Working Papers

This is a place where I share some ideas I am thinking about, and welcome feedback.

working paper 003

Disclosure: I'm on the board at Chi Hack Night, and participated in a Q&A with representatives from two of the organizations referenced. You can find those talks below:

City Bureau: https://youtu.be/1-qQNWvknWw

Election SOS: https://youtu.be/8KCE9kESrQA

The pandemic has enforced a change in the way we learn. Many of us have to learn about a lot of things in a short period of time. We often have to learn in stressful, sometimes severely constrained environments. 

 

Necessity is the mother of invention as the saying goes —or the related: constraints breed creativity. 

 

Of course, we had to learn about what was going on in our rapidly change world as the pandemic began. We had to learn about the virus, about pandemics. We learned about the importance of “flattening the curve”; and what exactly this meant. In fact, the “flattening the curve” graphic endures as one of the defining artifacts of the era; a reflection too of the power of collaborative intelligence. Yet, of course, some lessons we are still learning.

 

A lot of systems have failed or at least faltered. This has been particularly true of those with a focus on an unduly individual conception of self and liberty, those which hold things in terms of uncritical absolutes, beyond their domain of applicability. The t___p administration was a veritable cluster()__k, a seemingly apt term to describe the White House during certain parts of the reign. The problems of our information ecosystem have been laid bare and intensified; their unwisdom magnified.

 

People had to make do with the lemons of circumstance. With an administration wholly inept and incapable of providing, people had to step up to bridge the gaps. This wasn’t about individualism but around mutual responsibility and shared ability. 

 

We saw groups of people banding together to address common needs.

And we also saw groups of groups banding together to coordinate more complex responses to a range of issues. 

 

A much reported on example were the various mutual aid networks, a number of which sprang up here in Chicago. And some also in Texas during the freeze. Often these groups successfully supply services, supports, and information like groceries to elders, help make vaccine appointments or help pick up food. Like any coordinate effort of many people, there were challenges. These efforts were not without their shortcomings and oversights. But they got the job done well enough to help people adapt and survive. 

 

Another example was City Bureaus’ Covid Resource Dashboard. This was a remarkably successful effort to supply Chicagoans from all walks of life the resources they needed on a range of fronts to weather the storm.

 

There are a number of lessons to be learned from this example. First, City Bureau started with a “were here, what do you need” approach early on. They started with feedback. And they waited to target their response until there was a clear opportunity to help. 

 

They reached out to their audience, and listened to their needs. In the process they discovered that early in the pandemic response there was not a clear space to get involved …yet. Non-action can be a meaningful action.

 

Rather than reinventing the wheel they drew substantially from existing projects. Referenced projects included Gov Book, a Chi Hack Night  re-entry project and a related DataMade project. City Bureau also used CPS language data to guide their translation endeavor. 

 

City Bureau focused their research on “how would you use this” noting that “we want to make sure this supports the way you're currently doing things”. Categories came from things people were asking them about. This demonstrated that they were not just listening, but also using what they learned to inform their strategy.

 

They also emphasized the importance of keeping information up to date regarding credibility and usability. They devoted full time staff to research, vetting, and more.

 

City Bureau’s use of Airtable as a tool to avoid bottlenecks is a classic example of hacking in the sort of civic lore sense; making use of a general purpose tool to work for a particular, highly contextualized purpose. It represents a type of practicality tailored to a specific use case; a form of praxis.

 

City Bureau made sure the site could be lightweight for users where data and network access is a clear constraint. It is mobile first. Another constraint: they had to run the site at a low cost with limited maintenance commitments. 

 

They used the power of the crowd to translate the resource dashboard into multiple languages, demonstrating a dedication to access and quick on their feet thinking.

 

City Bureau's community efforts were so successful the City placed them on their covid resources page. City Bureau thus continues to exemplify the need and opportunity of local journalism.

 

Election SOS was another successful effort during the ongoing covid times. Theirs was an effort to prepare journalists for the many challenges that would be faced on election day. They sought to serve as a hub of information related to anticipated concerns covering what would ultimately be a fraught election fallout. 

 

The prudence of Election SOS decisively served to better prepare newsrooms for predictable, even if unlikely scenarios. There were some who thought this overkill at the time, or undue alarmism. Those people were wrong. Election SOS’s approach is an example of thinking about risk in a fundamentally different way that the prevailing popular view and offers instructive lessons. This is where Taleb is most helpful in his insistence that risk management is about survival where science is in essence, about moving closer to the truth (usual caveats). There is a serious risk in confusing the two.

“Supporting journalists responding to critical election needs” is the phrase, and Election SOS did just that. They were responding to a changing election landscape, where the “old playbook hasn’t been working” in newsrooms. 

 

They focused heavily on training for approaches to election coverage, training for threat response, and providing access to a network of related sources.

 

Election SOS worked collaboratively to “bring content to newsrooms” for election preparedness. They made a call for helpful resources, and people responded. In sharing these resources they recognized the importance of making the broader resource as “curated and useful as possible”. 

 

Election SOS helped cultivate institutional capacity and coordination of approach across their field of work. It was decisively proactive, anticipating a known and emerging risk and responding accordingly. 

 

They used a range of multimedia, worked collaboratively, and provided coverage across the country. Particularly marked was their astute understanding of information needs of the public, as they asked “what do they not know?”. This relates to the old notion in education of starting where people are at, or the Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development”.

 

Election SOS’s mobilization successfully got the word out. In leveraging their organizational networks and unique expertise they were able to substantially contribute to election efforts.

 

The Center for Tech and Civic life was another organization that successfully adapted to dire election infrastructure challenges. They get an honorable mention here. In absence of the resources needed to fully prepare election officials at the state and local levels; they accepted a donation from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative that would allow them to multiply their already existing efforts to buttress election infrastructure in a decisive way. You can learn more about their work on their website.

These three organizational efforts offer a small example of the ways learning has evolved in this time. Only time will tell if such breakthrough innovations will coalescence into an emergent revolution in the way we learn. Such things are better determined in hindsight.  

 

Each of the above examples offer valuable lessons as to how we learn in the 21st century. They are suggestive that Chicago will continue to be an epicenter of learning innovation. These examples drew from what worked; starting where the world was at, and maintaining what worked well. They innovated in key dimensions of work within their respective fields, while coordinating their efforts with the broader ecosystem in which they exist, and communicating insights as they were realized. They expertly blended theory and practice. They recognized that merely pooling resources was not enough, but rather their coordinated deployment was crucial. These projects were open to suggestion, feedback and insight, and they incorporated these contributions into their respective strategies. Crucially, they were not experts in every one of the domains in which they were operating or drawing from, but rather found people who were and synthesized their insights to be relevant within the context of their particular endeavors. 

 

At the frontier of their respective fields, facing severe constraints and uncertainty, and ample demand, these organizations performed in stellar fashion to contribute to improvements in American civic life. They have also taught me a lot about how learning works in the 21st century. 

working paper 002

Some Dark Patterns are more financially costly to an individual. For example, consider a major e-commerce platform that uses ML to determine when a consumer is most likely to be susceptible to accepting a deal. They might place a small discount on a product that may not otherwise be bought. Now, the total amount the consumer may spend, by way of such Dark Patterns, can compound over time. This is a form of edging and warrants serious ethical consideration. 

Adding additional friction--making it harder for consumers--to remove an item from a shopping cart is another example of a financial toll paid by consumers by way of Dark Patterns.

The psychological toll, however can be worse. Consider industry standard recommendation algorithms for tech platforms. Is it ethical for them to recommend a video on a sensitive subject to a user who has experienced a trauma related to the subject? The recommendation is made to drive user behavior in financially beneficial ways; but at what cost? 

There are examples across American history which offer examples of how to raise public awareness on key consumer issues. Tobacco in particular, seat belts, and others. Companies share responsibility for helping consumers understand products which can harm them even if used *as intended*. But we need to better fortify third party auditors as well, along with the research needed to audit well. Most people do not understand how a basic social media feed works; yet this is one of the most influential product features on human cognition in this time. That's quite stark. 

Trade groups should work to help the public learn about pernicious patterns they are sure to encounter on the web. Universities--just like their freshman orientations to the library services--should help students learn their way around internet products and tools.

Product professionals should be required to obtain certification and ethical standard credentialing --like medical professionals or other fields-- for products that server over 1M consumers; or something of the sort as an industry standard for ethical design. This could include oaths, or other known ways of promoting professional ethical standards.

For features that rely heavily on algorithmic computation, if they meet one or several of Cathy O'Neil's criteria of being 'important' 'secret' and 'destructive' <source: 'When Not to Trust the Algorithm, HBR'>, they should warrant additional consumer safety precautions. For example, 'how does this app shuffle my songs algorithmically' is a question consumers should have answers to. Company engineering blogs often publish some such information. But the consumer shouldn't be expected to hunt that information down ...who has the time or attention? Even if a proprietary algorithm must be shielded, a consumer should at least be able to know if they algorithm is actively adversarial --that is, if the algorithm is actively working to make them stay on the product in an addictive, compulsive, thoughtless, or otherwise harmful manner. We let people know that using cigarettes might actively harm them. 

There should also be serious consideration of improving research methods regarding dark patterns, personalization, recommendation algorithms and their effects on consumers. This is a strategic national security consideration (given we know these features are exploited by our adversaries). It is also ethically responsible and economically wise. Right now, its easy for companies to point to or generate research which has the appearance of rigor, but is so desperately contingent or methodologically flawed that proper inference becomes quite beyond reach. There are SO many intervening variables, intervening factors, in considering, for instance, complex network dynamics embed in real world & digital environments. Too often exaggerated claims aiming to dispel concerns about harm (or their lack, extremity, etc) are dubiously employed.

We might consider putting those little information icons above features which are Dark Pattern dejure or de facto.

working paper 001

this is a draft at an attempt to reflect upon the past few days

 

 

 

The American idea remains important to the world.

 

This warrants explicit statement as we chart the path ahead.

 

Our world is in a time of astonishing crisis. 

 

Where once fears, doubts and anxieties would swell and relent as a tide, they have now poured over our shores and settled upon latent coast; a steep here to stay it should seem. 

 

A world in crisis is learning that leadership will look different in the age upon us. 

 

‘GZero: A world where no country or group of countries can meet the global challenges of our time.’

 

* * *

America is in fact, and shall endure as a nation of immigrants. We are people from myriad cultures who have actually developed some fairly robust ways of getting along in demonstrable circumstance.

 

And while things have broken down to disastrous and tragic tenor, much significant infrastructure remains as capable—and even more compelled to act—as ever. 

 

And though it is tempting to here account for that major set of possibilities by giving name to those pillars of civic society, it is not a wise use of my time.

 

What I share instead is that my father is an immigrant. 

 

I am a descendent of people from Spain and indigenous America and elsewhere. 

 

I am a Texan in Chicago. A Chicagoan in America.

 

My existence is premised on the possibility of confluence cultures.

 

And to be sure: at times it has been a torrent trying to reconcile or otherwise navigate the harsh and unrelenting complexity of identity and personship in America. With ups and downs as varied as our vast amber-waves terrain.

 

I am part of a diaspora whose numbers shall only rise in proportion in the coming years. That is: people with backgrounds of many cultures, broadly conceived. [In actuality we are all people. I tend to agree with Tocqueville that Equality shall quell the most spasmodic quivers of Freedom’s imprudent, yet wholly dependent, exigencies. That is, something like: Equality is fertile soil for Freedom whereas Freedom affords no such ground and is, rather, a logically dependent and inherently constrained idea.

 

Americans know how to work with people who are not like them as a course of civic practice so indelible to the American spirit as to be nearly sacrosanct as a guiding premise of affairs. 

 

But that work can be hard. And somtimes that work fails. 

 

Let us however be sure we do not confuse armed, violent— if even bumbling brutishly and incompetently exercised—insurrection with failing to ‘work with other people’. 

 

Dvořák, in a way, in his time understood that an American cloth would have to be braided—and increasingly woven—with the entrenched stain of cruel epchocal legacies (my words)—-as a story of immigrants, indigenous people, and a special category of black person; all of whose plights would evolve as they intertwined in tensile transition. The resultant dye is dark but reveals glints of all possible spectrums of color, and the possibility of its absence, in its reveal. 

 

We will have to constantly renew our understanding and appreciation of this American sensibility. 

 

Despite the compounding unspeakable atrocities that allowed us to the present occasion, we recover the realization that in a most cruel of ironies, traits of this cloth are a feature not a bug; an abidingly obvious testament recurrently found in the annals of American and international canon. This fact prevails even amid our foibles, follies and failures. 

 

We are tasked with the obvious yet abysmally fraught challenge of fashioning something capable of our inherited frontiers. 

 

In fact Americans for better and ill have always been shaped by the frontier even as our cities at their best stand as archetypal beacons [basins?] of cultural possibility and meaning. 

 

Our wars. The undaunted trails and unmitigated disasters of some of our explorations. The characteristic ingenuity, creativity, and adaptive elasticity of the American idea.

 

The American idea as an evolving and essential premise of the possibility of people in common on planet earth, is a force of nature—if even in spirit—in its own attestation. 

 

[It is an idea beyond characterization.]

 

And shall remain so, provided we are ready for what that entails. 

 

We are in the process of fashioning an American way of life which allows us to address the multitude of challenges of our time.  

 

We have to because the alternative is untenable and worse. 

 

We have to because, in part we are called to honor contributions of so very many people before us, especially for the people among our people in whose traces we follow. 

 

We have to because this possibility of the American Spirit and way of life is vital for the success of the world in facing the challenges ahead. Every nation is vested in the American idea whether they want to be or not; as is so often the case with cohabitants of a shared area: planet Earth. 

 

That we are pressed for time and in face of unrelenting demand is no secret, but rather the siren blare now dull to ear for having been subsumed with the ambience of the Anthropic era. 

 

We are going to have to make distinctions even as we appreciate nuance. 

 

It’s not gonna work out between us if you do not believe, in some basic regards, in the rule of law. That is a unison unallowable. There are others.

 

But such is our journey. We evolve. We change. We transform over time. To leave what we were so that we might realize what we may yet become.

 

I recognize there are global cities across the planet where people get along. 

 

And there are other democracies too. 

 

But no place on the planet is as culturally diverse in concentrate and generality as America.

 

As global people, in an interrelated global society we look out and see ourselves, and the world looks to us and sees it’s reflection and possibility ...As well as a metastizaiton of it’s highest hopes, and most dismal depths. 

 

 

We can distinguish while relating. 

 

I am at once my family and myself. Myself and a constituent, an employee, a responsible party among other people embedded in a uniquely conditioned and somtimes flux social fabric. 

 

I am excited at the possibility of more creative identities in America as well as more broadly across the globe. 

 

The internet, even with its incumbent calamities of human enmity, hubris, and abuse, has helped us to see the possibilities of shared experience as well as novel blend and manifestation.

 

A part of the whole, the whole in each part enmeshed upon a boundless frontier whose real limits exist in our real world to remind us how me might realize what we can create as a people. 

 

...That we may ensure our peoples' basic wellbeing. And that there is a possibility of sustainable flourish.

fin.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ 

okay, thanks for reading this

thoughts? ...you are welcome to e-mail me at csow02@gmail.com

whether suggestions, stuff you think I should check out/consider, or sharp critique (just please don't be mean)

curious what you think

finally, I may add a way to just share feedback directly on this page depending on how this goes