Free Speech vs “Intense Moderation”

About a month ago, a guest on the Joe Rogan podcast caught my interest. No, it wasn’t “Elon Musk Smokes Pot, Part II,” it was Jonathan Haight who is a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He talked quite a bit about his book “The Coddling of the American Mind” whose tagline explains its subject quite well, “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” The podcast can be found on the Joe Rogan website and while over two hours long, it is an interesting deep dive into the complex double edged sword of free speech in our polarized, social media based society.

Some highlights include:
0:15 Recent free speech issues in universities
0:20 Free speech and the collapse of trust on university campuses
0:25 How “call out cultures” threaten free speech
0:40 Rise of the zero-sum “good versus bad” fight mentality
1:10 Childrens’ need for healthy social stress
1:25 Children, social media, and the rise of depression
1:57 Reprint of John Stuart Mills free speech book On Liberty

Again, the whole discussion is fascinating, but the last ten minutes are where Mr. Haight points out that in any group where people strongly think alike there is obviously a tendency toward confirmation bias and the restriction of free speech. People need to be exposed to a healthy level of dissenting opinions to prevent this. At the same time norms or laws are necessary to hold people accountable for intimidating and violent hate speech prevalent in online “culture wars.” This is where free speech gets tricky. The creation of large numbers of completely fake accounts, bots, social groups that post blatant lies, and in general posting by “non-verifiable” accounts needs to be addressed. Mr. Haight makes the explicit point that anonymous accounts are acceptable and necessary in some cases, but social media platforms need to do a better job enforcing strong rules on the types of behavior that can lead to the deletion of a person’s account.

The next post will provide some highlights of the book On Liberty. It’s only about an hour read, but it is still difficult to get one’s head around the style of Mills’ writing. The rewards are worth the effort though. Who wouldn’t want an “awakening from the deep slumber of decided opinion,” a new appreciation for the nuance of both sides popular arguments, and a renewed appreciation for the environments of free speech that still exists around the world?

Five Stressful Tech Changes (and What I Did About Them)

To continue the theme of dealing with the stress associated with technology change, below are five situations that I have grappled with recently and a short explanation of how I resolved the stress for myself.

  1. Google – I used to be all-in on Google products: G Suite, Drive, Maps, and even Google+ for both my personal and professional lives, but now I’m quite a bit more selective. Fastmail is better, faster, and more compatible with iOS than Gmail. I still love Google Maps and Search, but not when logged in. I still use Drive, Docs, and Translate but only on a case-by-case basis. Duck, Duck, Go has replaced Google Search as my default search engine especially because their bang shortcuts are such a huge time saver (!g Google, !w Wikipedia, !yt YouTube, !esen Spanish-English translation, etc.). Finally, I’m much more conscious when I do search to avoid the Filter Bubble effect.
  2. Net Neutrality – Some people now swear by using a VPN for their desktop and mobile devices to prevent their Internet Service Provider from seeing (and selling) their personal information, but that is too stressful in itself. It also slows down the connection in many cases so while I do like and use Proton VPN for security on public wifi, I’ve made my peace with my boring data being sold by Comcast to the highest bidders.
  3. Facebook – There is no single negative change here, but a clear pattern of stressful abuse of privacy and personal information. It leaves tracking cookies even in “do not track” mode, abuses users’ “security” phone numbers, tracks users through the “Like” buttons (found on most websites), and does so many more negative things such as 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. My response: Gone, done, account deleted.
  4. Wifi – I wrote a long article about wifi issues about six months ago, but this was before I switched from Apple’s “Airport” routers to Eero products. Apple’s products were reliable, easy-to-use, secure, and… discontinued a year ago! After quite a bit of stress, I found that Eero’s routers are everything Apple’s products were with one massive advantage, full speed wireless mesh networking so no more ugly wires running between routers. Eero’s are expensive, but several months later they are one of the few pieces of technology that run 24/7 and have been completely “set and forget.” (Note on Feb 12th: Amazon just bought Eero. Something to keep in mind if you choose to research this option.)
  5. Television – For a variety of reasons, DirecTV was getting more and more stressful as time went on, but cable TV’s $100 / month to watch maybe two shows a week seemed wasteful. So about a year ago we went back to the tried and true antenna-on-the-roof solution combined with a Tablo DVR, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, etc. The details can be found in this post, but the long-term surprise has been our TCL Roku TV (or to upgrade older TVs, Roku’s Streaming Stick+). Roku products are simple to use, compatible with almost all major streaming apps, and convenient. An extra bonus is that one simple remote can control everything and is especially powerful when used with the TCL Roku TV because it automatically controls the Roku TV Wireless Speakers. Seriously, the stress reduction of having just one remote cannot be overstated!

The last thing to mention is that of course, the “solutions” above are provided simply as a glimpse into how I reduce the stress associated with technological change. Behind each of these decisions is a significant amount of research, experiments that failed, and sometimes decisions between bad and less bad options. Despite wanting to save $$$ by cord cutting, YouTube TVs “Cloud DVRs” and other features weren’t for us, neither were a wide variety of products for cheap wifi, free VPN, or free email. For products central to everyday life, many times it makes sense to pay a little more up-front and reduce the other types of stress such as ads, unreliability, and compromising personal information. As the popular tech saying goes (which actually dates back to the 1970s), “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product!”

“Why Wasn’t I Consulted” (WWIC) Is Only Part of the Story

In my last post I cited Paul Ford’s concept of “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” (WWIC) as one of the reasons why technology change can be such a challenging emotional experience, but somehow I feel like I missed the deeper and more important implications of his piece. Mr. Ford’s explanation of WWIC was part of an article he wrote in 2011 called “The Web Is a Customer Service Medium” and that concept itself deserves more attention. Eight years later, much of “The Web” has solidified into closed communities like Facebook, iTunes, Amazon, Twitter, Google, Reddit, and various news outlets which by their very nature isolate users. These communities all exhibit the Filter Bubble (which I wrote about three years ago), promote Confirmation Bias, and push users further and further into like minded / closed minded groups. This situation begs the question, is the web really still a customer service medium or has it transformed into something else?

To answer this, a short history lesson might be useful. Like early television where content was directly influenced by the movie and theater industries, the early web tried to leverage popular content such as publishing, shopping, and music/video distribution. The big difference was that unlike the forms that preceded it, the web was from its inception an inherently interactive medium. Groups of humans could for the first time communicate in real-time around the globe. An excellent book on this topic is “How the Internet Happened” which starts with the first websites and ends with the rise of the iPhone. My wife and I had our first experience of this in the early 1990s when she was researching an astronomical phenomena and was able to ask a professional astronomer in Australia about it through the USENET group, alt.astronomy. When she had a definitive answer in less than 24 hours, we knew the Internet would soon explode with new users.

So in the bigger sense Mr. Ford is still right, the web is a customer service medium. Facebook serves its “customers” by providing low friction, low commitment connectedness between large groups of people and they pay by giving Facebook advertisers access to that information. Google serves its customers by providing access to the global knowledge base, but also by providing the tools that their customers’ use to manage their entire online presence (email, calendar, contacts, photos, etc.).

However in another sense instead of serving, the web has devolved into a manipulation machine that has an addictive influence over people who do not make the effort to be discriminating in how they use it. Most people wouldn’t watch commercial after commercial on TV, believing every claim and purchasing every item, but people do allow (for example) Facebook, Google, MSNBC, or NPR to be their entire window on the world. To some, Facebook IS the Internet and this leads to what is possibly Mr. Ford’s most important point in his article, that with this amount of power and influence, some form of appropriate moderation is necessary to maintain healthy communities, for example to prevent what is often the groups that do the online equivalent of “yelling the loudest” from getting inappropriate amount of attention. This yelling can take many forms such as a multitude of fake accounts, sensationalistic / fake reporting, “click bait” headlines, manipulated photos / videos, or combinations of techniques. The difficulty of course is how to implement appropriate moderation without also imposing censorship which will be the topic for a future post.

I still maintain that being aware of one’s own WWIC syndrome is a strong component of dealing with the stress of technological change, but hopefully this post provides a broader view of WWIC’s importance. We might desperately WANT to be consulted, but this consultation implies a responsibility to be informed and mature enough to respond in a way that enhances the communities we interact in. The alternative is much of what we see today on Reddit (and other discussion forums), turning the web only into a place where we complain.

Dealing with Change and the WWIC Syndrome

“It was working so well, why did they change it?!” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that plaintive cry from clients, friends, or family, I could probably buy a Tesla. Phones, social media websites, operating systems, messaging, ebook readers, cable / satellite TV boxes, TVs themselves, streaming video, mapping services (like Google Maps), email, commonly used websites, and many more things we use everyday are constantly changing and updating “automagically.” Even worse, it often feels like these things worked well before, so why were they changed? Is there a group of people who wake up every morning ecstatic that Skype now has Cortana integration (what?), that Google Maps now has a convenient “Foodie List” at the bottom of the main screen, or Photos has a new “memory” for them? Even the imaginary Tesla I recently purchased with my windfall is going to get “over the air” software updates and WordPress, which I am writing this post in, has controversially moved to the “Gutenberg new editing experience.” These companies must think they are making their product or service better, but maybe they do not realize the cumulative toll change exacts.

At some point, change becomes a stressful problem in itself for all of us. Turning on the TV to find that the user interface has changed unexpectedly and dramatically evokes a visceral reaction despite a dozen friendly emails from the company months in advance explaining the upcoming changes. Ironically, I came across WWIC, which stands for “Why Wasn’t I Consulted,” when I was researching how to undo a new “feature” in WordPress which to me was unnecessary. I exclaimed to no one in particular, “WWIC when they implemented this change!? My website was working perfectly well without it!” To undo this unwanted change, I was reading an obscure technical article that referenced an article written by Paul Ford in 2011, “The Web Is a Customer Service Medium.” It caught my attention because coincidentally Mr. Ford is a “technology thought leader” that I wrote about back in 2015.

His point in the article is that “The web is not, despite the desires of so many, a publishing medium. The web is a customer service medium.” He sees WWIC as “the fundamental question of the web” and explains that, “Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before [the Web] has been able to tap into that as effectively” and goes on to describe his own struggles with this phenomena. It seems like even the people who at the forefront of creating technological change are deeply affected by WWIC.

His conclusions are helpful in understanding the recent Verge article that ended my last post, “Everything is too complicated.” In this article, the author rightly points out that the tech industry is “built on an ever-increasing number of assumptions” and that they are “starting to make these assumptions faster than anyone can be expected to keep up.” Interestingly enough, the Verge article starts with what I thought was an old controversy, but that came up again recently at a dinner party: “Is Facebook secretly recording you.” This has been proven not to be true, but persists as a common fear. However even if one knows technically that Facebook (or Google or whoever) is not listening, we still have a resistance to being targeted by increasingly “personal” online ads. “Why wasn’t I consulted (WWIC) when somebody decided that I would want more “relevant” (i.e. creepily intrusive) ads?!”

Tech companies are not going to stop innovating because people can’t keep up, besides the whole tech culture is based on continuous growth, change, and “disruption.” They are also not going to consult us when implementing change. That would probably be even more stressful than the changes themselves. Even Steve Jobs famously said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” So how can we regain our power in the face of continuous unrequested, enforced, and what often seems like unnecessary, change? Personally, I use a wide range of techniques ranging from facing my resistance head-on by asking what specifically is causing the stress to simply not using intrusive products. For example, I might just decide to get used to a change. Google Maps just needs one tap to get back to the familiar way it used to look.

There is a lot of nuance between these extremes so my next post will go into more details on specific techniques to effectively deal with stressful change including determining the best time to implement a change, when a change can be completely ignored, and when it is really time to hit that Delete, Block, or Ban button. Ahhh power!

Here’s What Apple (and Others) Aren’t

I ended my last post with the request that we “hold off awarding that Flying Fickle Finger of Fate to Apple just yet.” But after a one day 9% drop in their stock price should we? And if we do, Warren Buffet might want to present that award to them since he lost $4 billion on AAPL last week.

It all started with the “Letter from Tim Cook to Investors” where Apple “revised their guidance” for Q1 2019. To summarize, the biggest issue is a major sales decline in China, not any kind of collapse of their massive worldwide customer base. Yet short term investors acted like Chicken Little and dealt a punishing blow to Apple’s stock price.

Chicken Little

However despite many sensationalistic headlines, serious tech journalists have been a little more circumspect. Kara Swisher wrote a NY Times Opinion piece, “Is This the End of the Age of Apple?” She rightly points out that smartphones have simply gotten “good enough” for most of us. (I wrote about that in my last post as well.) Another excellent source, The Verge, wrote in their “Tech Report Card” on Apple that 2018 was more of a year of foundation building than innovation. iOS 12 not only fixed quite a few issues in iOS 11, but also made older devices faster and more stable. That is a rare accomplishment in the tech industry where most efforts are focused on features that drive revenue. Combined with Apple $29 battery replacement program, many potential customers for Apple’s new phones have found themselves with a completely usable 3+ year old device! Supporting this idea was today’s NY Times article, “Apple’s Biggest Problem? My Mom” which highlights the fact that “Face ID, introduced in the iPhone X in 2017, is one of the few advances that can’t be added to an iPhone that’s several years old.”

Finally, as always, Reddit was nice enough to deliver the combined voices of the masses in the form of the post, “Here’s What Apple Isn’t.”

Somewhere in those 2,400 comments a theme became clear, that people still feel compelled to say something despite being 757th comment in a thread… But seriously, that Apple is sticking to their strategy despite what seems like a growing mob with pitchforks and torches. Of all people Steven Sinofsky, previously the head of Microsoft Windows Division, said it best at the end of his 25 part tweet, “What does all this mean? Apple may or may not have a “pricing” or “price point” or “structural” / secular challenge.”

So is innovation doomed? Should the patent office be closed because “Everything that can be invented has been invented?” (Which turns out to be a good historical example of fake news BTW.) Of course not, but my next post will begin to explore some of the psychological aspects of a world where, “Everything is too complicated.” An article worth reading just for its fascinating and humorous list!