Former Facebook exec says social media is ripping apart society

Another former Facebook executive has spoken out about the harm the social network is doing to civil society around the world.

Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped make. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business, before recommending people take a “hard break” from social media.

Damn Algorithms

Work. It’s boring, exhausting, and counterintuitive to the creative problem solving that once drove American innovation. What the hell happened?

Algorithms, that’s what. Google made it fashionable to boost the bottom line with them. Now, they’re little more than a way to save on labor. Tim O’Reilly describes this turning narrative in tech as “a very dangerous time.”

How can algorithms give us more creative control over our work schedules? Or make it easier to collaborate remotely? How can they build trust and transparency, or fit 80 hours of work into 40? The world is smaller, our brains are bigger. It’s time we made an algorithm for working smarter.

The founder of O’Reilly Media has a huge influence on the role of tech in our lives, including the future of work. Now, he’s set his sights on job creators and “innovators” he thinks are more interested in making a buck than building products and services the world can use (video).

Is he right? Have we accepted the future as an extension of the past? How can a more sustainable workforce ensure an abundant future? Fair questions for a society on the brink of the automation apocalypse. But don’t fret.

O’Reilly says, “It’s still possible to reinvent the world. If we could make a more inclusive world with this technology, that would be a great gift.”

Border DNA a Moral Quandary

Published as “Can DNA Prove Your Nationality?” by Singularity Hub Jun 14, 2010

A new U.K. proposal suggests that genetics could one day be used to shape the world. In 2009, the U.K. Border Agency (UKBA) unveiled a program that would genetically test East African asylum seekers in order to prove their country of origin.

The agency, responsible for securing the border and controlling migration in the U.K., claims that falsifying nationality is a problem for East Africans. But can genetics define nationality, especially in a region where whole populations are on the move? As protest mounts, it’s increasingly clear that using DNA to track one’s origin is more trouble than it’s worth.

The Human Provenance Pilot Project was designed to test forensic samples voluntarily given by asylum seekers who failed language analysis testing. Mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA would be tested, as would single-nucleotide polymorphisms (single-base variations along the DNA strand). Subjects would also have isotopes in hair and fingernails tested—a method used for otherwise unidentifiable murder victims.

The project is meant to validate claims of nationality by Somalis, Kenyans and citizens of other war-ravaged countries who travel to the U.K. seeking asylum. Refugee status, security risk, health and family status are all taken into account when interviewing asylum seekers. While genes answer questions of ancestry, using genetic tests to determine asylum status is problematic at best.

Regulating according to DNA seems unethical not to mention insufficient for determining nationality. For starters, genes don’t relate to political borders. There are strong doubts as to whether testing this particular group can provide even the slightest statistical reliability, mainly because of past and present population movements throughout the region. As scientists contend, people move. And although mitochondrial DNA gives some answers as to where a person has been in their life, the error-prone results are indeterminate on a local scale.

As specialists point out, there is nothing that says isotope signatures at birth or during childhood are the same as those in adult samples, further complicating reliability. Growing tissues like hair and nails may only reveal the past year of someone’s life. Also, scientists can’t confirm if notable differences in isotope signatures between neighboring countries exist, if only for the fact that countries sometimes share similar climate and environmental conditions.

Putting nationality and genetics in the same category for identification purposes—in effect, combining a person’s nationality with their ancestry—raises ethical concerns. So many, that the UKBA announced late last year it would scale back the project, following fierce protest from scientists and migrant advocates. The signatures of nearly 200 scientists were collected on a petition that describes the Human Provenance Pilot Project as ‘flawed’ and ‘naïve,’ and a number of activists have come forward in the media.

In response, the UKBA revised its stance on the issue. The agency’s new voluntary proof of concept project, which runs through this month, will determine the potential for the investigations to warrant a broader use of DNA testing and isotope analysis. Following a round of efficacy and ethics reviews, the techniques will undergo further review by the Home Office Forensic Science Regulator. This all needs to happen before techniques are considered for asylum investigations. The original plan, which directed Border Agency officials to use test results in interviews with asylum seekers, and to make asylum decisions, was a clear contradiction.

We may someday have the technology to accurately determine nationality by testing DNA. And what then? Will we use the information to track diseases, viruses or other population-specific scientific and medical phenomena? Will we use it for historical purposes? The uncertainty of whether this new information will be used constructively or for discrimination, is likely what concerns immigrant advocates the most. Right now, it’s more a question of privacy.

Using DNA to track populations and ancestry isn’t new, but regulating according to DNA raises a moral quandary. If and when we adopt methods to track nationality with genes, the government keeping tabs on our DNA could be the least of our worries.

From Tunis to Tahrir and Beyond

Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, Vint Cerf, warns if we don’t build better systems for data, “people will lose trust in the internet, in which case its utility will begin to dissipate” (video).

Cerf is also a father of the internet (standards and technologies he co-created in the 70s still form the basis of the net today). He believes the internet itself is not a right, but rather an enabler of rights. Google’s Project Loon will connect the world’s most remote areas with broadband balloons traveling at the edge of space. If successful, it could help to circumvent bans imposed by authoritarian regimes, as seen during the Arab Spring.

“I harbor this hope as a technologist, that there will be tools available to let people make their conversations private on an end-to-end basis,” Cerf says. “To open up what would otherwise be a very closed environment.”

Craig Venter, Egoist

Published by Science 2.0 Mar 29, 2011

Craig Venter is brilliant. Brilliant enough, you might say, to enter the ranks of literary gods. So brilliant, he might not even know it.

Venter wants to patent the human genome—all 2.9 billion base pairs of it. And why not? The pioneering geneticist is, after all, the man responsible for sequencing it. Venter first set his sights on the intellectual rights in the 90s while president of Celera Genomics. Later, the company’s soured partnership with the publicly funded Human Genome Project served as a forecast of how genomics research might evolve as a competitive business enterprise, if the stakes ever went up. And they did.

In 2000, Celera won the genome race when Venter et al. produced a complete set of somewhere around 25,000 protein-coding genes ahead of schedule (98.5% of the projected total turned out to be other stuff). The genomics industry exploded, I got my first lab job and the rest is, as they say, history.

Since the best scientists are often the most tenacious, for Venter, decoding the recipe for humans wasn’t enough. Flash forward ten years to 2010. It wasn’t exactly the year we made contact, but Venter made history (again) when his team became the first ever to create synthetic life. I’d say that beats meeting aliens. The bacterium-based life form was fitted with four unique “watermarks”—hidden in the DNA—to keep it traceable in case it ever got out. Venter played up the new technique, going so far as to embed an email address for whomever decoded the message first. And what was the message?

Venter may have wanted something personal and meaningful to brand his progeny—something more interesting than the average security question. What was the name of your first pet? In what town was your high school located? Or better yet, an infamous world leader or influential philosopher.

Enter James Joyce. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” The memorable line from his semi-autobiography, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was one of the four watermarks. The gesture, it turns out, wasn’t good enough; the Joyce estate is suing the scientist for copyright infringement. The irony. But this story goes beyond the typical legend and legality.

Invention, while often seen as derived solely from logic and reason, has a strong creative component as well. Venter, if he wanted, could change the code’s mappings to reveal Yeats instead of Joyce. Or Kafka or Borges or Melville (have your pick) as long as the message was identical in length. Inscribing DNA with a literary quote isn’t exactly mind-blowing from a technological view. The cultural implications, on the other hand, are nothing short of inspiring.

Venter may be the guy who gave life to man’s first bona-fide creation. But to discover a literary genre in genetic code? Now that’s a triumph.

Knowing Is Half the Battle

Alicja Peszkowska is a comms geek like me. She thinks data is as much a part of creating smart citizens as it is smart cities: “When you create a community, you create an environment where social change can happen.”

Peszkowska is at the front line of open data, working with orgs like TechSoup, Warsaw NetWtorek and the National Gallery of Denmark.

“Transparency of political processes translates into civic participation,” she writes in her open data manifesto (video). “The more citizens understand, the more they engage.” Agreed.

Distributed Comms Can Help Us Reach Our #SusDev Goals

Published by Markets For Good (now Digital Impact) Jul 8, 2015

In May, I presented at the International Conference on Social Media for Good in Istanbul, joining academics from all of the world to discuss how we might build on Internet technologies to enhance philanthropy and the resolution of social problems.

Organized by Kimse Yok Mu (KYM), an international NGO carrying out humanitarian aid and development projects in 110 countries, the conference brought together unique local experiences and views that might otherwise deny comparison.

The connective tissue—what had us speaking the same language throughout—was a shared faith in technology and social enterprise and innovation to reach new heights. For me, this is what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are about. Andrei Abramov, former chief of the NGO branch of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) said it best in his event recap:

The role of information and communications technology (ICT) has been, and continues to be, crucial to the development of an effective and beneficial global civil society, since they enable the necessary interconnectedness across borders, the free flow of ideas, the exchange of thoughts and the process of consensus building that form the backbone of a civil society of global scope.

Since reading Heather Grady’s blog for SSIR, “Philanthropy, the Post-2015 Agenda, and Diffuse Collaboration,” I’ve thought about how big and small actors might work together to achieve great things in the urban SusDev space. The underlying principles of diffuse collaboration aren’t exactly new, at least for one whose background in science affords a basic understanding of ecology.

But putting the Post-2015 Agenda under a lens of diffuse reciprocity—a concept brought forward by Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer and reiterated by Grady in her post—really opens up a world of possibility with regard to making cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, as laid out by SDG 11.

The essence of diffuse reciprocity is the ability to see the value in any size contribution, as it applies to a shared goal or circumstance. Grady’s blog (you should read it) is a primer, a preview and a call to action for the Post-2015 Partnership Platform for Philanthropy, which encourages the sector to “engage more meaningfully” in the SDGs. Finding synergy between individuals and organizations is a big part of this process.

At the conference I presented a conceptual framework for distributed social networking for civil society organizations (CSOs), where engaged citizens can address issues specific to their local communities, all the while contributing to a more comprehensive and timely global reporting structure.

The goal is to show that a distributed model of communication (vs. centralized mainstream social networking) can help increase the impact of local organizations, while inspiring new ways to distribute resources, manage infrastructure and nurture local economies. Such an apparatus would help facilitate urban development through local civic participation and cross-sector collaborations.

At a United Nations side meeting in April, Don Chen (Ford Foundation) said the open nature of the SDGs invites more opportunity for new stakeholders to get involved. Building capacity and accountability, both to which Ford is committed, will be increasingly essential for local organizations looking to collaborate across borders and oceans.

Gatherings like the AGAG conference in New York and the Council on Foundations’ conference in San Francisco have since sparked meaningful conversation on how foundations, associations and grantmakers might engage with the SDGs to help empower youth and underserved communities around the world.

A workshop earlier this year in Colombia opened a dialogue between the broad philanthropic community, national and local governments, the private sector, academia and civil society, to identify opportunities where philanthropy and private social investment can work together within the Post-2015 context. Upcoming events like the AGN Assembly in Arusha and Takaful in Abu Dhabi will connect civil society, social enterprise, governance and other themes with philanthropy in order to understand the role that donors, implementing organizations, and society at large might play in achieving success in the coming years.

CSOs collectively provide the basis for a framework for civic participation, and a distributed social media ecology that builds on cross-sector partnerships would help bring about a more connected and effective means of advocating for human rights, community development and the preservation of local cultures. Furthermore, metanetworks with diverse and far-reaching memberships could be ideal intermediaries for implementation, where member organizations come together across the “development divide” with innovations in knowledge sharing and capacity building.

If diffuse reciprocity represents the exchange of items of nonequivalent value, then distributed social technology is the best substrate for realizing a system in which every contribution, large and small, is recognized within a greater ecosystem of social reality and practice, and met with gratitude.

To achieve this, the social sector should consider a distributed model of communication that affords everyone a seat at the table.