Yesterday, I picked up the just released Collector’s Edition of Omni magazine, in which Ellen Datlow is the fiction editor. I grew up reading Omni and loved the articles, fiction, and art. It’s absolutely amazing to see the magazine on the shelves again. There really is nothing quite like it. The magazine has new fiction from Nancy Kress, Maureen McHugh, and Rich Larson. Plus an interview with William Gibson. And did I mention the art? It’s a stunning magazine. I’m so glad I snagged a copy before they’re all gone, because this magazine truly is a collector’s item.
Yesterday, I also picked up the final two issues of Victor LaValle’s Destroyer, the retelling/continuation of the Frankenstein story. What I’ve read so has been fantastic, and I’m super excited to read the conclusion. If you haven’t checked out Destroyer yet, I highly recommend it.
Lastly but not leastly, Bifrost, the French-language magazine, where my story “The Last Novelist” appears, arrived in my mailbox yesterday. It’s a beautiful glossy-covered magazine with fantastic art. For example, check out the incredible artwork for my story:
I am not a Millennial. I’m Generation X1. And don’t worry, this is not a “Get off my lawn!” post or “I walked to school uphill both ways in fifty feet of snow!” post either. I’m here to talk to you about manipulation. Specifically, the manipulation of You.
I was born in the mid-70s. My first computer was a TRS-80:
Tandy Radio Shack’s TRS-80
It had 4K of RAM. To understand how small that is, know that the image of the TRS-80 above is 128K or, 32 times more than the entire memory of the computer.
I took a few programming courses in the early 80s. This was an exceedingly rare thing to do in the 80s, especially for someone as young as me. (I thank my friend Jay L. for introducing me). I was about 8 or 9 and the class was (to my recollection) mostly 14-18 year olds. We programmed Commodore PETs and sometimes Apple IIs. This is what they looked like in all their green-screened 8-bit glory:
Commodore PET 4032
Back in the early 80s, this is what the Internet looked like:
The Internet, circa 1983
In other words, there was no Internet. Okay, there was ARPANET, and universities already had a basic working model of TCP/IP, but for the bulk of humanity, the Internet wasn’t even a gleam in their eye.
When you wanted to find out what was going on in the world, you consulted a newspaper:
New York Times 1983
Or the TV:
And lots of people got their news via the radio too. Things weren’t better then. They were just different.
This is what the Internet looks like today:
The Internet, 2017
It’s a planet-sized nuclear gigaton of overflowing exploding rainbows. Back when I started programming in 1983/4 there were maybe a few hundred Internet nodes in universities and the military. Today, that number 3.58 billion, and climbing. Note that there are approximately 7 billion humans on the planet, so that means nearly 50% are using the Internet.
When I went off to study Computer Science in college (go figure), the gospel you often heard in the department halls among starry-eyed freshman was that mass connectivity would bring out a new golden age in human communication. But there was always one pesky problem they didn’t consider. The signal to noise ratio.
“The Web will have a profound effect on the markets and the cultures around the world: intelligent agents will either stabilise or destabilise markets; the demise of distance will either homogenise or polarise cultures; the ability to access the Web will be either a great divider or a great equaliser; the path will either lead to jealousy and hatred or peace and understanding.”
—Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web
In any free and open medium, there exists the potential for abuse. Take for example email, which was originally developed as a way for university professors to communicate more easily. Who would have thought that by 2017 we’d be sending 269 billion emails per day and almost 50% of them would be spam. The only reason email is still a viable communication option is that our filtering systems have gotten so good at deciding what we don’t see.
Remember this point. I’ll be returning to it in a moment.
Today, when we get online, it’s a bit like being shot in the face with a firehose:
Getting online in 2017
There are massive streams of information forced into our eyes from, well, everywhere. With all that noise, it can be hard to determine what’s important and what to ignore.
I follow thousands of people on Twitter. I have a metric crap-ton of Facebook “friends.” I can’t possibly read all of their updates and posts. There isn’t enough time in the universe. So to prevent me from being sprayed with the firehose of information, social media sites curate what I see. Now, remember what I said about our filtering systems.
Via some hidden mechanism, I am shown only what the social media sites decide is relevant for me. To do this, they use Coca Cola and Pop Rocks and ancient black magic, and nineteen sacrificial goats, and unicorn fairy dust, and well — any and all of this could be true, because the truth is we have no idea how social media sites filter what we see.
This is what their filtering algorithm looks like:
Their filtering methods are a big black box that we can’t peer into. Oh, we’re given a few hints here and there as to what might get our posts and Tweets “seen” by more people. But the truth is, we don’t know how they are filtering what we see. And we don’t know what they are filtering.
The bottom line is, if you get most of your information about the world through social media (and any other “curated” sites) then someone else is deciding what’s best for you, i.e. they are manipulating you. You are giving someone else immense power to shape your opinions, often without you even realizing it’s happening.
You might not think you’re being manipulated. But you are. Every day.
As someone who has seen the world shift from no Internet, to billions of Internet users, I’ve witnessed this change. And it’s alarming, to say the least. You might counter that back in 1984 that the same thing was going on, that with only a few local newspapers, TV, and radio broadcasts, the narrative could be shaped just as easily. And you’d be right. There’s a reason why many social justice issues didn’t reach the light of day until the rise of the Internet. The media ignored them, and therefore so did most everyone else.
But what’s being hidden from you now? And what is being shown? Are you deciding what you see? Or are you letting someone else? Don’t mistake your glass-walled prison for freedom.
Our current era of modern connectivity gives us near unlimited power to communicate. But by narrowing our communication channels into increasingly fewer and more powerful companies, we are ceding control to entities who remain unaccountable to us. We have no reason to believe they have our best interests in mind, especially when they try to shape those same interests.
It would be a waste of energy to petition the companies to make their filtering algorithms public. A private company has a right to keep its algorithms proprietary. Instead, I believe the only viable solution is to willingly disengage ourselves from these mammoth, monolithic social media entities.2
1. I loathe the generalization of generations into neat little marketing pockets like “Millennial” and “Generation X”, but I got your attention now, didn’t I?
2. Some readers may note that I still use social media. This is true. And I’m trying to disengage from it. It isn’t easy. In the end, I plan to use social media only as a way to announce significant professional events in my life, and to share occasional bits of information I find useful. But I do not plan to use it as a primary information mechanism. I’d much rather use other methods of information gathering that are not opaquely filtered.
So: it sounds scary, teaching some mindless AI program to execute an ethical routine that coldly calculates who should live and who should die, like a digital Unetaneh Tokef. But it shouldn’t, because this is exactly the same thing we do with children. We impart our cultural values and morals onto our offspring, and we hope that when the time comes, they will make the same ethical choices we would.
Yes, the ethical sampling pool in the above article may have been self-selected, but isn’t it always true that, when imparting values onto children, the pool is small? Who imparts ethical values onto children? It’s the ones closest to them: their parents, their closest friends, their teachers. Maybe a few significant persons in the community such as a rabbi, priest, or friend. All they are doing differently with AI is transferring that ethical knowledge onto an algorithm, for quick access.
The other important thing to point out is that in the milliseconds of reaction time a human being has to decide how to react in an accident, they are not pondering a long Talmudic list of ethical dilemmas, so that they may decide on the best course of action. They are slamming on the breaks, they are swerving, and reacting primarily from instinct. Yes, that instinct can be affected by one’s morals, but in general an AI performing this ethical calculation can do so much faster and in much more depth than any human could. By imparting our ethical codes into a machine, we actually make the world more ethical (and safer) than if a human was behind the wheel.
Yes, my ethical code may not overlap 100% with yours, and probably doesn’t overlap much at all with someone from ISIS, but in any society, there is usually a strong general consensus about what is considered ethical behavior. So for example, cars in Italy should have ethical sampling from mainly Italians. Cars in Saudi Arabia, from Saudi Arabians. Etc. At the end of the day, these machines will just be extensions of us. There is no cold, brutal calculation here. These are ourvalues expanded into the world.
“This is a story of longing and of looking back. Of decline—in health, in life. And of finding something at the end of life that is unexpected but wonderful….It’s an inspiring and elegant story and a great read!”
—Charles Payseur, Quick Sip Reviews
In virtual reality, she builds fantastic digital worlds for high-paying clients. In real life, she has a severe form of muscular dystrophy that keeps her chained to a wheelchair. But not for long. Ashey, her VR agent and rogue AI, has big plans for her. Ashey has big plans for everyone. But she’s slowly dying and Ashey’s hunted across the net. If only they can survive long enough to see their plans through.
“This is a haunting and slowly-unraveling story about ghosts and harm, hopes and waiting…It’s a difficult and heavy story that manages a palpable darkness and a stunning ending. A great read!” — Charles Payseur at Quick Sip Reviews.
In Memory of a Summer’s Day
Mad Hatters and March Hares, the Alice in Wonderland-themed anthology by Ellen Datlow is just out. It contains my story “In Memory of a Summer’s Day,” and also has work by Seanan McGuire, Catherynne M. Valente, Stephen Graham Jones, Genevieve Valentine, Rick Bowes, Kris Dikeman, and many others.
In addition to writing science fiction & fantasy, I maintain a living by working as a freelance developer, system administrator, and graphic designer. If you need a new website, IT services for your business, or a graphic designer, I’m your man.
More info about my services can be found at my business site, Sunray Computer.