Friday, April 12, 2019

Shepherd Wanted

"A global team reviews audio clips in an effort to help the voice-activated assistant respond to commands." You wouldn't think that something so mundane would be much of a big deal. But when Bloomberg revealed the fact that there are, in fact, actual human beings that listen to some items that have been recorded by Alexa digital assistants, the reaction was fairly intense.

Part of this can be chalked up to the fact that the Bloomberg article was vague and alarmist. This is, of course, somewhat to be expected. In an attention economy, information will be tailored to grab people's attention. Alarmism is attention-grabbing. And the article needed to be vague, as it was sourced mostly anonymously, and there wasn't a complete breakdown of the processes involved.

It can be said that there is another factor at work here, however, and that is a suspicion that many people appear to have that "Big Data" (or some other buzzword that many people don't really understand all that well) is being used to compile dossiers of damaging and/or incriminating information about them as individuals; and that technology companies intend to deploy those dossiers in ways that will cost them. Because late stage capitalism (as the kids are fond of saying these days). Given the general prevalence of that assumption, it's in the best interests of news organizations to go along with it; or at least not push back against it.

Back in 2011, I noted that political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse had found that "the American Public" (as a whole) tended to want two things: a) to be disengaged from politics and b) honorable and public-minded politicians who wouldn't rip them off while they weren't paying attention. At the time, I was somewhat incredulous as this finding, as it didn't seem to be that we expected this sort of behavior from non-governmental actors. At the time, I cited automotive mechanics and McDonald's cashiers as my examples, but I figured that people expected that active disinterest in how businesses operated would bite them. (Even though a commenter doubted my logic at the time.) So color me somewhat surprised to learn that I was wrong about that. People appear to want to be disengaged from business, yet not want that inattention to cost them, in the same way that they often do with governments. And I think this may explain why the Bloomberg article resonated with people; it feeds their concern that because businesses aren't as civic-minded as they "ought" to be, disinterest results in being left holding the bag. The vague alarmism of articles like the one in Bloomberg allow them to fill in the gaps, while Bloomberg can honestly say that they never accused anyone of wrongdoing.

My personal belief is that in the end, the hands-off approach is going to have to give way. It strikes me as unworkable in the long run. But then again, I've been wrong before...

By the way, I still haven't gotten around to reading "Stealth Democracy" yet. I should likely remedy that.

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