In the Land of the Unreal

Book by Lisa Messeri: “In the mid-2010s, a passionate community of Los Angeles-based storytellers, media artists, and tech innovators formed around virtual reality (VR), believing that it could remedy society’s ills. Lisa Messeri offers an ethnographic exploration of this community, which conceptualized VR as an “empathy machine” that could provide glimpses into diverse social realities. She outlines how, in the aftermath of #MeToo, the backlash against Silicon Valley, and the turmoil of the Trump administration, it was imagined that VR—if led by women and other marginalized voices—could bring about a better world. Messeri delves into the fantasies that allowed this vision to flourish, exposing the paradox of attempting to use a singular VR experience to mend a fractured reality full of multiple, conflicting social truths. She theorizes this dynamic as unreal, noting how dreams of empathy collide with reality’s irreducibility to a “common” good. With In the Land of the Unreal, Messeri navigates the intersection of place, technology, and social change to show that technology alone cannot upend systemic forces attached to gender and race…(More)”.

When Online Content Disappears

Pew Research: “The internet is an unimaginably vast repository of modern life, with hundreds of billions of indexed webpages. But even as users across the world rely on the web to access books, images, news articles and other resources, this content sometimes disappears from view…

  • A quarter of all webpages that existed at one point between 2013 and 2023 are no longer accessible, as of October 2023. In most cases, this is because an individual page was deleted or removed on an otherwise functional website.
A line chart showing that 38% of webpages from 2013 are no longer accessible
  • For older content, this trend is even starker. Some 38% of webpages that existed in 2013 are not available today, compared with 8% of pages that existed in 2023.

This “digital decay” occurs in many different online spaces. We examined the links that appear on government and news websites, as well as in the “References” section of Wikipedia pages as of spring 2023. This analysis found that:

  • 23% of news webpages contain at least one broken link, as do 21% of webpages from government sites. News sites with a high level of site traffic and those with less are about equally likely to contain broken links. Local-level government webpages (those belonging to city governments) are especially likely to have broken links.
  • 54% of Wikipedia pages contain at least one link in their “References” section that points to a page that no longer exists...(More)”.

Internet use statistically associated with higher wellbeing

Article by Oxford University: “Links between internet adoption and wellbeing are likely to be positive, despite popular concerns to the contrary, according to a major new international study from researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, part of the University of Oxford.

The study encompassed more than two million participants psychological wellbeing from 2006-2021 across 168 countries, in relation to internet use and psychological well-being across 33,792 different statistical models and subsets of data, 84.9% of associations between internet connectivity and wellbeing were positive and statistically significant. 

The study analysed data from two million individuals aged 15 to 99 in 168 countries, including Latin America, Asia, and Africa and found internet access and use was consistently associated with positive wellbeing.   

Assistant Professor Matti Vuorre, Tilburg University and Research Associate, Oxford Internet Institute and Professor Andrew Przybylski, Oxford Internet Institute carried out the study to assess how technology relates to wellbeing in parts of the world that are rarely studied.

Professor Przybylski said: ‘Whilst internet technologies and platforms and their potential psychological consequences remain debated, research to date has been inconclusive and of limited geographic and demographic scope. The overwhelming majority of studies have focused on the Global North and younger people thereby ignoring the fact that the penetration of the internet has been, and continues to be, a global phenomenon’. 

‘We set out to address this gap by analysing how internet access, mobile internet access and active internet use might predict psychological wellbeing on a global level across the life stages. To our knowledge, no other research has directly grappled with these issues and addressed the worldwide scope of the debate.’ 

The researchers studied eight indicators of well-being: life satisfaction, daily negative and positive experiences, two indices of social well-being, physical wellbeing, community wellbeing and experiences of purpose.   

Commenting on the findings, Professor Vuorre said, “We were surprised to find a positive correlation between well-being and internet use across the majority of the thousands of models we used for our analysis.”

Whilst the associations between internet access and use for the average country was very consistently positive, the researchers did find some variation by gender and wellbeing indicators: The researchers found that 4.9% of associations linking internet use and community well-being were negative, with most of those observed among young women aged 15-24yrs.

Whilst not identified by the researchers as a causal relation, the paper notes that this specific finding is consistent with previous reports of increased cyberbullying and more negative associations between social media use and depressive symptoms among young women. 

Adds Przybylski, ‘Overall we found that average associations were consistent across internet adoption predictors and wellbeing outcomes, with those who had access to or actively used the internet reporting meaningfully greater wellbeing than those who did not’…(More)” See also: A multiverse analysis of the associations between internet use and well-being

Debugging Tech Journalism

Essay by Timothy B. Lee: “A huge proportion of tech journalism is characterized by scandals, sensationalism, and shoddy research. Can we fix it?

In November, a few days after Sam Altman was fired — and then rehired — as CEO of OpenAI, Reuters reported on a letter that may have played a role in Altman’s ouster. Several staffers reportedly wrote to the board of directors warning about “a powerful artificial intelligence discovery that they said could threaten humanity.”

The discovery: an AI system called Q* that can solve grade-school math problems.

“Researchers consider math to be a frontier of generative AI development,” the Reuters journalists wrote. Large language models are “good at writing and language translation,” but “conquering the ability to do math — where there is only one right answer — implies AI would have greater reasoning capabilities resembling human intelligence.”

This was a bit of a head-scratcher. Computers have been able to perform arithmetic at superhuman levels for decades. The Q* project was reportedly focused on word problems, which have historically been harder than arithmetic for computers to solve. Still, it’s not obvious that solving them would unlock human-level intelligence.

The Reuters article left readers with a vague impression that Q could be a huge breakthrough in AI — one that might even “threaten humanity.” But it didn’t provide readers with the context to understand what Q actually was — or to evaluate whether feverish speculation about it was justified.

For example, the Reuters article didn’t mention research OpenAI published last May describing a technique for solving math problems by breaking them down into small steps. In a December article, I dug into this and other recent research to help to illuminate what OpenAI is likely working on: a framework that would enable AI systems to search through a large space of possible solutions to a problem…(More)”.

The US Is Jeopardizing the Open Internet

Article by Natalie Dunleavy Campbell & Stan Adams: “Last October, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) abandoned its longstanding demand for World Trade Organization provisions to protect cross-border data flows, prevent forced data localization, safeguard source codes, and prohibit countries from discriminating against digital products based on nationality. It was a shocking shift: one that jeopardizes the very survival of the open internet, with all the knowledge-sharing, global collaboration, and cross-border commerce that it enables.

The USTR says that the change was necessary because of a mistaken belief that trade provisions could hinder the ability of US Congress to respond to calls for regulation of Big Tech firms and artificial intelligence. But trade agreements already include exceptions for legitimate public-policy concerns, and Congress itself has produced research showing that trade deals cannot impede its policy aspirations. Simply put, the US – as with other countries involved in WTO deals – can regulate its digital sector without abandoning its critical role as a champion of the open internet.

The potential consequences of America’s policy shift are as far-reaching as they are dangerous. Fear of damaging trade ties with the US has long deterred other actors from imposing national borders on the internet. Now, those who have heard the siren song of supposed “digital sovereignty” as a means to ensure their laws are obeyed in the digital realm have less reason to resist it. The more digital walls come up, the less the walled-off portions resemble the internet.

Several countries are already trying to replicate China’s heavy-handed approach to data governance. Rwanda’s data-protection law, for instance, forces companies to store data within its border unless otherwise permitted by its cybersecurity regulator – making personal data vulnerable to authorities known to use data from private messages to prosecute dissidents. At the same time, a growing number of democratic countries are considering regulations that, without strong safeguards for cross-border data flows, could have a similar effect of disrupting access to a truly open internet…(More)”.

Private tech, humanitarian problems: how to ensure digital transformation does no harm

Report by Access Now: “People experiencing vulnerability as a consequence of conflict and violence often rely on a small group of humanitarian actors, trusted because of their claims of neutrality, impartiality, and independence from the warring parties. They rely on these humanitarian organisations and agencies for subsistence, protection, and access to basic services and information, in the darkest times in their lives. Yet these same actors can expose them to further harm. Our new report, Mapping Humanitarian Tech: exposing protection gaps in digital transformation programmes, examines the partnerships between humanitarian actors and private corporations. Our aim is to show how these often-opaque partnerships impact the digital rights of the affected communities, and to offer recommendations for keeping people safe…(More)”.

India’s persistent, gendered digital divide

Article by Caiwei Chen: “In a society where women, especially unmarried girls, still have to fight to own a smartphone, would men — and institutional patriarchy — really be willing to share political power?

In September, the Indian government passed a landmark law, under which a third of the seats in the lower house and state assemblies would be reserved for women. Amid the euphoria of celebrating this development, a somewhat cynical question I’ve been thinking about is: Why do only 31% of women own a mobile phone in India compared to over 60% of men? This in a country that is poised to have 1 billion smartphone users by 2026.

It’s not that the euphoria is without merit. Twenty-seven years after the idea was first birthed, the Narendra Modi government was able to excavate the issue out of the deep freeze and breathe it back into life. The execution of the quota will still take a few years as it has been linked to the redrawing of constituency boundaries.

But in the meantime, as women, we should brace ourselves for the pushbacks — small and big — that will come our way.

In an increasingly wired world, this digital divide has real-life consequences.  

The gender gap — between men and women, boys and girls — isn’t only about cellular phones and internet access. This inequity perfectly encapsulates all the other biases that India’s women have had to contend with — from a disparity in education opportunities to overzealous moral policing. It is about denying women power — and even bodily autonomy…(More)”.

Disinformation and Civic Tech Research

Code for All Playbook: “”The Disinformation and Civic Tech Playbook is a tool for people who are interested in understanding how civic tech can help confront disinformation. This guide will help you successfully advocate for, and implement disinfo-fighting tools, programs, and campaigns from partners around the world.

In order to effectively fight misinformation at a societal scale, three stages of work must be completed in sequential order:

  1. Monitor or research media environment (traditional, social, and/or messaging apps) for misinformation
  2. Verify and/or debunk
  3. Reach people with the truth and counter-message falsehoods

These stages ascend from least impactful to most impactful activity.

Researching misinformation in the media environment has no effect whatsoever on its own. Verifying and debunking falsehoods have limited utility unless stage three is also achieved: successfully reaching communities with true information in a way that gets through to them, and effectively counter-messaging the misinformation that spreads so easily.

Unfortunately, the distribution of misinformation management projects to date seems to be the exact inverse of these stages. There has been an enormous amount of work to passively monitor and research media environments for misinformation. There is also a large amount of energy and resources dedicated to verifying and debunking misinformation through traditional fact-checking approaches. Whether because it’s the hardest one to solve or just third in the consecutive sequence, relatively few misinformation management projects have made it to the final stage of genuinely getting through to people and experimenting with effective counter-messaging and counter-engagement (see The Sentinel Project interview for further discussion)…(More)”.

The Secret Solution To Increasing Resident Trust

Report by CivicPlus: “We surveyed over 16,000 Americans to determine what factors most impacted community members in fostering feelings of trust in their local government. We found that residents in communities with digital resident self-service technology are more satisfied with their local government than residents still dependent on analog interactions to obtain government services. Residents in technology-forward communities also tend to be more engaged civic participants…(More)”.

Interoperability Can Save the Open Web

Interview by Michael Nolan: “In his new book The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, author Cory Doctorow presents a strong case for disrupting Big Tech. While the dominance of Internet platforms like TwitterFacebook, Instagram, or Amazon is often taken for granted, Doctorow argues that these walled gardens are fenced in by legal structures, not feats of engineering. Doctorow proposes forcing interoperability—any given platform’s ability to interact with another—as a way to break down those walls and to make the Internet freer and more democratic….

Doctorow: At its root, it’s just the ability to use one thing with something else. Use any ink in your printer with any paper, use any socks with your shoes, anyone’s gasoline in your car, put any lightbulb in your light socket. There’s voluntary, mandatory interoperability, where a group of stakeholders get together and they say, “This is the goal we want all of our products to achieve, and we are going to design a framework so that we can make sure that every lightbulb lights up when you stick it in a light socket.” Then there’s the stuff where they’re indifferent: Car companies don’t stop you from putting a little cigarette-lighter-to-USB adapter into your car.

Companies can grow very quickly because tech has got these great network effects, but they also have, because of interoperability, really low switching costs.—Cory Doctorow

Then there’s the third kind of interop, the kind of chewy, interesting, lots-of-rich-Internet-history interop, which is adversarial interoperability, which in the book we call “comcom,” short for competitive compatibility. It’s the interop that’s done against the wishes of the original equipment manufacturer: scraping, reverse engineering, bots, all of that gnarly stuff done in the face of active hostility. This would be like Apple reverse-engineering Microsoft Office and making the iWork suite—Pages, Numbers, and Keynote—so that anyone with a Mac could read any Windows-based office file without having to buy any software from Microsoft.

There are so many examples of this from technology’s history. It’s really the engine of technology…(More)”.