Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Outflanking "the Human" with Information

Two stories in NYT today about data crunching. One on mapping neuron connections in mice to understand how brains work. The other on using statistics to detect possible cheating on standardized tests.

The brain research takes thin slices of brain tissue and maps connections between neurons in a really BIG (petabyte per mm3) data mining operation. The research is in the infancy stage, but eventually one can imagine having a full circuit diagram of a brain. Interesting implications possibly grasped by either researchers or the articles author:
Neuroscientists say that a connectome could give them myriad insights about the brain’s function and prove particularly useful in the exploration of mental illness. For the first time, researchers and doctors might be able to determine how someone was wired — quite literally — and compare that picture with “regular” brains.
Experts quoted in the article debate whether the research is promising enough to spend millions on.  But this comment about defining normal or regular brains is not one of the concerns they mention.  What are the informational implications of having a data set that describes the connections of a "normal" person? 

The second article, "Cheaters Find an Adversary in Technology," reads as a shameful bit of commercial promotion masquerading as journalism, but does usefully illuminate the worldview of  the standardized test industry.  The story is about a company that uses statistics to detect cheaters.  Their algorithms are designed to detect things like similar patterns of wrong answers, changed answers, and big improvements in test scores.  If a group of students all misunderstood something in the same way it would look like cheating.  And a test taker who "saw the light" at one point and went back and changed several answers will look like a cheater.  And the thing we do most in school, attempt to teach people stuff, if successful would lead to big improvements in test scores.  But that too, according to the experts, would look like cheating.

There is an arrogance about testers (the gentleman profiled calls himself (unselfconsciously, notes the journalist) "an icon" -- (those who have never heard of him are poorly informed)) that consistently rankles.  And their self-promotion as agents of fairness and meritocracy (recall The Big Test) is simple hypocrisy.  More problematic, though, is the influence on teaching, learning, and scholarship of a regime that bases its authority and legitimacy on science and objectivity, but that shrouds itself in secrecy and lives OFF rather than FOR education.

Why these two articles together?  They suggest a sort of pincer maneuver against "the human" based in information -- on one flank, structure, define the normal brain to a (particular) giant matrix of ones and zeros, while on the other, behavior, treat statistically unusual patterns of activity as morally suspect.  "Super Crunching" may be a way of the future, but one might lament the likelihood that it is THE way of the future, crowding out or delegitimizing other forms of inquiry into the human condition.  Together, these two articles suggest the imperative of an affirmative complement to our fascination with what we CAN do with information.

Source Mentions and Allusions
  1. Ayres, Ian.  2008. Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers is the New Way To Be Smart
  2. Foucault, Michel. 1995 (1975). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
  3. Gabriel, Trip. 2010. "Cheaters Find an Adversary in Technology." New York Times, December 27, 2010
  4. Swedberg, Richard. 2000. Max Weber and the idea of economic sociology
  5. Vance, Ashlee. 2010. "In Pursuit of a Mind Map, Slice by Slice." New York Times, December 27, 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wikileaks Mirror Servers Geographic Visualization

A fascinating Google Earth visualization of the wikileaks mirror sites worldwide.

Monday, December 13, 2010

An Interesting Web Book "App"

What reminds you of what? When one reads -- or hears about -- a book, one almost unconsciously make connections -- this book is a little bit like that book. When you tell someone you are interested in some topic s/he will often say, "well, then you should have a look at ...."

I just stumbled across a web resource, http://www.librarything.com/, that implements this as a combination of a personal library catalog and a social network.  It allows you, virtually, to surf your own library and connect from books you know to books that are related to it. Users "tag" books creating a interesting way to slice through the database. Try these, for example: sociology, history, philosophy, economics. And it keeps an eye on where a given book is available -- libraries, bookstores, online digital sources, used book networks (like abebooks.com).

When I played around with it looking for books on the sociology of information I got a bookshelf that nearly mirrored my the books in front of me on my study's shelves, but with a few titles I was unfamiliar with :

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Wikileaks Conversation Continues

Interesting piece in NYT blog "The Lede" about online activists' response to credit card companies and PayPal "blacklisting" Wikileaks. 

The entry includes the YouTube "manifesto" of the group (or, rather, decentralized network) "Anonymous" that claims to be at the center of this backlash.

The Times Blog gives a list of related posts:

Sunday, December 05, 2010

An Old Idea Wikileaks has Gotten Me Thinking About Again

I have been sitting on a thought experiment for some years now.  Well, not exactly sitting on it -- have written a bit about it and teach it in my "sociology of everyday life" class.

It starts from Simmel's observation (in "How is Society Possible?" -- a brilliant essay, BTW) that a starting point for understanding social interaction has to be the recognition that the human condition involves awareness that one can never completely know the mind of the other.  No matter how intimate the relationship, there is material held back. 

So, imagine this.  One day, god gets a funny idea.  S/he suddenly makes people's mental content available to those around them.  All the fleeting thoughts, the quick little zigs and zags our minds make (making a cake with my mom, talking with her while I washed the dishes about her mother's death, stealing wet cement from that construction site where I smoked my first cigar, Denise my "girlfriend" in seventh grade though I liked Kim better, that pad Thai tonight was tasty if a bit heavy, I can't believe I mistakenly bought 2% milk the other day -- all that between these two sentences and this report highly censored) fully audible to anyone around us. Everyone her own Ulysses.  How exactly it would work, I'm not sure -- but imagine that there's some way that the cacophony of it all would be sorted out and we'd be privy to the internal conversations of those around us (and they ours -- and both of us privy to our reactions to what we were hearing).

So, god does this for maybe 15 minutes and then shuts it down.  This would I think, have a profound effect on us.  God would be amused.  But the s/he gets another idea: before heading off to other realms, s/he announces "that was so much fun, I think I'll do it again sometime."

That, I propose, could be the end of social life as we know it.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Wikileaks and Protecting Your Sources

In the NYT, Alan Cowell wrote today about reactions among diplomats to the WikiLeaks leaks.  In the middle of the story we read:
A Chinese intellectual, who spoke in return for customary anonymity, said the disclosures had left those like him who had contact with United States diplomats “nervous” about the possibility of exposure and persecution by authorities who have already blocked access in China to the WikiLeaks Web site.
I don't want to equate journalistic secrecy with government secrecy, but I'm surprised, as I suggested in a previous post, that there's been no commentary (or at least none I've seen -- anyone have a reference?) on the irony of the secrecy and confidentiality given sources (as above) by the media vs. the ones revealed in the leaks.

NOTE: it appears that in a lot of the material that's been put online by media organizations some redaction of source information has been carried out.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

FTC Proposes "Do Not Track" Option for Consumer Privacy

The Federal Trade Commission released a preliminary report, "Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change," for public comment today. Among other things, it did suggest the "do not track" option for web surfers. Here's the NYT article on the report.

A few weeks ago E. Wyatt and T. Vega wrote of the then forthcoming FTC report on net privacy in "Stage Set for Showdown on Online Privacy" (NYT November 9, 2010):
"Consumer advocates worry that the competing agendas of economic policy makers in the Obama administration, who want uniform international standards, and federal regulators, who are trying to balance consumer protection and commercial rights, will neglect the interests of people most affected by the privacy policies. “I hope they realize that what is good for consumers is ultimately good for business,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America."
The report contains what look like some good, balanced, and practical guidelines for how consumers and information collecting entities interact on the web and elsewhere.

I'd like to propose, as a thought experiment, a more radical approach.  What if we started from the premise that everyone owns her own information.  You own you opinions, your attitudes, and the traces your behavior might create.  If this information is valuable to another entity, they are free to bid on it.  We don't need privacy protections, we just need an infrastructure that will allow for a market for private information to operate.

A website or a retailer can have an offer, right at the front door: if you want to browse here, I want to know your name and take note of what you look at.  The consumer, in return, can say, you can watch me, for 5 dollars.  Consumers can make money by moving around the net and generating value.  The entities who host websites on which behavior turns into information turns into value would also be entitled to a share.

Now take the idea a step further.  Suppose rather than selling my information I agree to license it.  This time I say, you can watch me for $5 but down the road, if any value accrues to you by virtue of you aggregating my information with that of others, I want a cut.  As my information goes upstream, up the aggregation pyramid, it becomes a component in something valuable: I deserve a share. 

Of course, we'll be told this is completely impractical.  Retailers and other entities would just build in the cost.  And the transaction costs would be too high.  Maybe.  But we've got micro-credits  worked out at the level of single click-throughs.  I don't think the barriers would be technical.

From Information Superhighway to Information Metrosystem

The new FTC report on consumer privacy has an interesting graphic in an appendix. It purports to be a model of the "Personal Data Ecosystem." It's interesting as an attempt to portray a four-mode network : individuals, data collectors, data brokers, and data users. The iconography here seems to be derived from classic designs of subway and underground maps.

From http://www.ftc.gov/os/2010/12/101201privacyreport.pdf.

The genre mixing in the diagram invites, on the one hand, a critical look at where the FTC is coming from in the report (which, in my limited experience of digesting FTC output looks relatively well done) and, on the other, points toward a need to better conceptualize the various components and categories.

Under "collectors," for example, we have public, internet, medical, financial and insurance, telecommunications and mobile, and retail. The next level (brokers) includes affiliates, information brokers, websites, media archives, credit bureaus, healthcare analytics, ad networks and analytics, catalog coops, and list brokers. Finally, on the info users front we have employers, banks, marketers, media, government, lawyers and private investigators, individuals, law enforcement, and product and service delivery.

It's a provocative diagram that helps to focus our attention on the conceptual complexity of "personal information" in an information economy/society. More on this to follow.