The recent scandal with Facebook’s Trending Topics news module goes deeper than the revelation that it was humans all along hiding behind the algorithm. It should come as no surprise that Facebook has bias — every organization does. It’s what you do about the bias, how you attempt to disclose it and manage it, that makes a difference. News organizations have been grappling with that question for a long time, creating formal and informal codes of conduct, oversight systems and transparency rules.
Facebook Trending story: The Wizard of Oz algorithm
CNN, May 14, 2016
In reality algorithms have to run on actual servers, using code that sometimes breaks, crunching data that’s frequently unreliable. There is an implementation gap between what we imagine algorithms do in a perfect computational universe and all the compromises, assumptions, and workarounds that need to happen before the code actually works at scale. Computation has done all sorts of incredible things, sometimes appearing both easy and infallible. But it takes hundreds or thousands of servers working in tandem to do something as straightforward as answer a search engine query, and that is where the problems of implementation come in.
Slate, February 26, 2016
We spend an awful lot of time now thinking about what algorithms know about us: the ads we see online, the deep archive of our search history, the automated photo-tagging of our families. We don’t spend as much time asking what algorithms want. In some ways, it’s a ridiculous question, at least for now: Humans create computational systems to complete certain tasks or solve particular problems, so any kind of intention or agency would have to be built in, right?
Slate, December 9, 2015
Our digital breadcrumbs now tell stories about us that are deeply secret, moving, surprising—and often things we don’t even know about ourselves. These days when a computer crunches the numbers and tells you “this is who you are,” it’s hard to contradict because there’s more data about you in the machine than there is in your head. Algorithms are most effective at curating the information that’s hardest for us to hold in our heads: how long we talk to mom or what day of the week we splurge on an extra cookie.
What if Computers Know You Better Than You Know Yourself?, Slate March 3 2014
Newly released: American Dreamers, a collection of “dreams from optimists, inventors and mavericks with ideas for a brighter future.” My essay (online here) leads off the book with a look at the combustible, illuminating nature of good ideas and the unique optimism of the American Dream. It’s also a pretty good declaration of principles for what we are trying to accomplish at the Center for Science and the Imagination.
Last week saw the arrival of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, a wonderful collection of essays by Wallace critics, friends and colleagues. My piece in the collection, “Becoming Yourself: David Foster Wallace and the Afterlife of Reception,” considered Wallace’s legacy through his communities of readership on Amazon and I feel very lucky to be in such august company. For example, my essay is nestled between Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen!
Here’s the full list of contributors:
Samuel Cohen (co-editor)
Lee Konstantinou (co-editor)
Ira B. Nadel
Thanks very much to Lee and Sam for including me!
I had a chance to interview Scott Z. Burns, screenwriter for Contagion, The Bourne Ultimatum and The Informant (not to mention producer for An Inconvenient Truth) for Slate last week. We talked about his deft ability to smuggle real science into Hollywood movies, the difference between Contagion and Outbreak, and his new comedy about mirror neurons.
Another post up on Slate last week:
What should we expect from science fiction? In a recent Smithsonian article by IO9’s Annalee Newitz, author Neal Stephenson criticized the dystopian cynicism that currently pervades the genre. Instead he calls a more optimistic, realistic approach—fewer zombies and man’s folly-style catastrophes, more creative inventions and solutions. In the spirit of being constructive, he’s also taking action. The first step is an anthology of optimistic, near-term science fiction, forthcoming from William Morrow in 2014, that will tackle this challenge head-on. Smithsonian describes the project, Hieroglyph, as a plan “to rally writers to infuse science fiction with the kind of optimism that could inspire a new generation to, as he puts it, ‘get big stuff done.’”
Science fiction’s reputation for appealing to the nerdy and anti-social has long suggested that it has more to do with escapism than the real world.
Yet as Ridley Scott’s new Discovery Science show, Prophets of Science Fiction, chronicles, the genre deserves to be taken seriously for its ability to tease out the ethical and moral issues that accompany technological progress. Upon first hearing about Prophets, I expected the director of Alien and Blade Runner to get completely lost in space while discussing Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Philip K. Dick and how their work “foreshadowed” current technologies. Despite the name (we’ll get to that later), I am happy to report that Scott delivered this concept just as efficiently as he delivered that alien baby to the screen: The show successfully brings science fiction and fact into conversation with one another.
I’m very excited to announce that a version of my essay on David Foster Wallace has just been published online as the Stanford Literary Lab’s third pamphlet. Here’s the lead-in:
If there is one thing to be learned from David Foster Wallace, it is that cultural transmission is a tricky game. This was a problem Wallace confronted as a literary professional, a university-based writer during what Mark McGurl has called the Program Era. But it was also a philosophical issue he grappled with on a deep level as he struggled to combat his own loneliness through writing. To really study this question we need to look beyond the symbolic markets of prestige to the real market, the site of mass literary consumption, where authors succeed or fail based on their ability to speak to that most diverse and complicated of readerships: the general public. Unless we study what I call the social lives of books, we make the mistake of keeping literature in the same ascetic laboratory that Wallace tried to break out of with his intense authorial focus on popular culture, mass media, and everyday life.