Algorithms, Confidence, and Infrastructure

Every so often the Oxford English Dictionary adds new words. It adds them to its online dictionary with far more frequency than its physical tome, given that a physical dictionary is quite a bit more difficult to update. It [released a list of new words yesterday](broken link removed), and while a few are new words entirely (bikeable) others are new definitions of familiar words. The “tumblr definition” of ship is recognized (and [boy is the tumblr community excited about it](broken link removed)) and a definition of thing that accounts for the phrase “is that a thing?”

Daniel Temkin put together an Internet Directory with a scrolling and searchable list of all registered domains with a top level domain name ending in .com

Ted Striphas was interviewed about the effects of algorithms (such as the ones that define the order of google search results, or what shows up in your facebook newsfeed) on culture. As he puts it, “The issue may come down to how comfortable people are with these systems drilling down into our daily lives, and even becoming extensions of our bodies.”

Quinn Norton wrote a short story called Agency about a future where algorithms and and machine learning are fully ingrained into our lives, for better or for worse.

The European court of justice recently ruled that a man had the right to request that Google remove “personal material” that appeared prominently in the search results one got if you googled his name. Many are saying that this entitles users across the globe to “the right to be forgotten”, but as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age) points out in an article for The Guardian:

“Such a deletion right has existed for 20 years, and very few of us have used it. There is little reason to believe that will change. Moreover, search engines don’t have to redesign themselves to comply. Google is already handling millions of deletion requests for copyright violations every month, so even a couple of hundred insisting individuals won’t make much of a difference.”

Natasha Lennard has more detail about the overall ruling in her Vice News piece, taking care to detail why the ability to control search results about yourself is valuable:

“Online lives are both accumulative and static. We seemingly leave the past behind us with the possibility of self-renewal and reformation. But online, many sets of online selves coexist contemporaneously and all at once.”

The website has an entrancing visualization of colors falling into one another, which, with the sound on, makes you realize how much hearing is tied to visual perception.

A few weeks ago The Atlantic published a long article about the confidence gap between men and women (which I have to admit, I didn’t read). What I did read was a bunch of response pieces or pieces revolving around the confidence of women. The perception of women has a lot to do with their confidence level, and how displayed confidence is perceived (something Jill Abramson, former editor of the New York Times, may have realized with her abrupt termination).

Writer Hila Shachar blogged about the different gender perceptions of seriousness, as part of a larger essay on being nice as a feminist:

“When men are serious, it’s sexy; it implies a commanding personality, someone who’s in control, someone with a backbone. When women are serious, they are bitches or unattractive, humourless hags, in need of sprucing up and “feminising”. How many times have I heard some of the cleverest women I know being called “feminist bitches” simply because they don’t conform to the “nice” girl image? Or, simply because they ask difficult questions and expect serious answers.”

Laurie Penny writes about how confidence and gender plays out on the Internet (shirtless torso at the top of the article, potentially nsfw) and how violence toward women affects their ability to be confident and “good”:

“Gendered violence, and the threat of gendered violence, has always about scaring women into submission. It’s a warning: Reach too high, walk too tall and bad things will happen to you. We are raised on tales of what happens to little girls who stay up past their bedtime, who go out alone, who read dangerous books and meet dangerous people and think dangerous thoughts. Good girls shouldn’t. Good girls don’t.”

Lastly, Ellen Chisa wrote about her own confidence issues, which manifested as a drive to “be excellent enough” in order to succeed (before realizing that her gender was holding her back):

“No one else thought there was a problem? Maybe there wasn’t a problem. Maybe I wasn’t as excellent as I thought. I was working as hard as possible, but it still seemed like something else was going on. Maybe I was afraid I couldn’t cut it, so I was inventing sexism that didn’t exist? So I decided I’d just try harder. Lean in. Be excellent.”

All the essays are worth reading, but the last one spoke to me the most.

The Daily Overview email newsletter (and website/instagram feed) provides a daily dose of gorgeous overhead view of a location. I’m a recent subscriber, and it’s great to take a moment in the clutter of the rest of the email to enjoy seeing a sliver of the world from a different perspective.

Perspective is important when examining the world we live in. Our worlds are engineered now more than they perhaps ever have been, with infrastructure and products supplying, surrounding, and supporting our lives. Julian Oliver wrote a Critical Engineering Manifesto about the effect that this engineering of everything has on how we interact with our world. Sam Hart interviewed him for VVVNT and it really is fascinating:

“So much of our environment is engineered: How we eat, how we move, how we remember, how we communicate are all tangibly and deeply affected (at least in the west), by engineered infrastructure, engineered principles, concepts, and ideas. So it follows, to not engage engineering on its own terms, or even have a basic vocabularic interface with it, is to be condemned or to limit your ability to become an actor and have a transformative effect.”

With such an engineered world, it’s perhaps almost expected that some things will be engineered with a bias. That bias, as often is the case, can be gender- or sex-based. Laurie Penny’s earlier article asks “Is the Internet Intrinsically Sexist?” due to the amount of violence endured by women online. Laura Mandanas writes for Autostraddle about whether or not inanimate objects can be sexist (spoilers, yes they can):

“Although women have been riding in automobiles for about as long as they’ve existed, car safety features have historically been designed and optimized for male-assigned bodies only.”

And now that you’re afraid of riding in your car (or afraid for your friends), you can be concerned about the effects of something uncommon now that could be more common in the future–virtual reality. danah boyd’s experience with Oculus Rift (the virtual reality headset recently bought by Facebook) made her throw up, and she wanted to figure out why. In a blog post expanding on a Quartz article, she goes into great detail on some research that she was involved with about the effect of sex hormones (such as androgen) on visual perception and spatial processing, and which kinds were emphasized by the brain depending on your biological chemistry. For those who questioned whether an object could be sexist, she clarifies:

“Sexism is prejudice or discrimination on the basis of sex (typically against women). For sexism to exist, there does not need to be an actor intending to discriminate. People, systems, and organizations can operate in sexist manners without realizing it. This is the basis of implicit or hidden biases. Addressing sexism starts by recognizing bias within systems and discrimination as a product of systems in society.”

Chvrches is a great band with some great songs. One of those songs is called The Mother We Share.

Wild Cub is another great band with great songs. They covered Chvrches’ song The Mother We Shared. It came out great (predictably). Give it a listen.

Thanks for reading!