Note — Aug 16, 2020

How Not to Know Ourselves

Seen in → No.137

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Points — This article by Angela Xiao Wu summarizes her paper written with Harsh Taneja which “offers a new take on social sciences’ ongoing embrace of platform log data by questioning their measurement conditions.” Basically, a lot of people use data from the big social or even media platforms, and try to draw conclusions about the quirks and desires of the users. However, those platforms are so skewed towards optimizing for engagement and ads, that they can’t really be said to represent any real sense of the people behind the account. Always ask, “what purpose does the measurement serve?” When Netflix pushes you to binge their new show, does your engagement or laziness really reveal anything of value?

The example I often use (cribbed from an article, I’ve forgotten which) is the car crash. Yes, everyone slows down to watch, but that doesn’t mean we want to watch an endless series of crashes, I’m not a Cronenberg character just because Youtube wants me to be. Yet that’s how many algorithms seem to work.

A closer look at the measurement conditions of platforms allows us to rethink the nature of platform log data: they are essentially “administrative data” that platforms generate to realize their own organizational goals, which go little beyond enlarging advertising income, harvesting intermediary fees, and attracting venture capitals. […]

With calculated neglect comes calibrated nudges: platform user activity, in the first place, is induced, coaxed, and experimented on by the platform environment. From multilayered graphical organization to complex algorithmic recommendation, it is from all these platform arrangements that user activity arises. […]

When we are experimental subjects oblivious to platforms’ treatments on us, taking our induced behaviors as “natural” means regarding these platforms as benign, transparent vehicles for our inherent intentions, and thus obscuring their prevailing power. […]

What are the human actions and predispositions that initially spark our curiosity? What is the kind of self-knowledge that we would cherish as a foundation for enriching our sociality, our civil and public institutions, and our democratic process?