Reminder: Other people’s lives are not fodder for your feeds

#PlaneBae

You should cringe when you read that hashtag. Because it’s a reminder that people are being socially engineered by technology platforms to objectify and spy on each other for voyeuristic pleasure and profit.

The short version of the story attached to the cringeworthy hashtag is this: Earlier this month an individual, called Rosey Blair, spent all the hours of a plane flight using her smartphone and social media feeds to invade the privacy of her seat neighbors — publicly gossiping about the lives of two strangers.

Her speculation was set against a backdrop of rearview creepshots, with a few barely there scribbles added to blot out actual facial features. Even as an entire privacy invading narrative was being spun unknowingly around them.

#PlanePrivacyInvasion would be a more fitting hashtag. Or #MoralVacuumAt35000ft

And yet our youthful surveillance society started with a far loftier idea associated with it: Citizen journalism.

Once we’re all armed with powerful smartphones and ubiquitously fast Internet there will be no limits to the genuinely important reportage that will flow, we were told.

There will be no way for the powerful to withhold the truth from the people.

At least that was the nirvana we were sold.

What did we get? Something that looks much closer to mass manipulation. A tsunami of ad stalking, intentionally fake news and social media-enabled demagogues expertly appropriating these very same tools by gamifying mind-less, ethically nil algorithms.

Meanwhile, masses of ordinary people + ubiquitous smartphones + omnipresent social media feeds seems, for the most part, to be resulting in a kind of mainstream attention deficit disorder.

Yes, there is citizen journalism — such as people recording and broadcasting everyday experiences of aggression, racism and sexism, for example. Experiences that might otherwise go unreported, and which are definitely underreported.

That is certainly important.

But there are also these telling moments of #hashtaggable ethical blackout. As a result of what? Let’s call it the lure of ‘citizen clickbait’ — as people use their devices and feeds to mimic the worst kind of tabloid celebrity gossip ‘journalism’ by turning their attention and high tech tools on strangers, with (apparently) no major motivation beyond the simple fact that they can. Because technology is enabling them.

Social norms and common courtesy should kick in and prevent this. But social media is pushing in an unequal and opposite direction, encouraging users to turn anything — even strangers’ lives — into raw material to be repackaged as ‘content’ and flung out for voyeuristic entertainment.

It’s life reflecting commerce. But a particularly insidious form of commerce that does not accept editorial let alone ethical responsibility, has few (if any) moral standards, and relies, for continued function, upon stripping away society’s collective sense of privacy in order that these self-styled ‘sharing’ (‘taking’ is closer to the mark) platforms can swell in size and profit.

But it’s even worse than that. Social media as a data-mining, ad-targeting enterprise relies upon eroding our belief in privacy. So these platforms worry away at that by trying to disrupt our understanding of what privacy means. Because if you were to consider what another person thinks or feels — even for a millisecond — you might not post whatever piece of ‘content’ you had in mind.

For the platforms it’s far better if you just forget to think.

Facebook’s business is all about applying engineering ingenuity to eradicate the thoughtful friction of personal and societal conscience.

That’s why, for instance, it uses facial recognition technology to automate content identification — meaning there’s almost no opportunity for individual conscience to kick in and pipe up to quietly suggest that publicly tagging others in a piece of content isn’t actually the right thing to do.

Because it’s polite to ask permission first.

But Facebook’s antisocial automation pushes people away from thinking to ask for permission. There’s no button provided for that. The platform encourages us to forget all about the existence of common courtesies.

So we should not be at all surprised that such fundamental abuses of corporate power are themselves trickling down to infect the people who use and are exposed to these platforms’ skewed norms.

Viral episodes like #PlaneBae demonstrate that the same sense of entitlement to private information is being actively passed onto the users these platforms prey on and feed off — and is then getting beamed out, like radiation, to harm the people around them.

The damage is collective when societal norms are undermined.

#PlaneBae

Social media’s ubiquity means almost everyone works in marketing these days. Most people are marketing their own lives — posting photos of their pets, their kids, the latte they had this morning, the hipster gym where they work out — having been nudged to perform this unpaid labor by the platforms that profit from it.

The irony is that most of this work is being done for free. Only the platforms are being paid. Though there are some people making a very modern living; the new breed of ‘life sharers’ who willingly polish, package and post their professional existence as a brand of aspiration lifestyle marketing.

Social media’s gift to the world is that anyone can be a self-styled model now, and every passing moment a fashion shoot for hire — thanks to the largess of highly accessible social media platforms providing almost anyone who wants it with their own self-promoting shopwindow in the world. Plus all the promotional tools they could ever need.

Just step up to the glass and shoot.

And then your vacation beauty spot becomes just another backdrop for the next aspirational selfie. Although those aquamarine waters can’t be allowed to dampen or disrupt photo-coifed tresses, nor sand get in the camera kit. In any case, the makeup took hours to apply and there’s the next selfie to take…

What does the unchronicled life of these professional platform performers look like? A mess of preparation for projecting perfection, presumably, with life’s quotidian business stuffed higgledy piggledy into the margins — where they actually sweat and work to deliver the lie of a lifestyle dream.

Because these are also fakes — beautiful fakes, but fakes nonetheless.

We live in an age of entitled pretence. And while it may be totally fine for an individual to construct a fictional narrative that dresses up the substance of their existence, it’s certainly not okay to pull anyone else into your pantomime. Not without asking permission first.

But the problem is that social media is now so powerfully omnipresent its center of gravity is actively trying to pull everyone in — and its antisocial impacts frequently spill out and over the rest of us. And they rarely if ever ask for consent.

What about the people who don’t want their lives to be appropriated as digital windowdressing? Who weren’t asking for their identity to be held up for public consumption? Who don’t want to participate in this game at all — neither to personally profit from it, nor to have their privacy trampled by it?

The problem is the push and pull of platforms against privacy has become so aggressive, so virulent, that societal norms that protect and benefit us all — like empathy, like respect — are getting squeezed and sucked in.

The ugliness is especially visible in these ‘viral’ moments when other people’s lives are snatched and consumed voraciously on the hoof — as yet more content for rapacious feeds.

#PlaneBae

Think too of the fitness celebrity who posted a creepshot + commentary about a less slim person working out at their gym.

Or the YouTuber parents who monetize videos of their kids’ distress.

Or the men who post creepshots of women eating in public — and try to claim it’s an online art project rather than what it actually is: A privacy violation and misogynistic attack.

Or, on a public street in London one day, I saw a couple of giggling teenage girls watching a man at a bus stop who was clearly mentally unwell. Pulling out a smartphone, one girl hissed to the other: “We’ve got to put this on YouTube.”

For platforms built by technologists without thought for anything other than growth, everything is a potential spectacle. Everything is a potential post.

So they press on their users to think less. And they profit at society’s expense.

It’s only now, after social media has embedded itself everywhere, that platforms are being called out for their moral vacuum; for building systems that encourage abject mindlessness in users — and serve up content so bleak it represents a form of visual cancer.

#PlaneBae

Human have always told stories. Weaving our own narratives is both how we communicate and how we make sense of personal experience — creating order out of events that are often disorderly, random, even chaotic.

The human condition demands a degree of pattern-spotting for survival’s sake; so we can pick our individual path out of the gloom.

But platforms are exploiting that innate aspect of our character. And we, as individuals, need to get much, much better at spotting what they’re doing to us.

We need to recognize how they are manipulating us; what they are encouraging us to do — with each new feature nudge and dark pattern design choice.

We need to understand their underlying pull. The fact they profit by setting us as spies against each other. We need to wake up, personally and collectively, to social media’s antisocial impacts.

Perspective should not have to come at the expense of other people getting hurt.

This week the women whose privacy was thoughtlessly repackaged as public entertainment when she was branded and broadcast as #PlaneBae — and who has suffered harassment and yet more unwelcome attention as a direct result — gave a statement to Business Insider.

“#PlaneBae is not a romance — it is a digital-age cautionary tale about privacy, identity, ethics and consent,” she writes. “Please continue to respect my privacy, and my desire to remain anonymous.”

And as a strategy to push against the antisocial incursions of social media, remembering to respect people’s privacy is a great place to start.

Disney tech smooths out bad CG hair days

Disney is unequivocally the world’s leader in 3D simulations of hair — something of a niche talent in a way, but useful if you make movies like Tangled, where hair is basically the main character. A new bit of research from the company makes it easier for animators to have hair follow their artistic intent while also moving realistically.

The problem Disney Research aimed to solve was a compromise that animators have had to make when making the hair on characters do what the scene requires. While the hair will ultimately be rendered in glorious high-definition and with detailed physics, it’s too computationally expensive to do that while composing the scene.

Should a young warrior in her tent be wearing her hair up or down? Should it fly out when she turns her head quickly to draw attention to the movement, or stay weighed down so the audience isn’t distracted? Trying various combinations of these things can eat up hours of rendering time. So, like any smart artist, they rough it out first:

“Artists typically resort to lower-resolution simulations, where iterations are faster and manual edits possible,” reads the paper describing the new system. “But unfortunately, the parameter values determined in this way can only serve as an initial guess for the full-resolution simulation, which often behaves very different from its coarse counterpart when the same parameters are used.”

The solution proposed by the researchers is basically to use that “initial guess” to inform a high-resolution simulation of just a handful of hairs. These “guide” hairs act as feedback for the original simulation, bringing a much better idea of how the rest will act when fully rendered.

The guide hairs will cause hair to clump as in the upper right, while faded affinities or an outline-based guide (below, left and right) would allow for more natural motion if desired.

And because there are only a couple of them, their finer simulated characteristics can be tweaked and re-tweaked with minimal time. So an artist can fine-tune a flick of the ponytail or a puff of air on the bangs to create the desired effect, and not have to trust to chance that it’ll look like that in the final product.

This isn’t a trivial thing to engineer, of course, and much of the paper describes the schemes the team created to make sure that no weirdness occurs because of the interactions of the high-def and low-def hair systems.

It’s still very early: it isn’t meant to simulate more complex hair motions like twisting, and they want to add better ways of spreading out the affinity of the bulk hair with the special guide hairs (as seen at right). But no doubt there are animators out there who can’t wait to get their hands on this once it gets where it’s going.

Yes, open office plans are the worst

If you’re endlessly distracted by your co-workers in the gaping open office space you all share, you’re not alone. Compared to traditional office spaces, face-to-face interaction in open office spaces is down 70 percent with resulting slips in productivity, according to Harvard researchers in a new study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B this month.

In the study, researchers followed two anonymous Fortune 500 companies during their transitions between a traditional office space to an open plan environment and used a sensor called a “sociometric badge” (think company ID on a lanyard) to record detailed information about the kind of interactions employees had in both spaces. The study collected information in two stages; first for several weeks before the renovation and the second for several weeks after.

While the concept behind open office spaces is to drive informal interaction and collaboration among employees, the study found that for both groups of employees monitored (52 for one company and 100 for the other company) face-to-face interactions dropped, the number of emails sent increased between 20 and 50 percent and company executives reported a qualitative drop in productivity.

“[Organizations] transform their office architectures into open spaces with the intention of creating more [face-to-face] interaction and thus a more vibrant work environment,” the study’s authors, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, wrote. “[But] what they often get—as captured by a steady stream of news articles professing the death of the open office is an open expanse of proximal employees choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones) while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).”

While this study is far from the first to point fingers at open office space designs, the researchers claim this is the first study of its kind to collect qualitative data on this shift in working environment instead of relying primarily on employee surveys.

From their results, the researchers provide three cautionary tales:

  1. Open office spaces don’t actually promote interaction. Instead, they cause employees to seek privacy wherever they can find it.
  2. These open spaces might spell bad news for collective company intelligence or, in other words, an overstimulating office space creates a decrease in organizational productivity.
  3. Not all channels of interaction will be effected equally in an open layout change. While the number of emails sent in the study did increase, the study found that the richness of this interaction was not equal to that lost in face-to-face interactions.

Seems like it might be time to (first, find a quiet room) and go back to the drawing board with the open office design.

Coinbase teases new cryptocurrency assets for which it’s ‘exploring’ support

Coinbase is taking a look at some new cryptocurrencies to add to its exchange. The list is kind of a pre-announcement, with the startup saying that it’s “exploring” adding the assets and is working with local banks and regulators to make them happen.

On the list are…

Coinbase is one of the most popular exchange companies and holds quite a bit of sway in directing attention and enthusiasm within the broader blockchain/cryptocurrency space, so the exploration announcement is sure to bring some added interest to these particular assets.

Last month, the site announced it was adding Ethereum Classic to the exchange, though in a blog post published today, Coinbase notes that while adding that asset was relatively straightforward, it’s going to take some regulatory work to add any of these new tokens, further noting that they “cannot guarantee they will be listed for trading.”

Coinbase got some flack with the debacle surrounding the rollout of Bitcoin Cash after several users accused the site’s employees of profiting from advanced knowledge of the news after the token’s value swelled preceding the announcement.

Announcing this might be a way for Coinbase to just hedge some of that by informing the whole community in an earlier stage of the process in which direction it is looking, even if every asset doesn’t necessarily end up landing on one of the startup’s exchanges. It’s also a way to prevent speculation and frustration as APIs land on the site that are testing integrations — Coinbase probably doesn’t want people assuming these are guarantees of future support.   

ACLU calls for a moratorium on government use of facial recognition technologies

Technology executives are pleading with the government to give them guidance on how to use facial recognition technologies, and now the American Civil Liberties Union is weighing in.

On the heels of a Microsoft statement asking for the federal government to weigh in on the technology, the ACLU has called for a moratorium on the use of the technology by government agencies.

“Congress should take immediate action to put the brakes on this technology with a moratorium on its use, given that it has not been fully debated and its use has never been explicitly authorized,” said Neema Singh Guliani, ACLU legislative counsel, in a statement. “And companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and others should be heeding the calls from the public, employees, and shareholders to stop selling face surveillance technology to governments.”

In May the ACLU released a report on Amazon’s sale of facial recognition technology to different law enforcement agencies. And in June the civil liberties group pressed the company to stop selling the technology. One contract, with the Orlando Police Department, was suspended and then renewed after the uproar.

Meanwhile, Google employees revolted over their company’s work with the government on facial recognition tech… and Microsoft had problems of its own after reports surfaced of the work that the company was doing with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement service.

Some organizations are already working to regulate how facial recognition technologies are used. At MIT, Joy Buolamwini has created the Algorithmic Justice League, which is pushing a pledge that companies working with the technology can agree to as they work on the tech.

That pledge includes commitments to value human life and dignity, including the refusal to help develop lethal autonomous vehicles or equipping law enforcement with facial analysis products.

YouTube TV subscribers get a free week after World Cup meltdown

When one of the main selling points for your service is the ability to stream live sports, the last thing you want is a full-on service meltdown during a huge game.

Alas, that’s exactly what happened on Wednesday to YouTube TV. Just as the World Cup semi-finals game between Croatia and England started heating up, <a href=”http://the service went dark.

As something of a mea culpa, YouTube has sent out an email to subscribers promising a free week of YouTube TV service. With most users paying ~$40 a month for the service, that works out to about $10 off their next bill. Curiously, user reports suggest the refund is going out to most, if not all, YouTube TV users — not just those who were watching (or, you know, trying to watch) the game in question.

Meanwhile, some users have noted that reaching out directly to customer service lead to them getting a full month for free — so if you’re still feeling a bit burned by the whole thing, that might be something worth pursuing.

If you’re a subscriber but aren’t seeing the notice, check your spam box — some users in this Reddit thread are mentioning finding the notice hiding in there, or tucked away in the “social” tab in Gmail’s split view.

Moment Pro Camera app brings big camera controls to your phone

The company that brought you the best glass for your mobile device now gives you DSLR-like controls with their Pro Camera app. Features include full manual adjustment over ISO, shutter speed, white balance, image format and more.

It should be noted that if you don’t have a shiny new device you won’t be able to use the app to its full potential since some of its key features include 3D touch, dual lens control, RAW image format, 120 and 240 fps, and 4k resolution.

Moment says the app is for “anyone looking for pro, manual controls on their phone.” Being one of TechCrunch’s resident image makers, I figured I should take the app out for a spin and pit it against the stock camera app. I enlisted my photogenic friend, Jackie, to be my muse.

Scrolling through the manual settings was very easy and the UI never felt fumbly. The histogram is nice to have and utilizes that iPhone notch well. The app doesn’t have portrait mode, however, which Jackie and I would have loved because who doesn’t love that buttery (fake) bokeh – amirite? Manipulating the exposure in video mode was equally as easy. The app didn’t have an audio meter or level settings, so folks recording dialog or VO need to plan accordingly. Luckily, our shoot didn’t need it since we were shooting slow-mo.

For a couple extra bucks you can get the same manual controls, audio levels, + RAW with ProCam 5. But if you’re already invested in the Moment Lens ecosystem and primarily shoot photography then the upgrade could be a worthwhile addition.

You can save photos in HEIF, JPG, RAW and TIFF format. For video, you have the option to shoot in 24, 30, 60, 120, and 240 fps in either 720p, 1080p or 4k resolution. Free to try. $2.99 iOS and $1.99 Android to upgrade.

There’s now just one Blockbuster remaining in the U.S.

And then there was one.

With the impending closures of Blockbuster locations in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska, just one single store will remain in the country, Anchorage Daily News reported yesterday. The two locations in Alaska will officially close their respective doors on July 16, leaving just one location in Bend, Ore.

“…it is sad to say goodbye to our dedicated customers,” Blockbuster Alaska General Manager Kevin Daymude said in a Facebook post announcing the closures. “Both [the district manager] and I have been with the company since 1991 and have had great memories throughout our career. Thank you for sticking by us throughout all these years. I can’t tell you how much it means to us.”

Following the initial closures on the 16th, the locations will reopen on the 17th through the end of August for an inventory sale. But, as for the “Cinderella Man” memorabilia John Oliver gifted the Anchorage location earlier this summer, Daymude told Anchorage Daily News that it is likely to return to its original owner.

The movie rental chain opened its first store in Dallas in 1995 and swelled to a booming 9,000 locations by 2004. But, with the introduction of streaming services and a general change in consumers’ viewing habits, the company has been closing locations in the last decade and announced in 2013 the imminent closing of its remaining locations.

It’s hard to say with certainty why Blockbuster has persisted in Alaska over the years despite its relative extinction in the rest of the United States, though some point to spotty and expensive internet connections.

Or maybe it’s just the nostalgia. District manager Kelli Vey told Anchorage Daily News that the stores saw a lot of selfies — but not nearly as many sales.

“I wish they would come in and buy something,” Vey told the paper. “All day long, I joke that I need to put a picture of somebody in the window to photobomb them.”

For those still wishing to pay homage to the late 90s and early 2000s giant, the Bend location is open Friday and Saturday from 10:30 am – 10 pm and Sunday – Thursday from 10:30 am – 9 pm. But maybe this time think about renting a movie after you’ve snapped your picture.