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Algorithms Aren’t Working (The Shadow of the Smart Machine)

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Shadow of the Smart Machine: From consumer citizenship to collective benefits

By Alison Powell, Nesta UK
Algorithms are everywhere, or so we are told, and the black boxes of algorithmic decision-making make oversight of processes that ought to be transparent more difficult than in the past. But which machines in which circumstances do we wish to make accountable, and why? Where should our concerns and efforts be focused? Alison Powell argues that the effects of algorithms on communities and participation in civic life need attention, and that by using algorithms to keep algorithms accountable we might move towards a government which does not simply target consumer citizens, but supports decision-making for broad collective benefit.
The algorithms which have received the most attention from scholars so far have been those developed by media platforms, such as Facebook, whose main products are social networks and the attention of their individual users.

These algorithms construct portraits of individual users by collecting and analysing data on their patterns of behavior on the media platform. These portraits can be used to finely target products and services. There are real risks for individuals; price discrimination, discrimination and biases built into algorithmic systems for communicating and consuming. But these are, in my view, less inherently problematic than the algorithmic processes that impact on our collective participation in society and belonging as citizenship.

Algorithmic processes – especially machine learning – combine with processes of governance that focus on individual identity performance to profoundly transform how citizenship is understood and undertaken. This second sphere needs more scholarly and public attention.

Communicating and Consuming

Algorithms drive many of the successful business models of web content and media platforms. As users’ everyday experience of communication has moved online, their behaviours and interests have been exposed to data collection processes, which produce new resources- new information about consumption including detailed personal profiles.

 The consequence of perpetual production of data about individuals has certainly revolutionalised advertising by allowing more precise targeting, but what has it done for areas of public interest?

John Cheney-Lippold identifies how the categories of identity are now developed alorithmically. To an algorithm working online, gender classifications are not based on genitalia, but instead on patterns of behaviour that fit with the norms it has been trained to see. Cheney-Lippold find that these ‘algorithmic identities’, are much narrower than the range of identities that people perform across their lives. They are not capable of experimentation, remixing, blurring lines.


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This is because many of the systems that inspired the design of algorithmic systems are based on profiles created by advertisers to optimise consumption; they prioritise attention to behaviours related to consumption, so do not get a full picture. This becomes more concerning when these narrower identities, built using systems developed for consumption, spread beyond adverts. Algorithmic identity construction has spread from the world of marketing to the broader world of citizenship – as evidenced by the Citizen Ex experiment shown at the Web We Want Festival in 2015.

Consumer-Citizens

What’s really at stake is that the expansion of algorithmic assessment of commercially derived big data has extended the frame of the individual consumer into all kinds of other areas of experience. In a supposed ‘age of austerity’ when governments believe it is important to cut costs, this connects with the view of citizens as primarily consumers of services, and furthermore, with the idea that a citizen is an individual subject whose relation to a state can be disintermediated given enough technology. For instance; with sensors on your garbage bins you don’t need to even remember to take them out, and the government knows if you overfill the bin or fail to recycle. With pothole reporting platforms like FixMyStreet a city government can be responsive to an aggregate of individual reports. But what aspects of our citizenship are collective? When, in the algorithmic state, can we expect to be together?

Put another way, is there any algorithmic process to value the long term education, inclusion, and sustenance of a whole community such as the library service?

Neoliberal, consumer citizenship propped up by algorithmic systems of sorting and service delivery further alienates us from the shared virtues of citizenship, and the construction and nourishment of shared experience.

Machine Learning versus Bureaucracy

We need to expand attention from individual risks and consider the accountability of the whole system, its entire undertaking, and its effects on the community. Some of the proposals discussed at our workshop included having machine learning processes verify the outcomes of algorithmic decisions and provide transparency. To me this appeared as an especially accountable version of bureaucracy, where results from each system’s accounting dynamically report up through an iterative (but still accountable) chain of command. This is not bureaucratic in the sense of inventing process for its own sake, but it is bureaucratic in the sense that it establishes many processes of accountability that are the responsibility of entities who report to one another through a structure where trust is related to the capacity to validate decisions.

This is not 19th century bureaucracy, but a cybernetic relative that is still emerging. Although cybernetic systems have always tried to redistribute responsibility and operate in real time, their expansion has also created some of the issues of accountability we are now trying to solve. In many ways, bureaucracies are useful. They contain processes of decision-making and structured divisions of function Much like algorithms. They are criticised for becoming voluminous, disappearing under process, and becoming opaque. Much like algorithms. Bureaucracies, in some cases, can efficiently undertake processes that have undesirable or devastating outcomes (including war and discrimination). Much like algorithms.

I am not sure that we should be so afraid of considering the bureaucratic aspects of using machine learning technologies for accountability, not when we have over a hundred years of social science knowledge on the problems to avoid. I also wonder whether bureaucracies might also help to solve the other problem I evoked earlier – whether thinking specifically about how human and computational decisions might move us away from a citizenry of alienated individuals and towards a reconception of the shared virtues of belonging together to a place.

Seeing algorithms – machine learning in particular – as supporting decision-making for broad collective benefit rather than as part of ever more specific individual targeting and segmentation might make them more accountable. But more importantly, this would help algorithms support society – not just individual consumers.

Source: Nesta UK

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The “Myth” of Independence (When in Reality, We are Interdependent)

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The disastrous burden of exploitation and the plundering of ill-distributed wealth is a historical burden whose influence on backwardness, misery and neglect is an indisputable argument for rejecting the claims of independence and freedom of the ruling castes, who are primarily responsible for the shameful conditions in which the future of the peoples is plunged.

Without sustainable development for all, it is not valid to boast of independence.


The Tale of Independence

Claudia Aranda
(Image by Claudia Aranda)

Independence festivals celebrate the greatest myth in history.

The dates represent only a symbolic reference in the course of history, which is why the Independence festivities, celebrated in these days of September in some countries of the continent, should become a turning point; a turning point in the right direction and the beginning of a new era for the peoples who observe, with a mixture of envy and hope, the advances in other corners of the planet.

Latin America has suffered genocidal dictatorships, foreign invasions marked by economic and geopolitical interests, devaluation and annihilation of its millenary cultures, plundering of its natural wealth and constant intervention in its development plans by financial organisations controlled by the great world powers. However, the moral strength and the yearning for freedom of their peoples are the decisive resources for consolidating that real and concrete independence for which they all yearn.

The examples of economic, industrial and cultural development in some of our nations show how a potential value can become a tangible reality, provided that the political actions of their leaders are underpinned by a firm resolve to fight for their homeland. In this sense, the defense of and respect for the constitutional rule, the consolidation of the rule of law, the recognition of the intrinsic human and cultural values of their communities and the firm purpose of achieving Latin American unity, the only possible way to face the challenges of globalisation, are essential.

To boast of independence when our political castes are capable of negotiating the future of generations with entities whose interests are totally opposed to development – such as the World Bank – and subjected to the arbitrary conditions of powerful governments, focused on making the most of their institutional and political weaknesses, is an insult to intelligence. It is therefore imperative to update concepts and to understand that a country’s freedom to decide on its present and future is a pending issue throughout the third world.

The celebration of national independence has become established as a populist device and needs to be thoroughly revised. Military parades, so typical of the image of strength and power imprinted in the collective imagination, are today one of the most serious offences against peoples who have experienced the cruel repression of military dictatorships, a dark shadow that stains the history of all our countries. Patriotic pride should not rest on weapons or violence, but on culture, traditions and unrestricted respect for human rights.

The disastrous burden of exploitation and the plundering of ill-distributed wealth is a historical burden whose influence on backwardness, misery and neglect is an indisputable argument for rejecting the claims of independence and freedom of the ruling castes, who are primarily responsible for the shameful conditions in which the future of the peoples is plunged.

Without sustainable development for all, it is not valid to boast of independence.

Source: Pressenza

Carolina Vásquez Araya

Journalist and editor with more than 30 years of experience, whose professional achievements in the development of highly successful projects endorse her qualities of leadership, creativity and public relations. She has contributed her knowledge in projects of organizations with interests oriented to the social, cultural and economic development of the country, with special emphasis on the sector of culture and education, entrepreneurship, human rights, justice, environment, women and children. She is Chilean in Guatemala. elquintopatio.wordpress.com

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Scientists: Make it Easier for the Public to Understand Your Reports!

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Carbon neutral? Mitigation? People don’t know the words scientists think they do.

If you’ve ever furrowed your brow trying to remember what “mitigation” meant, you’re not alone.

Many people don’t understand key terms experts use to talk about climate change, according to a recent study from researchers affiliated with the United Nations Foundation and the University of Southern California. Some of the most difficult-to-understand words were mitigation, referring to efforts to reduce emissions to slow down climate change, and carbon-neutral, when there’s no net increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

Experts in a given field might think that technical language is more precise or more efficient than commonplace alternatives. But subjecting normal people to obscure terms can leave them feeling confused and disengaged and can sometimes encourage a head-in-the-sand response. Everyone has heard the advice “know your audience.” That’s easier said than done, especially since many specialists may not even realize what counts as jargon, with their non-expert days long in the past.

“Some of the people in our study were really concerned about climate change,” said Wändi Bruine de Bruin, a professor of psychology and behavioral science at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. “If they don’t understand what you’re trying to tell them, you could be missing an opportunity to make a difference.”

The researchers landed on a shortlist of terms for the study by talking with experts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of U.N. scientists that released a dire report last month warning that greenhouse gas emissions were quickly destabilizing the climate with devastating and “irreversible” consequences. They picked words and phrases that were important for understanding climate policy but tend to get misinterpreted, like tipping point, carbon dioxide removal, and adaptation. Then the researchers interviewed 20 people, picked to provide a diversity of views, asking them to define these words and rate how easy they were to understand. The takeaway from the study: “many of the terms were unfamiliar or perceived as needlessly complex.”

More than half of the participants turned out to be unfamiliar with the meaning of mitigation in its climate change context, instead associating it with law or insurance, where the term refers to minimizing losses. “Mitigation, oh God I hate this word,” one person said. Another third appeared to conflate it with the similar-sounding “mediation,” where a neutral party helps resolve a conflict through discussion.

An informal survey by Grist of folks around Seattle revealed similar problems. Bud Goodwin, owner of Rising Sun Farms & Produce in Seattle, feels strongly that something needs to be done about climate change. Worsening droughts, wildfires, and heavy rains have hit the farmers who supply his fruits and vegetables. He said he’s heard the terms tipping point, carbon-neutral, and adaptation in the context of climate change. But he was stumped when it came to mitigation. “The only thing I can think of is ‘mitigating circumstances,’” he said. “That’s the only time I’ve heard of that used. And I don’t know if that’s the right context.”

Theo Henderson, who works at Third Place Books in north Seattle, was unsure what to make of the phrase tipping point when it’s used so widely in other contexts, like epidemiology, Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book, and iconic moments in sports. “It’s used in contradictory ways,” he said. “It’s almost like you just don’t want to say it anymore, because it means different things to different people.”

In a bit of irony, even the phrase used to talk about talking about climate change — “climate communication” — confounded some people on the streets of Seattle.

That general sense of confusion was reflected in the study. When asked about tipping point — a point of no return for ice shelves, ocean patterns, rainforests, or other systems central to life on Earth — people didn’t always see the link to the warming planet, instead thinking of a seesaw, a sudden change of mind, or difficulty going back to how things were before. Only 15 percent of those interviewed in the study mentioned climate change in their initial definition.

Another inscrutable phrase for some was carbon neutral, with just under half of people in the study understanding it right off the bat. Some people found the shorthand use of carbon confusing. “I know carbon is used in front of a lot of words, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide … Carbon neutral means – I don’t know,” one participant said.

Even putting the tricky words and phrases in context — the classic vocab-learning trick you learned in school — often failed to help people understand their meanings. The example sentences, pulled from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, were long and wordy and often filled with other jargon. See for yourself. Does the following sentence help you understand what sustainable development means? “Natural hazards, climate change, and societal vulnerability can pose fundamental limits to sustainable development.” (If you’re curious, the study describes sustainable development as “meeting the needs of people living today without compromising the needs of people living in the future.”)

Companies have helped muddy the picture by using buzzwords to tout their sustainability cred. You can buy “carbon-negative” hand sanitizer or a “climate positive” burger. In a recent survey commissioned by Yeo Valley, an organic dairy company in the United Kingdom, 79 percent of people said that eco-friendly jargon should be translated into plainer language.

There are plenty of ways to phrase things more simply, and communication experts have long advised specialists to do so. But the problem is, Bruine de Bruin said, scientists might not even realize which words are coming across as gibberish, having used mitigation for so long that they think it’s a simple, straightforward term. The concrete examples of misunderstandings quoted in the study, she said, and are “more powerful than people coming in saying, ‘Look, don’t use jargon.’”

Source: Grist

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Editorials

Current education systems inhibit identity development

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Current education inhibits identity development

Note from Publisher: When we look at society as a whole, we could take a good look at a dysfunctional education system which is failing children and the whole of society.  If we are to truly evolve and transform as a society, education needs to transform from linear thinking to holistic thinking, seeing all life on the planet as ONE WHOLE SYSTEM, otherwise we are bound to continue the insanity of repeating our problems and crises over and over again.  True transformation begins with a shift in how we view and act in the world.

Education systems have undergone a great change in the last 40 years. Along with the massification of supply, education has become dehumanised, strongly influenced by mercantilist logics that have associated quality only with cognitive learning. The focus on subjects and the neglect of holistic education inhibits the development of identity.

Today’s schools are more like a production line than a community of people in search of human growth and development. Like any production line, the aim is to obtain a “product” that is as homogeneous as possible and that can be evaluated in the successive quality controls that are applied over the years. For example, the SIMCE and the PDT.

A homogeneous product allows comparisons to be made which, in the case of individuals, is always odious and discriminatory. The idea of a “good quality product” in education, measured through standardised tests, has proved to be a perverse incentive for educational communities. Teachers and education professionals have put the education and social-emotional development of their students on the back burner. Mums, dads and parents focus their attention on what they believe will be financial security. And, children and youth see school as a boring, creativity-limiting obligation.

Instead of a “standard product”, at Fundación Semilla we promote the formation of unique individuals through pedagogical support methodologies that open spaces for children and young people to advance in the development of their own individual traits or characteristics that allow them to distinguish themselves from others in a group. In other words, in the development of their identities.

Schools that assume their educational role in a comprehensive manner become protective factors because the development of identity allows one to value oneself and recognise oneself as unique in the group. Without identity there is no sense of belonging. Without identity you are invisible to others.

Whenever I talk about identity and a sense of belonging, I am reminded of heart-wrenching testimonies such as that of a boy: “the first time someone told me I was good at something was when I shot a gun and hit the target” or that of a girl: “having sex makes me feel that he cares about me”.

This is not to dismiss learning in mathematics, reading, writing or other subjects, but to reduce content in order to have more time to humanise education. Having spaces to dream and create, to talk and reflect, to play and sing, to meet other people and to recognise oneself.

Putting children and young people at the centre and the first priority is much more than obtaining good scores in the transition test (ex PSU and ex PAA) and as long as political authorities do not change their educational paradigm, education will continue to inhibit the development of identity and a sense of belonging with the dire consequences that this implies for society as a whole.

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