tech industry woes part 5: the dangers of tech without restraint and also why we all need a little tech education

ok this is my last post reflecting on anil dash’s interview on on being.

at the bottom of this post is the section of the transcript that my thinking is based on.

there are two points that anil makes in this section of the show that stuck with me. first, technologists, without ethical training (which is most of them), can and will do things that seem interesting regardless of the consequences. the example he gives is about a “live updating” polling meter on the new york times’ home page on election night 2016. the page presented little needles that swayed back and forth, giving out the message that it was a live update of votes as they came in. when anil looked at the code, he (and anyone else with programming knowledge) could see that the dataset updated at most a few times per minute. so this little addition of animation essentially made the visualization false.

and what was the impact of that? anil believes that the amount of stress that created for site visitors was pretty significant and also unnecessary. this, to anil’s suggestion and my explicit claim, is unethical.

consequently, the second point that stuck with me was that our education systems needs to train us to be able to look under the hood of things that shape our lives. tech for youngsters seems like a requirement these days. i think it would also be good for the general population to get training (popular education style?) about how web development and web applications work given that they’re taking over our lives and society.

as i’m writing this i guess a last point is that we should always remember that all things are based in some real physical system. tech companies (driven by capitalism) like to create “magic” by invisibilizing the clunky parts of systems. by bringing things to your door, delivery services mask the massive physical and people infrastructure needed to support it. by putting your chicken breasts in bags in the freezer aisle, grocery stores mask the fact that a real live chicken lived somewhere (probably in terrible conditions) and was killed in the process of creating those breasts. wendell berry has a lot to say about how and why this is problematic for the scaling of our society and community in his book of essays sex, economy, freedom, and community. definitely a good read.

yikes. i’m over time! gotta go!

relevant quote from the transcript

MR. DASH: …I bet a lot of you saw on election night, on The New York Times homepage, their animated, live, real-time data. They had these needles waving back and forth on the meter, which I think is probably the single most stressful implementation of technology I’ve ever seen in my life.


MR. DASH: And what it was — and I always think of this — actually, with systems thinking in general, in any institution, I always try to imagine the meeting — back track a few months, a few weeks to the whiteboard meeting, and a bunch of people with empty coffee cups sitting around sketching out what this thing is going to be. And somebody says — and it’s probably a young guy, and he’s probably a computer science grad — and he says, “You know, we can get the data in real time. We can get polling data, and we can put it on the homepage. And it’ll be incredibly compelling.”

And if you look at the page that made up that New York Times homepage while they were doing that chart on election night — and there were these wild swings of the needle for a long while. For hours, it was literally swinging back and forth between Clinton and Trump in “real time,” what they called “real time.”

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

MR. DASH: And if you look at the code of the page, that was all fake. The data only updated, at most, a few times a minute. The needle never stopped moving. But I could see that. And what percentage of people that went to that page that night could see that? Maybe one percent, maximum. And it was so — one, it was causing undue stress to a lot of people. Two, it was, as danah said, making spectacle of data explicitly. And the animation was not true. It was not real.

And so what does it mean that there was a choice to put something false on their homepage when they are trying to decry all the falsity? And would they have allowed falsity from any other public-facing part of their organization except the technologists?

writing spell-check, link-finding, & formatting
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