curtailed—and under some circumstances, they could even be improperly jailed.

So where do we go from here?

From credit to health insurance to national security, the technologies of Big Data raise real concerns about far more than just privacy (though those privacy concerns are real, legitimate and pretty scary). The debate opening up before us is an essential one for a culture dominated by science and technology.

Who decides how we go forward? Who determines if a technology is adopted? Who determines when and how it will be deployed? Who has the rights to your data? Who speaks for us? How do we speak for ourselves?

These are the Big Questions that Big Data is forcing us to confront.

Listen up, I feel bad that most people in my age group really don’t have a clue what a Bitcoin is. Luckily for you, I care enough to provide this link that explains the concept of a Bitcoin. This is the start of something we will experience more of in the near future.

You’re probably wondering why hek this is even relevant or important to us to know of Bitcoin? Well fact to the matter is that technology is ever advancing and changing the mechanics of the world we live in. Bitcoin is an Internet money that gives us a new way of thinking the way we work with currency and make transactions.

Enjoy.

Editor’s note: James Altucher is an investor, programmer, author, and several-times entrepreneur. His latest books are I Was Blind But Now I See and 40 Alternatives to College. Please follow him on Twitter @jaltucher.

People read TechCrunch because they want to create something, they don’t want to follow orders all of their lives, and they want financial freedom. I’m being blunt. The above three items feel good. God bless you. Hopefully once you get the three things above, you get to keep them. Most people (i.e. ME) have to ride a roller coaster for awhile because we are stupid. But some people are smart.

Getting the things you want is hard but for reasons I explain below, you now have no other choice. The myth of corporate safety, of rising up through the ranks, of getting the gold watch, of getting applauded by your peers is over. Not because the economy is bad. But because innovation and the global economy are better than ever.

But don’t wait for shortcuts.

You can’t make money without selling something real. You can’t make something real without first imagination manifesting itself in your head. You can’t have imagination without surrendering yourself to an idea that you want to create something of value to other human beings.

And now it’s too late. Now the course of history has finally written its next chapter. There’s no more bullshit. I’m going to tell you why you have to quit your job. Why you need to get the ideas moving. Why you need to build a foundation for your life or soon you will have no roof.

1) The middle class is dead. A few weeks ago I visited a friend of mine who manages a trillion dollars. No joke. A trillion. If I told you the name of the family he worked for you would say, “they have a trillion? Really?” But that’s what happens when $10 million compounds at 2 percent over 200 years.

He said, “look out the windows.” We looked out at all the office buildings around us. “What do you see?” he said. “I don’t know.” “They’re empty! All the cubicles are empty. The middle class is being hollowed out.” And I took a closer look. Entire floors were dark. Or there were floors with one or two cubicles but the rest empty. “It’s all outsourced, or technology has taken over for the paper shufflers,” he said.

“Not all the news is bad,” he said. “More people entered the upper class than ever last year.” But, he said, more people are temp staffers than ever.

And that’s the new paradigm. The middle class has died. The American Dream never really existed. It was a marketing scam.

And it was. The biggest provider of mortgages for the past 50 years, Fannie Mae, had as their slogan, “We make the American Dream come true.” It was just a marketing slogan all along. How many times have I cried because of a marketing slogan. And then they ruined it.

2) You’ve been replaced. Technology, outsourcing, a growing temp staffing industry, productivity efficiencies, have all replaced the middle class. The working class. Most jobs that existed 20 years ago aren’t needed now. Maybe they never were needed. The entire first decade of this century was spent with CEOs in their Park Avenue clubs crying through their cigars, “how are we going to fire all this dead weight?” 2008 finally gave them the chance. “It was the economy!” they said. The country has been out of a recession since 2009. Four years now. But the jobs have not come back. I asked many of these CEOs: did you just use that as an excuse to fire people, and they would wink and say, “let’s just leave it at that.”

I’m on the board of directors of a temp staffing company with $600 million in revenues. I can see it happening across every sector of the economy. Everyone is getting fired. Everyone is toilet paper now.

Flush.

3) Corporations don’t like you. The executive editor of a major news publication took me out to lunch to get advice on how to expand their website traffic. But before I could talk he started complaining to me: “Our top writers keep putting their twitter names in their posts and then when they get more followers they start asking for raises.”

“What’s the problem?” I said. “Don’t you want writers that are popular and well-respected?”

When I say a “major news publication” I am talking MAJOR.

He said, “no, we want to be about the news. We don’t want anyone to be an individual star.”

In other words, his main job was to destroy the career aspirations of his most talented people, the people who swore their loyalty to him, the people who worked 90 hours a week for him. If they only worked 30 hours a week and were slightly more mediocre he would’ve been happy. But he doesn’t like you. He wants you to stay in the hole and he will throw you a meal every once in awhile in exchange for your excrement. If anyone is a reporter out there and wants to message me privately I will tell you who it was. But basically, it’s all of your bosses. Every single one of them.

4) Money is not happiness. A common question during my Twitter Q&A, asked at least once a week, is “should I take the job I like or should I take the job that pays more money.”

Leaving aside the question of “should I take a job at all,” let’s talk about money for a second. First, the science: studies show that an increase in salary only offers marginal to zero increase in “happiness” above a certain level. Why is this? Because of this basic fact: people spend what they make. If your salary increases $5,000 you spend an extra $2000 on features for your car, you have an affair, you buy a new computer, a better couch, a bigger TV, and then you ask, “where did all the money go?” Even though you needed  none of the above now you need one more thing: another increase in your salary, so back to the corporate casino for one more try at the salary roulette wheel. I have never once seen anyone save the increase in their salary.

In other words, don’t stay at the job for safe salary increases over time. That will never get you where you want – freedom from financial worry. Only free time, imagination, creativity, and an ability to disappear will help you deliver value that nobody ever delivered before in the history of mankind.

5) Count right now how many people can make a major decision that can ruin your life. I don’t like it when one person can make or break me. A boss. A publisher. A TV producer. A buyer of my company. At any one point I’ve had to kiss ass to all of the above. I hate it. I will never do it again.

The way to avoid this is to diversify the things you are working on so no one person or customer or boss or client can make a decision that could make you rich or destroy you or fulfill your life’s dreams or crush them. I understand it can’t happen in a day. Start planning now how to create your own destiny instead of allowing people who don’t like you to control your destiny. When you do this count, make sure the number comes to over 20. Then when you spin the wheel the odds are on your side that a winning number comes up.

6) Is your job satisfying your needs? I will define “needs” the way I always do, via the four legs of what I call “the daily practice.” Are your physical needs, your emotional needs, your mental needs, and your spiritual needs being satisfied?

The only time I’ve had a job that did was when I had to do little work so that I had time on the side to either write, or start a business, or have fun, or spend time with friends. The times when I haven’t is when I was working too hard, dealing with people I didn’t like, getting my creativity crushed  over and over, and so on. When you are in those situations you need to plot out your exit strategy.

Your hands are not made to type out memos. Or put paper through fax machines. Or hold a phone up while you talk to people you dislike. A hundred years from now your hands will rot like dust in your grave. You have to make wonderful use of those hands now. Kiss your hands so they can make magic.

One can argue, “not everyone is entitled to have all of those needs satisfied at a job.” That’s true. But since we already know that the salary of a job won’t make you happy, you can easily modify lifestyle and work to at least satisfy more of your needs. And the more these needs are satisfied the more you will create the conditions for true abundance to come into your life.

Your life is a house. Abundance is the roof. But the foundation and the plumbing need to be in there first or the roof will fall down, the house will be unlivable. You create the foundation by following the Daily Practice. I say this not because I am selling anything but because it worked for me every time my roof caved in. My house has been bombed, my home has been cold and blistering winds gave me frost bite, but I managed to rebuild. This is how I did it.

7) Your Retirement Plan is For Shit. I don’t care how much you set aside for your 401k. It’s over. The whole myth of savings is gone. Inflation will carve out the bulk of your 401k. And in order to cash in on that retirement plan you have to live for a really long time doing stuff you don’t like to do. And then suddenly you’re 80 and you’re living a reduced lifestyle in a cave and can barely keep warm at night.

The only retirement plan is to Choose Yourself. To start a business or a platform or a lifestyle where you can put big chunks of money away. Some people can say, “well, I’m just not an entrepreneur.”

This is not true. Everyone is an entrepreneur. The only skills you need to be an entrepreneur: an ability to fail, an ability to have ideas, to sell those ideas, to execute on those ideas, and to be persistent so even as you fail you learn and move onto the next adventure. Or be an entrepreneur at work. An “entre-ployee.” Take control of who you report to, what you do, what you create. Or start a business on the side. Deliver some value, any value, to anybody, to somebody, and watch that value compound into a career.

What is your other choice? To stay at a job where the boss is trying to keep you down, will eventually replace you, will pay you only enough for you to survive, will rotate between compliments and insults so you stay like a fish caught on the bait as he reels you in. Is that your best other choice? You and I have the same 24 hours each day. Is that how you will spend yours?

8) Excuses. ”I’m too old.” “I’m not creative.” “I need the insurance.” “I have to raise my kids.” I was at a party once. A stunningly beautiful woman came up to me and said, “James, how are you!?”

WHAT? Who are you?

I said, “Hey! I’m doing well.” But I had no idea who I was talking to. Why would this woman be talking to me? I was too ugly. It took me a few minutes of fake conversation to figure out who she was.

It turns out she was the frumpish-looking woman who had been fired six months earlier from the job we were at. She had cried as she packed up her cubicle when she was fired. She was out of shape, she looked about 30 years older than she was, and now her life was going to go from better to worse. Until…she realized that she was out of the zoo. In the George Lucas movie, THX-1138 (the name of the main character was “THX-1138″) everyone’s choices are removed and they all live underground because above ground is “radioactive.” Finally THX decides better to die above ground than suffer forever underground where he wasn’t allowed to love. He wasn’t free.

He makes his way above ground, evading all the guards and police. And when he gets there, it’s sunny. Everyone above ground is beautiful, and they are waiting for him with open arms and kisses. The excuse “but it’s radioactive out there!” was just there to keep him down.

“This is easy for you to say,” people say to me. “Some of us HAVE to do this!” The now-beautiful woman had to do it also. “What are you doing now?” I asked her. “Oh, you know,” she said. “Consulting.” But some  people say, “I can’t just go out there and consult. What does that even mean?”

And to that I answer, “Ok, I agree with you.” Who am I to argue? If someone insists they need to be in prison even though the door is unlocked then I am not going to argue. They are free to stay in prison.

9) It’s okay to take baby steps. ”I can’t just QUIT!” people say. “I have bills to pay.” I get it. Nobody is saying quit today. Before a human being runs a marathon they learn to crawl, then take baby steps, then walk, then run. Then exercise every day and stay healthy. Then run a marathon. Heck, what am I even talking about? I can’t run more than two miles without collapsing in agony. I am a wimp.

Make the list right now. Every dream. I want to be a bestselling author. I want to reduce my material needs. I want to have freedom from many of the worries that I have succumbed to all my life. I want to be healthy. I want to help all of the people around me or the people who come into my life. I want everything I do to be a source of help to people. I want to only be around people I love, people who love me. I want to have time for myself.

THESE ARE NOT GOALS. These are themes. Every day, what do I need to do to practice those themes? It starts the moment I wake up: “Who can I help today?” I ask the darkness when I open my eyes. “Who would you have me help today?” I’m a secret agent and I’m waiting for my mission. Ready to receive. This is how you take baby steps. This is how eventually you run towards freedom.

10) Abundance will never come from your job. Only stepping out of the prison imposed on you from your factory will allow you to achieve abundance. You can’t see it now. It’s hard to see the gardens when you are locked in jail. Abundance only comes when you are moving along your themes. When you are truly enhancing the lives of the people around you.

When every day you wake up with that motive of enhancement. Enhance your family, your friends, your colleagues, your clients, potential customers, readers, people who you don’t even know yet but you would like to know. Become a beacon of enhancement and then, when the night is gray, all of the boats will move towards you, bringing their bountiful riches.

Don’t believe me. Stay with a boss that hates you. A job that is keeping  you locked on a chain around your neck, tantalizing you with incremental increases in pay and job title. Stay in a culture that is quietly replacing the entire middle class. This is not anyone’s fault. These are the tectonic plates of economics destroying an entire suburban culture that has lasted for almost 100 years.

Until you choose yourself for success, and all that choice entails, you will be locked into the prison. You will stare into your lover’s eyes looking for a sign that he or she loves you back. But slowly the lights will fade, the warmth of another body will grow cold, and you will go to sleep dreamless in the dark once again.

[You can follow James on Twitter @jaltucher. Or read his blog.]

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