## Algorithmic Bias

It’s easy to think machines have some kind of impartiality to them given they are, well, machines. But anything built by humans has a human inside it. Algorithms are no different, and just like us, they are filled with bias.

Algorithm – a word once confined to University mathematics departments and computer labs – now takes pride of place in every second tech news article, determines what you see online and why you received this email at 7am Australian Eastern Standard Time. So it pays to understand what they are, the impact they have and the biases they’re so often driven by.

So let’s go back to the start – what are algorithms in simple terms?

Algorithms 101 – An algorithm is a set of step by step instructions used to do something or make a decision.

With a definition this broad you can see that we humans use them everyday. Even sorting the laundry into darks, colours and whites, and washing them each separately is technically an algorithm. The steps to cook something (a recipe) is an algorithm. Where computers come in is that they can follow a very large number of steps, on a very large data set, and make decisions quickly and precisely. (In the clothing example above – the data set is the clothes and their colours, and the steps are where to sort each piece of clothing).

Algorithmic bias occurs when a computer system reflects the implicit values of the humans who are involved in coding, selecting and collating data to execute the algorithm. The emergent problem with the algorithms in big tech is that they’re designed to achieve corporate outcomes, not societal ones. Their values are simple: to make as much money as possible.

Algorithms now run so deep and cross-reference so much data that what we input has little to do with the outputs we receive. What we now have on the web is ‘the illusion of choice‘. It isn’t just our feeds on social forums which are decided by algorithms. Even what we search for is biased towards corporate algorithmic design parameters. Just search for anything on google you want to buy, in any category and the first bias is plain to see – it assumes you are after the cheapest version possible of every item: clothing, sneakers, airline tickets, hotel rooms, you name it. Apparently we all want to cheapest version of everything no matter what it is. Even if you put the word ‘high quality‘ before the primary search term you’ll still be guided by price. It’s not before we get very specific with words like expensive or search specific brands before we can find what we might need. Another in search is recency bias. Search will always show the latest version, or story of anything and anyone unless a clear time stamp is included.

When we look at social feeds – it’s clear that their algo-game is built on emotional leverage: birthdays, parties, engagements, births, deaths, family events and of course, controversy. These stimulate engagement and keep us on the site longer. Our desire to feel loved, important and often enraged are all that matter to them.

While these examples seem innocuous enough, the proliferation of an algorithm-based society is reinforcing many social biases such as gender, race, ethnicity and economic status to name a few. The canary in the coal mine is dead, the miners are still digging, and yet Silicon Valley are still making bank unfettered. So what should we do?

Like all technology, algorithms are neither good nor bad – they’re just tools. Tools that need to be civilised with some metaphorical workplace health and safety guide rails. They are here to stay, and so our best bet is to make them better. I see two paths forward:

1. Change – We need to push for transparency on algorithms. Know what’s in them and have to ability to turn them off on demand. I don’t care if the algorithm owners are for-profit corporations – we can and should be able to regulate their output as much as we can a box of cornflakes. No company ever made a decision which reduced its profit until society made it so. It’s time we pushed for big tech to air their dirty laundry.
2. Opportunity – We need to remember that every flaw in an industry, every broken promise or self-serving design leaves the door ajar for a nimble entrepreneur to make a more respectful version of the product we’ve got little choice on. Algorithm-based tech is no different. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the world is waiting for a social platform we can trust that isn’t designed around extracting unlimited hours and outrage from the people it’s supposed to serve.

Above all, we should never forget that capitalism works best when it is guided by society, not the other way around.

If you like this blog post – forward to a friend who will dig it.

## Why other industries need to call out Facebook’s advertising policy

Let’s for a minute imagine these as Corporate Policies:

Car Manufacturer: We’ll take a car off the road if an unsafe model gets out of the factory and is sold, but we can’t promise all our cars are safe until you start driving them. If you see an unsafe car out there, please let us know.

Fast Food Outlet: If our pizza has salmonella or listeria, you can return it, but we can’t promise all our food is safe to eat. If you get sick or know someone who did, please let us know and we’ll take the pizza back.

Packaged Goods Manufacturer: If our shampoo has chemicals that are unsafe and burn your head, we’ll change the formula, but we’re not sure until we sell it if it’s OK. If you see anyone with a burned head, ask them what shampoo they used, and if it’s our brand, we’ll happily take it off the shelf.

This is essentially what Facebook Inc. have just announced as their Global Policy for Advertising. All I’ve done is paraphrase their policy, and changed the product and industry. Here it is below for your reference:

Joel Kaplan – Global Policy VP

“We try to catch content that shouldn’t be on Facebook before it’s even posted, but because this is not always possible, we also take action when people report ads that violate our policy”

Facebook claim it isn’t possible for 2 simple reasons:

1. Because it isn’t profitable for them to check every advertisement before it goes out.
2. Because they haven’t been regulated in the same way other media organisations are.

It’s also worth noting that the update from Facebook policy resulting from controversy surrounding fake ads and alleged Russian influence on the US election didn’t address the problems of false information, only ‘transparency’ of what was published, promoted and who did it. The extreme targeting possible on Facebook is itself one of the problems. Those likely to spot a misleading advertisement are unlikely to see it. In this sense the promise of transparency is a moot point. A further quote from the statement in relation to advertising via Russian accounts below is quite telling:

” All of these ads violated our policies because they came from inauthentic accounts”

Not because the information was misleading? And further on…

“Our ad policies already prohibit shocking content, direct threats and the promotion of the sale or use of weapons.”

Apparently advertising false information is OK? No mention of it anywhere… You can read it for yourself here.

While Facebook promises to create a more open and connected society, it is in reality creating a more silo-ed and disconnected society. When governments first gave out spectrum at the birth of the TV era, it came with the responsibility of providing unbiased news and balanced data on issues affecting society. We didn’t let the idea of innovation or new technology interfere with creating the kind of society we all want to live in.

I think social media is one of the most amazing things to evolve in my lifetime. The power provided through connection and sharing thought has helped me re-invent my career, find like-minds and gain knowledge that just wasn’t available in the mainstream media era. For that I’m grateful.

But it is time that we took its power more seriously. It’s time to add seat belts and brakes to the data vehicles driving our lives and admit that no technology out of control or without failsafes ever benefits society.

– – –

If you liked this post – you’ll dig my new book – The Lessons School Forgot – a manifesto to survive the tech revolution.

## Why I'm using Snapchat

I got message from Richard on Linkedin regarding my use of Snapchat recently: here it is below:

Steve, I noticed around the time of this post you started posting about the benefits of Snapchat, rather than promoting your book. I get it, especially for connecting to the next generation. I also get that Snapchat is a whole new, exciting landscape & way of connecting that’s diff. to other social. I’d to hear more about why you’ve made the switch and have started on it as a platform. Only so many hours in the day. Pls explain why time on this is good for startups. Listened to https://lnkd.in/bXKk5D4 but would love YOUR take 🙂

Here’s my response:

Hey Richard,

Props for paying attention to my stuff and thanks for reading. I started to mix it up a bit at the bottom of my blog posts. Still some book, but mostly snapchat. My book, I promote less because it is getting old and I’m writing my next one… is all. The reason for Snapchat is that Twitter has very little engagement these days. I have nearly 7000 genuine followers on twitter, I never chased a follow ever, all came to me. I get about 300 people with the opportunity to see my tweets, about 7 looks or so click or engage – Pathetic. With Snapchat in just a few weeks I get around 50 engagements. People literally looking at my story. Snap is simply replacing my twitter. But more than that, we need to be nimble and change forums when the disco gets too crowded and noisy and no one can hear each other speak. For me it’s not about connecting to the next generation, it’s more that my generation are now using Snapchat – it’s my old twitter audience changing which nightclub they dance in….Another reminder that we need to be loyal to our audience, and not worry about the forum or the way they want to connect. I was an early Naysayer of Snapchat and it’s value. But their ‘My Story’ feature (24 hours of snaps) changed it’s value proposition for me – and when the facts change, I change my mind.  In fact, I’m gonna blog this…. trust you’re Ok with that… 🙂

Steve.

P.S – If this blog disappears quickly, it’s because Richard wasn’t ok with it!

## Social Media hidden truths

Here’s an interesting presentation by Prof Mark Ritson which Nic pointed me to. A compelling talk in which Mark debunks some of the commercial numbers of social media, especially as a channel with organic reach. The basic premise is simple – you want reach, you’re gonna have to pay for it. That said, while he talks up the hours people watch TV, he fails to break down the attention given in those hours – are people really watching? My advice is to watch this with an open mind and investigate his premise. It’s a great starting point to demystify the fragmented media world we are now living in. Enjoy.

## Why Twitter will die if we keep saying it

I’ve been thinking a lot about twitter lately based on the many articles written forecasting its demise. I really hope they’re wrong, but I think they might be right. The main reason I think it will die, is because so many people are saying it. The same people who espoused it’s virtues when it arrived in 2007, are now nostalgic about a time when twitter really, really mattered. The problem with this sentiment, is that it will probably come true even if it isn’t. It’s a bit like a run on the banks. Here’s a short Sammartino definition:

A bank run happens hen a large number of a bank’s customers withdraw their deposits simultaneously due to concerns about the bank’s solvency. As more people withdraw their funds, the probability of default increases, thereby prompting more people to withdraw their deposits. The end result is the bank’s reserves may not be sufficient to cover the withdrawals.  A bank run is typically the result of panic, rather than a true insolvency on the part of the bank; however, what began as panic or opinion can turn into a true situation.

If enough people think there is no engagement on twitter, then more and more people will stop making ‘engagement deposits’ on twitter. Those who are there will get less engagement as a result. Then they’ll leave, which makes it less useful for others and before we know it we have another MySpace on our hands. It’s classic behavioural economics.

For me twitter has been valuable the past 8 years or so – I joined in Jan 2008. While it sounds kinda weird, I met a lot of my current friends through twitter, I built my personal brand there, and it became a tool for discovery and learning. It really helped me find people who cared about what I care about. It was an incredible tool, and my favourite brand for many years.

But if I were to think of one reason why I believe twitter started to stumble it would be this:

Delayed Tweets. Yes buffer, I blame you and cohort.

It’s a bit like this. All of us were at this really great party. Some of your friends were there. You met some new and interesting people. Everyone was really interested in what you were doing, and you interested in what they were doing. We helped each other, built a great eco system and it was all very give and take. But the party was so valuable and fun that no one really wanted to leave. People didn’t want to miss out on sharing a cool idea. So people started to talk more and listen less. After a while it became hard to hear and be heard. People even started sending messages when they were’t really in the room. It was like everyone put up a cardboard cut out of themselves, with interchangeable speech bubbles attached to them. The conversation turned into a noisy nightclub where no one could hear anyone speak. You’d try and have conversations with people who weren’t really there. It lost its authenticity. Slowly but surely, the value declined, and less people turned up.

Honestly, I don’t know if this is the cause, but it’s how it feels for me. If someone shared a blog post of mine it used to mean they really liked what I wrote. Now it probably means they have an IFTTT recipe set up. I’ll probably still hangout at twitter for a while yet, I might be one of the last to leave. But if there is any lessons for business people it’s this:  Twitter is classic reminder that we can never be sure of a channels long term survival. We should all be trying to build things we own and control so we have independence. We need to be our own media channel and have a place to talk to people who want to hear from us. It’s probably a portable email list. If people don’t have a reason to follow us on our own channel, then maybe our we need to create something more compelling.

You should totally read my book – The Great Fragmentation.

## The Uber attitude & surge pricing

Today the ride share service Uber, did more again of what it seems to be good at – acting like jerks. During the Sydney Siege they conducted a price surge and put prices up to reflect the demand for transport at a time of serious civil disturbance. But the most disturbing thing, isn’t the price, it’s really the attitude.

This is one time when industry disrupters can take an important lesson from their industrial era counterparts. Let’s take legacy airlines. Our national carrier Qantas has on many occasions diverted flights at no cost to pull people out of countries which present an immediate danger to Australian travellers.

While Uber later countered their original decision with a ‘Oh, and we’ll pay the fares’ tweet – below – it was clearly an afterthought when the rightfully astounded community reacted.

It turns out our natural intentions are revealed by how we behave before we get feedback.

New book – The Great Fragmentation – out now!

## How startups can benefit from the technology paradox

A lot of the new technology seems to do the opposite of what it ought to. A kind of paradox is emerging where the solution is so good in the short term, that it eventually eats itself. It solves the problem so well, at such a low price ,that the solution gets buried. Buried deep inside a pool of self perpetuating technology.

Omni social connectedness  –> loneliness epidemic.

Mass amounts of data –> lack of useful insight.

Dropping prices of everything we buy –> increasing debt bondage.

Worlds knowledge mere clicks away –> decline in human wisdom.

Private transport for everyone –> longer travel times.

This list could go on, but you get the picture. It seems like we should revisit the tools every now and again to make sure they’re making life better. And it is from this that the new startup opportunities arise. For every tech rush, there’s a new opportunity in fixing the part of it which is no longer working.