Taming the Giants


Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

More people are getting vocal against the dominance of big tech—this is my selection of some of the most thoughtful pieces from the past week.

I’ve raised the questions on societal risks of the dominance of a handful of internet giants from the early days of starting my newsletter. It’s good that it is getting mainstream attention. My friends at The Economist have put together a must-read memo to the bosses of Amazon, Facebook and Google:

You are an industry that embraces acronyms, so let me explain the situation with a new one: “BAADD”. You are thought to be too big, anti-competitive, addictive and destructive to democracy.

Zeynep Tufekci on the emergence of “phantom public sphere”:

Sure, Facebook and Twitter sometimes feel like places where masses of people experience things together simultaneously. […] Yes, mass discourse has become far easier for everyone to participate in — but it has simultaneously become a set of private conversations happening behind your back. Behind everyone’s backs.

Mark Zuckerberg announces Facebook is going to prioritise local news based on trustworthiness, in turn, based on surveying local residents. It is a start for Facebook to recognise the need to curate sources but the troubling notion of “objectivity” still haunts Zuck’s announcement. I’m not sure if they get it yet.

Journalism professor Gabriel Kahn’s obdurate essay on the lies Facebook tells itself and us, its users:

The platform has probably more power than any company has ever wielded over information (and perhaps even our well-being). And yet it engages in zero public debate about the changes it makes. It simply rolls them out. We are asked to buy Facebook’s version of meaningful.

In other news:

What we did and didn’t learn from Twitter’s news dump on Russiagate. Good analysis by Peter Singer, many questions remain unanswered.

Google broadens access to custom machine vision capabilities by launching AutoML for Vision, an API that allows non-specialists to benefit from machine learning. (Interestingly, only 17% of developers worked using machine learning last year, a number expected to rise to 80% this year.)

Voice-activated smart speakers outpace tablet and smartphone adoption rates, as 39 million Americans claim to own one. 11% own Alexa-enabled speaker, which is great news for Amazon if we’re to trust the research that says that Echo users spend more on Amazon than Prime members. A majority of owners of smart speakers have never used more than the basic features.

On the subject of voice, the NSA’s voice recognition is well ahead of any commercial firms.

Joe Edelman outlines how to design social systems (or apps) that align with human values. (Long read)

EV reader Zia Haider Rahman argues that we are witnessing an assault on reason: “Warping reason and logic and clarity of thought is the holy grail [of those with authoritarian tendencies].”

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