The 350th Posting

Every year it’s always exciting for me to review my last 50 postings and see if any new themes or interests appeared. As I discussed in my 300th Posting, the first rule of my blog is that it’s my creative space, giving myself permission to explore any topic that seems appealing.

This past year, many posts fit into my Digital Dilemma series, focusing on new alternatives or options we find ourselves confronting because of how the world is changing. A few favorites from the past year include:

Also in this series I explored privacy and how challenged this concept is becoming with advances in facial recognition, location tracking, and monitoring online activities. I’ve always been both fascinated and creeped out by technology advances to fine-tune advertising, discounts, search results, news feeds, etc. based on analyses of our online activities. Must we always be forced to choose between convenience and control?

Participating in society requires us to have an online presence, a place where privacy has mostly been an afterthought. Advances made in facial recognition, combined with decreasing costs for surveillance equipment, challenges our right to remain anonymous in public. Even for those of us that don’t realize it yet. Read more about tracking and facial recognition:

I added some new favorites to the Human Archives series:

  • Life Languages – an exploration of communication methods that don’t always include words
  • Reruns – sometimes watching reruns of a special show makes me feel close to my deceased father
  • Resetting the World Right Again – swimming is like hitting a refresh button on life
  • Read more from the Human Archives collection here

The technombie series continues by following a couple of kids recruited to fight a war against enemies using only virtual reality (VR). Except the VR is more real than they think…

Catch up on my trip to Iceland here.

In my professional life, I recently authored an ebook for AIIM (The Association for Intelligent Information Management), What are the Uses of Email: Addressing the Challenges of Email Management. It’s targeted towards information management professionals, but some sections are applicable to anyone who works in an office. Download your free copy here.

The Price of Facial Recognition

Last week Facebook settled a facial recognition lawsuit for $550 million. The lawsuit involved the lack of control and privacy with Facebook’s Tag Suggestions feature (i.e., suggests tags (names) for people in photos you post) and how it potentially violated Illinois’s biometric privacy law. The privacy law protects consumers from having facial scans taken without their knowledge or consent.

According to the help pages in Facebook, the Tag Suggestion (formerly Face Recognition setting) works by analyzing photos/videos that you’re in to create a template of your face. For example your profile picture and any pictures you’ve been identified in by friends or family. This template is then used as a comparison against new images posted to see if there is a match.

Although I have no evidence of how Facebook perfected their facial recognition templates, I’ve always suspected that they convinced their users to unknowingly train the facial recognition program, for free! Every time a user tags photos with names, this could have been potentially training Facebook’s facial recognition program to create the templates.

The $550 million payout was for a class action lawsuit, so it’s unclear how much each individual will receive. When I read about the settlement, I couldn’t help but wonder how does one put a price on the cost of facial recognition and possible violations associated with it? How can harm be proved? And if you were harmed, how can you quantify that in dollars? For example, what if you attract unwanted attention. Costs associated with getting a new number or installing an improved security system are easily verified, but what about the price of losing your sense of security?

The right to remain anonymous in public is something we’ve always taken for granted, or at least I always have. Now it seems that it can only be maintained at a price. The biggest questions to consider are, what is the price?  And who will be determining it?

It may seem like the government and corporations have all the control. However, the point of using a social network like Facebook is that it’s social. This means responsibility and control is with the users, to some extent. I can’t monitor Facebook to know when somebody posts a picture containing my face. I also can’t control with whom that person will choose to share the photo.

There will never be enough settings to compensate for all these challenges.

The Plight of Facial Recognition

Escaping the silent eye of facial recognition is impossible in the digital age, unless you live somewhere with no technology or maybe wear a protective/religious covering on your head. As costs decrease to use surveillance cameras, along with more accurate facial recognition technology, identifying people is becoming easier. This type of technology is also becoming more readily available for anyone to use.

The artificial intelligence and technology used to identify faces is refined constantly. A few years ago, recognizing faces was something humans did better than machines. However, it seems in the near future, this is something that machines will be able to do better and faster. Using a computer also has the added benefit of being able to identify images from multiple sources (e.g., social media apps) quickly.

Last week I read a NYTimes article, “Unmasking a Company That Wants to Unmask Us All,” by Kashmir Hill. The article discusses Clearview AI, a company making a business by offering facial recognition services to law enforcement agencies. Once signed up, a law enforcement agent simply has to scan a picture of the unknown perpetrator for Clearview AI to do its magic. Behind the scenes, Clearview AI uses an algorithm that breaks faces down into a series of vectors, then matches the scanned image with ones available in its database containing millions of facial images.

And where does Clearview obtain all this data? By scraping available images (e.g., social media) that are supposed to be legal for them to use.

Apparently law enforcers have found the service useful for identifying suspects. They are also quick to point out that the facial recognition match is only one piece of evidence used in the whole case.

I find many things troubling about this. First of all, my face is no longer going to be something private that belongs only to me. I know there are labeled images of my face, either ones I’ve put up (e.g., LinkedIn) or that somebody else posted.

Secondly, by putting this service in a law enforcement context makes it seems less harmful than it could potentially be with different uses. Of course everybody wants to catch criminals, but what about when stalkers and marketers use this technology to prey on people, especially in vulnerable moments?

The technology is here and I’m not sure there’s any good way to control it anymore.

Monitoring Screen Time

After the technology companies invested so much time, energy and money into getting us all addicted to our gadgets and devices, now we’re all getting the message power down once in a while. That too much screen time is bad for us along with lots of suggestions for ways we can reduce our usage. Of course many of the recommendations come in the form of apps (i.e., more technology) to help limit our tech consumption.

Each week I receive a ping on my iPad giving me a weekly update of my screen time and the percentage it increased/decreased from the week before. I don’t recall signing up for these notifications, they just started to appear. I suppose this is the Apple’s way of helping me be more aware of how hooked I am on their product.

My challenge with all these notifications is sorting out the ways in which screen time is something addictive vs. something that is now just part of my daily life. For example, it’s common for me to call friends and family with video. That counts as screen time, but I wouldn’t classify it as addictive “screen” behavior. Nor would I want to go back to regular calling when my experience is enhanced with video. I rarely get to visit people who live far away, so it’s nice to be able to see them.

Digital photography is another way that screen time is unavoidable, unless I decide to never take any more photos. It’s not even possible to take photos without viewing a screen or some kind. I love making photo albums of my trips which I get printed. So while I can view the albums without a monitor, the creation of the album is screen time intensive.

I often read the newspaper on my smartphone, yet another way I engage with a monitor daily. I prefer it over the print version. Reading physical newspapers left my fingertips darkened with ink and it was challenging to fold the paper the right way to read while on transit. Also, it was annoying to flip through sections when an article continued on another page. So while I could reduce screen time by reading a printed newspaper, I prefer the electronic version.

I know I’m addicted in some ways, but a notification of my screen time without a breakdown is useless as a measure.

Virtual Assistant Revisited

My partner received a Google Home mini for the holidays this year. I was (and still am) pretty opposed to having it hooked up in our home. Sadly, I lost the argument. Over the weekend I watched with a mixture of curiosity and paranoia as my partner read through the instruction manual, dutifully downloaded the Google Home app on his phone and started to train the device to recognize his voice. Secretly, I was a bit intrigued to see how it worked, especially after my initial post on this in 2016 (read here).

The microphone is creepy to me. I understand the device works through voice activation, but I feel uncomfortable thinking that a connected device could always be “listening”, or secretly recording our conversations (read more here). I expressed this to my partner, really more of a last, desperate plea to dissuade him from hooking it up. He said I was being silly and that if Google did things like that, it would have already been discovered and reported on. Despite his reassurances to me about the microphone, I noticed he turned it off after completing each command.

I thought the microphone on/off button was sneaky. When the microphone is “on” the button is completely white, but shows orange when in the “off” position. This seems opposite to most appliances where a bit of color usually indicates something is on. (see image below, from

We experimented with the Google Home mini to play music. However, unless you pay for a premium service specific songs or artists can’t be requested, but Google will do its best to find something similar. What was really interesting was how Google interpreted different commands. For example, asking for nice, relaxing music resulted in some light pop/rock tunes. Definitely not something I consider relaxing.

Requesting morning music, resulted in an odd mix of top 40’s hits and classic rock tunes. The funniest one for me was the interpretation of whale songs. I meant actual whales (e.g., like humpbacks) singing in the ocean. Google, however, interpreted “whale” to be the name of a musical group or song. I tried the command in different ways trying words like, “ocean”, “nature”, “humpbacks” to get better results. After several attempts, we ended up with some nature/white noise sound. It was hard to tell what it was, really.

I’m still not convinced, but I see how hands-free options are useful.

Keeping Things Empty

One strategy I use to help secretly increase my productivity and keep my house clutter-free is to focus on keeping things empty. Naturally, this only applies to certain things, but when applied routinely it can be effective to make a difference.

Some of the things I aim to keep empty in my physical world are the trash can, recycling bin, compost collector, sink (from dirty dishes), dish drainer, laundry basket, and the clothes drying rack. Most of these tasks are all things I dislike strongly, but also ones that usually don’t take too much time (laundry excepted). By keeping them empty, it makes me feel good, like I accomplished something to take care of myself and my home, even when life gets hectic. This in turn helps me to maintain motivation and stamina to work on other things. Even when I don’t end up working on anything else, I already feel good that I maintained these few small, but vital areas, in the home.

In the digital world, however, I don’t do as well to keep things empty. Some of my emptying goals are my email inbox(es), my “Next Actions” and “Waiting For” folders in my email(s), my digital camera and the camera roll on my devices. This is mostly because the volume and speed with which things accumulate make it really challenging to maintain.

Regarding the digital photos, by “empty” the camera roll on my devices, what I really mean is organize the photos by labeling them or grouping them in a folder and then transferring them to my central digital repository. I often fall behind on transferring the photos to my repository and end up doing them all at once. It usually takes a chunk of time and a lot of patience. However, I am pretty good at grouping photos on my devices into folders right away. This helps me to find things quickly later and gives me a chance to delete out the bad ones to free up memory for things I really want to keep.

If you decide to try out the “keeping things empty” strategy, start small with something easy and manageable. I’ve discovered it’s an uncomplicated way to get some desired results and feel positive.