Dr Strangebug

This post might be a little disjointed, and I confess I may not be entirely consistent yet in the way I think about this subject.

With the blossoming of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal — something I thought revealed almost nothing new outside of its fact pattern, but maybe I don’t track this stuff closely enough — many tech giants, especially those who generate user profiles to sell stuff, have had their market caps mulched with over $250B in value decomposing in the two weeks since the scandal broke. I shed no tears.

While I’m borderline happy that many of these companies are getting a haircut, my reasons might be slightly heterodox. The outrages of the scandal seemed to cascade like so:

  1. This sleazy Facebook analytics firm helped Trump win the Presidency by doing something unethical!
  2. Wait, Facebook let’s others do this, and they share 98 bits of data about me!
  3. Wait, lots of companies have data about me and are using it to profile me to sell ads and manipulate me!

None of this bothers me that much and here are my reasons.

It Helped Trump Win

This outrage I dismiss with a brief glance. All of the raging outrage and foaming of the mouth about Russian trolls, manipulative analytics firms, collusion, and more is just not believable to me. First, I find it deeply implausible that this type of social media interaction is especially effective. Just because somebody liked, read, or shared something doesn’t mean they actually did anything in the real world or had their mind changed.  Second, to believe this targeted advertising/social media is so effective is very uncharitable towards my fellow Americans. My thinking is more in line with Ann Althouse:

Can anyone explain why there is so much fear of targeted political advertising? If it’s as dangerous as they act like they think then people are so weak-minded that democracy should be broken and we might as well let the machines take over.

It seems a lot of people, especially those chaffed by Trump’s win, think that online targeting during the 2018 election cycle was hyper-effective and persuasive even with paltry ad buys and rudimentary bot accounts. I’m skeptical, but if I’m wrong, then the Russians are the best social media wizards EVAR. I think it’s more likely the outrage directed at Facebook is because Democrats are searching desperately for a scapegoat to blame for Trump’s win. They grasp at any reason except the possibility they nominated one of the worst candidates in modern political history and maybe the only person who could lose to Trump.

Facebook Has Lots of Data and Gives It to Others for Targeting

Disclosure: I deleted Facebook in October 2011. My life has been fine for the 2700+ days since then. You should delete your Facebook account immediately.

In regards to the first clause:

I’m not very sympathetic to people who are suddenly outraged with the revelation Facebook shares lots of data about them. Dupes Users freely feed vasts amount of data into Facebook and are almost certainly the primary source of most of this information. Another large chunk of the data can probably reliably deduced from the provided data. Furthermore, the list of supposed data points used for ad targeting is so pedestrian I almost laughed when I read through it. The majority of it I would bet most people would divulge in a casual conversation with any stranger. So why do people care so much this is shared out?

Facebook also works with third parties to hoover up even more data that users didn’t disclose to them directly. I would agree that this is not transparent to most Facebook users and not a good thing. But, then again, Facebook’s users are its product, and what’s so wrong with it finding out more about its products? Unless it does this illegally, I struggle to get my dander up.

In regards to the second clause:

Here I agree with the prevailing opinion. It’s not that Facebook shares this data with other companies to target users — duh! — it’s how the data is shared. In the case at hand, the problem is Facebook allowed users to unilaterally opt to have their friends‘ information shared to the third party. What a stupid, awful, exploitative policy! I’m still blown away Facebook allowed this to happen. . .except not that blown away. Yes, this policy is awful, but, c’mon, is it really that surprising? In my mind Mark Zuckerberg is arguably the least trustworthy tech titan today. I mean just watch the guy squirm when asked about privacy!

Have you deleted Facebook yet?

The Panopticon is Watching

Now the scope of the outrage has moved beyond Facebook. Okay, this is something more relevant to Facebook-free me. But I’m still not bothered by this that much.

First, in my experience, those who are trying to build a profile of me seem to be really bad at it. Apparently I am not alone. Proof of this is how universally awful recommendations/suggestions are. My favorite example of this is Instagram (unfortunately a Facebook property. . .I did confess prior I may not be consistent) thinks I’m very interested in the NBA. I hate basketball. It is easily my least favorite pro sport, and Instagram is unrelenting in its recommendations of basketball content to me. Other recommendation engines by supposedly Top Tier Recommenders such Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter are all pathetically, outrageously bad. I would say 95% or more of all recommendations are irrelevant. These are companies spending billions and billions of dollars with thousands of geniuses toiling to make recommendations worthy of a single click. I don’t get mad that they’re trying to build a profile of me. I get mad because they are squandering so much wealth and talent and my profiles are still utter garbage! How excruciatingly embarrassing! So many resources on something so useless! I will confess YouTube’s recommendations are kinda, sorta, maybe okayish occasionally from time to time. If everybody else’s recommendations were a F+/D-, then YouTube’s would be maybe a D/D+.

Second, maybe I should cut these guys some slack. After all I’m not playing very fair since I use both an ad blocker and a tracker blocker — you should too! — for all desktop browsing. But what does that say about these big, powerful, far-gazing, unblinking Eyes of Sauron? If these multi-billion dollar behemoths can be defeated with a couple of free browser extensions, it’s hard for me to feel threatened by their info-mongering ways. Maybe it is the case that their systems are so fragile it takes only the slightest effort to befuddle their conception of who I am and what even my shallowest desires are.

Third, maybe I’m naive, but I still believe users can easily and effectively opt-out of most profiling. They can at least opt-out to a degree that either their profiles are uselessly shoddy or the algorithms can’t make sense of their profiles. Perhaps I’m inconsistent here, but I live my online life largely based on the assumption that I’m wrong about the prior two points. So, I try to follow two guidelines: (1) give out as little information as possible and (2) don’t let any one company see a whole picture. I deleted my Facebook account. I turned off most permissions for Instagram’s app. I don’t use Twitter’s official app. I’m steering more shopping away from Amazon. I don’t use Google Search on the desktop (Bing is just fine). I’m switching more mobile browsing to Firefox Focus. I reject all requests for location. I use an ad blocker. I use a tracker blocker. I use private browsing most times when I leave my normal lane of the Information Superhighway. I treat all of these guys as my frenemies.

Maybe all the above effort is in vain. Maybe Big Tech still knows me down to my bones. Maybe these ludicrous recommendations are just their way to lull me into complacency.  Maybe.

Maybe I love Big Tech.


Putting on the thinking cap and removing the blinders

To read something like this gives me joy and hope for our political process. A self-described “brain-dead liberal” confesses his change in views, embracing a less polemical view of the world (and I’d say much more realistic). It is refreshing, honest, and thought-provoking. Even though I’m sure the author and I would disagree on many things, at least we’d both agree that everything is not “magically wrong” and the government is often not the answer. I especially appreciated his last point. The people we meet in our every day lives, regardless of political persuasions, are the ones with whom we live and on who we depend. Happy election season indeed!

Devil Driver?

Those who know me are keenly aware of my opinion of Washington drivers. Those who’ve ridden with me are keenly aware of how I drive.

I have a growing concern about the person whom I become when I get behind the wheel of my truck. All the virtues I attempt to cling to and live out in my life get left in the parking lot: patience, selflessness, forgiveness, mercy, and charity for my fellow man. I don’t know what happens, but it’s some type of Hyde-ian transformation into a foul-mouthed heathen hurtling down the highway. It mystifies me how I can make this radical change with barely a conscious thought. I’d like to think the explanation — notice I did not say excuse — is because of my perception that the collective Washington Driver is a failure at being a confident and competent driver. It is very frustrating for me, and to face this collective failure twice a day Monday through Friday may have taken its toll.

But I still want a fast car to drive

But our brown dirt is better!

Happy Fourth of July!

As we Americans celebrate our country’s independence and history, it’s good to keep certain things in mind. Douglas Wilson at his blog has some wise words about American exceptionalism:

Advocates of the new global neo-conservatism have been pressing heavily on what they call American exceptionalism. There is a trick here, so I want everyone to follow closely. I agree that America’s founders were exceptional men, and they established our form of government on an exceptional document, unlike anything in the history of the world up to that point. So I do believe in a form of American exceptionalism.

But what was exceptional about it? Here is the trick. They knew that Americans were not in the slightest bit exceptional. That’s exceptional. A patriotic pride in your nation being the apex of whatever it is we are doing on this planet — a belief that “we” (whoever “we” might be) are somehow unique — is as ordinary as brown dirt.

Calling yourself exceptional isn’t. Recognizing that we are mortal men just like other mortal men, and that we are vulnerable to all the same temptations, is rare. Boasting in American achievements barely manages to clear that Ozymandian low bar — it is the kind of ordinary hubris nailed in a poem that was written before we defeated the Nazis, landed on the moon, built the space shuttle, and started selling iPhones that could serve as navigation systems for the space shuttle — and when we invite mighty observers to look on our works and despair, we are acting like pretty much everybody else in the history of the world.

Humbling words, especially for somebody like me. America may have accomplished many great things in this world, but it’s not because we are exceptional. And we are not destined to greater things just because we are Americans. Our treacherous path at the top of the world is just as dangerous as it has been for all nations who’ve risen and fallen in centuries past.

What not to do while imparting wisdom

I’ve had a lot of profound thoughts in the past few weeks, but the profoundest of which is this: I can’t take anybody seriously while they’re picking up dog poop. I don’t care if it’s Ghandi telling me the surefire way to bring about world peace, if he’s got a little plastic baggy over his hand and he’s picking up his dog’s feces at the same time I’m just gonna cock an eyebrow and give him an incredulous look.

of Hitler and Christ

I saw this thought-provoking quote over at “Catholic and Enjoying It!”:

C.S. Lewis remarks somewhere about a pastor he knew who once saw Hitler in the flesh. Lewis asked him what he looked like.

The pastor replied, “Like all men. Like Christ.”

Shea is right: we do desperately want to believe evil and monstrous men are a different species from us. But they aren’t. They’re like us. They’re like me.

I think I’ve been struggling with this idea for quite sometime. It was never as focused or as vividly stated as in the episode above, but the general idea has been there. The question I’ve been thinking about for months now is, “What are we to do with these monsters?” I know what my gut reaction is, but I’m worried that my gut reaction might be horribly wrong and sinfully bereft of mercy. Is the answer really as simple as I want to think and hope it is? Most of the time I believe it is, but I’m also aware that these people share my humanity. Yet they are people who have been cursed with the will, opportunity, and power to commit atrocious acts against other human beings. How then are we to deal with them? How then am I to respond to them? I wish I had a black and white answer, but through my sin-scaled eyes all I see is gray.

A bit more on civic laziness

I was expecting my last post about the election would generate more comments, particularly comments of the tsk-tsk variety. I’m flattered more people have commented about my personality than my confession of civic apathy. However, there has been some discussion in the background via electronic correspondence with Greg and Jeremiah. Apparently, none of us voted, and we all feel pretty much the same way. I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that all of us young, hawkish white males who tend to be conservative didn’t vote. My guess is there’s not a coincidence. We three form a very loose-knit blog gang, and we all drink the same koolaide.

Jeremiah’s thoughts on the election can be found here. I’m not sure how I missed this post earlier. I think it was because I saw the word “pluto,” and I thought he was talking about boring dwarf planets again so I ignored the post. Jeremiah is turned off by politics because it is “disturbingly slimy,” which is a fair assessment. The dirtiness of politics does bother me, but that’s not what turns me off to politics these days. As I mentioned in my previous post on the election, what causes me to not care is it seems pointless. The two ruling parties are evenly pitted enough they balance each other out in our adversarial system of politics. So, policies coming out of Washington are never really going to do much to swing us far to the right or the left. Just some times the government will tilt left and sometimes it will tilt right. Perhaps this is a good thing, perhaps it is not. Nobody is happy with the current status quo, but neither half our country can agree on how to change the status quo. As long as the political tug-of-war is such, I don’t feel it’s that necessary to add my little bit of electoral strength to my preferred side. This is especially the case when choosing our representatives is less of a choice between the lesser of two evils and more of an arbitrary choice between two equal evils.

One of Jeremiah’s commenters pointed out that he (and by extension, me) could have at least voted on propositions. These aren’t a choice between two compromised and compromising individuals, but a choice that decides a policy that immediately affects me (usually). I confess I feel a bit guilty for not learning about and voting on the propositions on the ballot this year. Though, I’m still not convinced my vote would make the slightest difference in the outcome considering the blueness of where I live.

At any rate, the country still stands, hale and hoary, without my input.