When I unpacked my father’s Faulkner collection I couldn’t help but notice how enjoyable it was to touch the old books. Books that he had also held in his hands. Or maybe that he read in special places, or in special ways. I enjoy reading and eating, one scenario when an ereader has a distinct advantage over paper because it can be propped up or held with one hand. It’s also much easier to wipe off crumbs. Another favorite of mine is to read  curled up in a comfy chair.

I mostly saw my father reading upright in a chair, often with a fat hardcover book spread across his lap. Or sometimes in bed before falling asleep. I also enjoy reading in bed, but usually when I first wake up. This is one of those times when I prefer paper or the flat screen of an ereader to any other type of screen. 

Although I no longer remember, or think about it, I suspect I probably enjoy reading so much because it was something I did with my parents. A friend of my father’s once told me a story of how I “learned” to read. According to the friend, my father was about to read me a bedtime story. I grabbed the book from him and said, “I’ll read it, Daddy.” He was never sure if I was actually reading or retelling the story from memory, but he was pleased. 

Sharing and reading books with people, especially babies and children, is a wonderfully rewarding experience. A benefit of sharing physical books with little ones is that the books are durable. Even if a book does get destroyed, the damage is limited to one item. If an ereader gets wrecked, the whole library is gone. This is one scenario when paper has an advantage over digital. 

When I was cleaning out my childhood bedroom, I saved a few very beaten up children’s books. The ones with which I had the strongest attachments. When I could still hear my father’s funny voices and comments just by looking at the covers. Yet another advantage of paper books is that they can be owned and opened decades later without anything special, qualities that can’t be replicated so easily in the digital world. Most importantly, they can awaken fond memories, to be be relived or passed on to the next generation. 

Big Dog… Little Dog was one of my father’s favorites. He was still reminding me of its message when I was in my 20’s!

Searching Troubles with a Virtual Assistant

So far my experiences with virtual assistants (VA) have been pretty limited. By virtual assistant I mean something like Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa, rather than a person helping remotely. However, I know a lot of people who use them. They often tell me about their favorable experiences.

The hands-free, voice commands are tempting to me, but I can’t seem to get past the creep factor. Or my paranoia that the VA is always listening (and secretly recording) whatever I’m saying. And my strong suspicion that whatever is recorded never gets deleted.

Even if I could get past all of that, I have serious issues with the searching. If I pose a question to my VA, how can I be assured that the answer is good quality, or credible. Sites like Wikipedia, or those owned by private companies, often show up as the top search results. Are these the kinds of resources a VA will be using to reply to my queries?

As a trained information professional (i.e., librarian), I’m skilled at validating resources. I would never rely on something like Wikipedia for an answer, without confirming it in another source.

Using a VA to get answers keeps me in the dark about where they came from. I’m unable to confirm the source or make my own selection as to which one looks the most trustworthy. It’s healthy to question sites that could have proprietary interests or bias. But if the answer is verbally communicated to me, I have no way of knowing what other options were available.

I also have questions about how the search history is maintained. For example, what if I wanted to refer back to one of the responses, where would this information be stored? If I look it up on my own, I can always bookmark a site, take a screencap, or download the information.

I’m sure for certain kinds of generic, common knowledge questions (i.e., weather forecast, specific dates, etc.), the VA could be useful and accurate. I think the key to getting a credible, valid response from a VA is being selective about which questions to ask it in the first place.

Liking No “Likes” on Instagram

Sometime last year, Instagram decided to start experimenting with removing the “likes” on posts. This means the person who posted the image/video could see how many likes s/he received, but the number would not be available to others. The idea is to eliminate the competitive nature of instagram and get users to focus on content, rather than posting sensational items purely to acquire “likes.”

Instagram, a social media app owned by Facebook, is a platform for people to share images and videos. It includes features such as filters or using “Stories” to help brands and individuals promote themselves or connect with others. Another prominent part of Instagram, similar to almost every other social media app, is the ability to “like” something and to see how many likes a certain post has obtained.

For a long time I’ve been following the different social media apps in the news, always curious to see what the impact is on the people who use them. In 2015, I posted about the use of Rinsta and Finsta Instagram accounts in a blog, “Hiding in Plain Sight.” Rinsta is for the “real” public-facing Instagram account. Finsta, the “fake” Instagram account is ironically the one used for posting unedited and spontaneous content to a select group of intimates.

What’s always been interesting to me about social media apps, is how much effort and time is spent in curating the perfect illusion and posting it at the optimal time to acquire the maximum number of views. There’s nothing wrong with wanting your content to get noticed and seen, in some ways that’s the point of using social media. However, a minor obsession has evolved around obtaining “likes.” It has become a status symbol used to gauge value, popularity, and quality. The more likes, the better (i.e., more viral) the content is, which for many is the ultimate goal.

As I learned more about this aspect of social media, the visibility of the “likes,” I often thought that removing this number from view would change the entire landscape for the better. Lots of likes may entice people to click on a post, simply because it seems popular. And I’m sure the number of likes influences the ranking and visibility of posts in newsfeeds and search results.

I’m curious to learn how Instagram’s experiment of removing visible “likes,” will change this social media’s landscape and influence. Stay tuned!

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.