Freedom and Justice in our Technological Predicament

This is the thesis I wrote for my Master of Arts in philosophy.
It can also be dowloaded as a PDF.

Introduction

As the director of an NGO advocating for digital rights I am acutely aware of the digital trail we leave behind in our daily lives. But I too am occasionally surprised when I am confronted with concrete examples of this trail. Like when I logged into my Vodafone account (my mobile telephony provider) and—buried deep down in the privacy settings—found a selected option that said: “Ik stel mijn geanonimiseerde netwerkgegevens beschikbaar voor analyse.”1 I turned the option off and contacted Vodafone to ask them what was meant by anonymized network data analysis. They cordially hosted me at their Amsterdam offices and showed me how my movement behaviour was turned into a product by one of their joint ventures, Mezuro:

Smartphones communicate continuously with broadcasting masts in the vicinity. The billions of items of data provided by these interactions are anonymized and aggregated by the mobile network operator in its own IT environment and made available to Mezuro for processing and analysis. The result is information about mobility patterns of people, as a snapshot or trend analysis, in the form of a report or in an information system.2

TNO had certified this process and confirmed that privacy was assured: Mezuro has no access into the mobility information of individual people. From their website: “While of mobility patterns is of great social value, as far as we’re concerned it is certainly not more valuable than protecting the privacy of the individual.”3

Intuitively something about Vodafone’s behavior felt wrong to me, but I found it hard to articulate why what Vodafone was doing was problematic. This thesis is an attempt to find reasons and arguments that explain my growing sense of discomfort. It will show that Vodafone’s behavior is symptomatic for our current relationship with technology: it operates at a tremendous scale, it reuses data to turn it into new products and it feels empowered to do this without checking with their customers first.

The main research question of this thesis is how the most salient aspects of our technological predicament affect both justice as fairness and freedom as non-domination.

The research consists of three parts. In the first part I will look at the current situation to understand what is going on. By taking a closer look at the emerging logic of our digitizing society I will show how mediation, accumulation and centralization shape our technological predicament. This predicament turns out to be one where technology companies have a domineering scale, where they employ a form of data-driven appropriation and where our relationship with the technology is asymmetrical and puts us at the receiving end of arbitrary control. A set of four case studies based on Google’s products and services deepens and concretizes this understanding of our technological predicament.

In the second part of the thesis I will use the normative frameworks of John Rawls’s justice as fairness and Philip Pettit’s freedom as non-domination to problematize this technological predicament. I will show how data-driven appropriation leads to injustice through a lack of equality, the abuse of the commons, and a mistaken utilitarian ethics. And I will show how the domineering scale and our asymmetrical relationship to the technology sector leads to unfreedom through our increased vulnerability to manipulation, through our dependence on philanthropy, and through the arbitrary control that technology companies exert on us.

In the third and final part I will take a short and speculative look at what should be done to get us out of this technological predicament. Is it possible to reduce the scale at which technology operates? Can we reinvigorate the commons? And how should we build equality into our technology relationships?

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Facebook Enables Marketing to a Strictly White Only Audience

Segregated cinema entrance

I should be more precise: Facebook enables marketing to a strictly ‘white affinity’ only adience.

Doug Neil of Universal Pictures and Facebook’s Jim Underwood presented Big Box Office: Marketing Films in a Mobile World at SxSW a few weeks back. They promised the audience that they would get to hear about “the best approaches for mobile marketing: how a monster hit like Jurassic World benefited from mobile-friendly content delivered to a mass audience while genre films benefit from insights into audience segments ranging from multi-cultural to multi-generational.”

In the session Neil explained how the movie Straight Outta Compton was an unexpected breakout hit. According to Business Insider he credited segmenting the audience into three parts: the “general population” (meaning non-African-American and non-Hispanic), African-Americans and Hispanics:

Neil credited part of this to a specialized Facebook marketing effort led by Universal’s “multicultural team” in conjunction with its Facebook team. They created tailored trailers for different segments of the population.

Why? The “general population” (non-African American, non-Hispanic) wasn’t familiar with N.W.A., or with the musical catalog of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, according to Neil. They connected to Ice Cube as an actor and Dr. Dre as the face of Beats, he said. The trailer marketed to them on Facebook had no mention of N.W.A., but sold the movie as a story of the rise of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.

The trailer marketed to African Americans was completely different. Universal assumed this segment of the population had a baseline familiarity with N.W.A. “They put Compton on the map,” Neil said. This trailer opens with the word N.W.A. and continues to lean on it heavily throughout.

As to the trailer produced for the Hispanic market, it was a shorter spot that included flashing quotes in Spanish.

Let’s sidestep the fact that Hollywood still seems to think that “black” movies have a hard time being successful. And let’s ignore how tone-deaf these two gentlemen are when it comes to the current situation around race in Hollywood (think #OscarsSoWhite or the upsetting story of Nina Simone’s botched biopic). Instead, let’s look at what this really is:

Racial profiling enabled by Facebook’s data lust

Facebook was quick to explain that they are not identifying their audience as being black. Instead they are merely assessing your affinity with black culture, or as they would call it: whether you “like African-American content”. They promise they won’t make that assessment on the basis of your photos (although surely their research lab must be working on some form of “fracial recognition” system), your name or census data. Instead they’ll look at what you ‘like’ and read online. In simple Facebook-algorithmic terms: if you watch BET and post #BlackLivesMatter links, then we can tell our advertiser you probably know N.W.A. well and don’t need to see the whitewashed trailer.

Some people can’t see what is wrong with a bit of personalisation and are happy that this movie has managed to find a big audience. But they are missing the bigger picture.

Facebook has this type of affinity data on most of its close to 1.6 billion(!) monthly active users. We now have a commercial company building a massive world-scale database that enables anybody with access to that data to slice up the population in whatever way they might find convenient.

  • Looking for strictly white patronage for your Airbnb? Facebook can help you with that.
  • Only want millionaires on your dating site? Show some ads to Facebook users from the “rich affinity” group.
  • Desperate to sell your cancer medication? Facebook can get you a set of people who have ‘liked’ cancer.
  • Need a list of all the people with Kurdish affinity? Facebook is ready for you!
  • Jews? Muslims? Facebook can now personalise their experience too…

After initially enabling ‘Web 2.0’, Facebook is now enabling segregation 2.0. I mean, what could go wrong?

Managing Unconscious Bias at Facebook

I’ve written before about how the lack of diversity in the companies that are shaping our world is literally hurting people. I specifically referred to Eric Meyer being confronted with his deceased daughter. Facebook does realise their lack of diversity is also hurting their business. So they’ve started an internal course to battle what they term unconscious bias. They’ve put an interesting set of videos of the course online. From their blogpost:

To reflect the diversity of the 1.4 billion people using our products, we need to have people with different backgrounds, races, genders and points of view working at Facebook. Diverse teams have better results, so this is not only the right thing to do – it’s also good for our business.

and:

One of the most important things we can do to promote diversity in the workplace is to correct for the unconscious bias that all of us have.

Google is focusing on unconscious bias too.

I am aware that so-called affirmitive action has gotten a bad reputation, but if I were to change a company’s culture on this topic, this isn’t where I would start. To really make an impact these information giants will have to start directly addressing the structural societal problems that lead the lack of diversity.

Interested to learn more about diversity in the technology sector? Check out these resources.

TruBaltics, An Unconference on Recruitment

#TruBaltics

#TruBaltics

Today I attended #TruBaltics one of the Tru Conferences on recruitment.

The Recruiting Unconferences are a series of pure unconferences organised worldwide, where the emphasis is on conversation, communication and the free exchange of ideas and experiences, (dis)organized by Bill Boorman.

These unconferences have four simple rules:

  1. No Presentations
  2. No PowerPoint
  3. No Name Badges
  4. No Pitching

The driving forces behind this edition of Tru seemed to be Aki Kakko and Ruta Klyvyte.

The topic of recruitment is very new to me, so this was a quick way for me to get an overview of the topics that people are worrying about and be more at the edge than if I’d gone to an event organized by Bersin for example. I attended a set of tracks and kept some notes:

Job board versus social

Mike Sandiford explained how in the UK people are declaring the job board dead. He is not sure he agrees: People go to job boards because they are looking for jobs. That is not necessarily the case for social. The most important thing is to find out where your target audience is spending time online. What is best really depends on what you are looking for and on the market. Whether you use job boards or more social tools like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+, you will always find that brand is of course an important part of your presence on job boards and in social media.

One participant in the track argued strongly against using job boards at all. You don’t get much for what you pay for and you actually cast the net way too wide and then lose a lot of time in the screening process. According him the war for talent isn’t because there is scarcity of talent, but because there is too much talent and you have to spend time selecting the right person.

There is company that has created a lot of training materials on how you use social tools in recruitment: Social Talent. There seems to be a permanent race to use the latest social tool. People discussed using things like Foursquare, Pinterest and even Spotify (if you are the Hard Rock cafe you could create a playlist and hire the people that like your playlist…, yes yes).

Value-based interviewing (as opposed to skill-based)

Liena Ivanova and Darja Milova led this track which tried to answer whether companies should, can and will assess a candidate’s values during the interview process.

We first discussed whether companies can have values (or whether only people can have values). We quickly talked about Edgar’s Schein‘s three levels of organizational culture: artifacts, values and assumptions.

Some people in the track really preferred to look at somebody’s skills rather than at their values. Other people were very interested in how you would assess people’s values in the first place (there didn’t seem to be any answers for this in the room). Heineken has a funny ad that shows how you can go beyond the traditional way when assessing candidate:

One thing you can do is create a video as an artifact of a company’s culture which can then attract the right candidates. Facebook has an example of this:

My employer has done something similar:

Of course we also discussed Zappos who seem to have managed to make their values part of their brand proposition (but are now themselves part of Amazon which seem to be pushing work practices in a terrible way).

This stimulating track left me with two questions/thoughts:

  • Don’t companies just get the candidates that they deserve? Or put another way: isn’t there a natural matc between the company’s values and those of the candidate? Isn’t the easiest intervention you can do when you want to have different candidates to change your company?
  • How does diversity fit into this picture? Diversity is part of many company’s value statements, but we don’t seem to have an appetite for hiring people who hav different values than ours.

The death of social recruitment. What’s the next big thing?

Rihard Brigis wanted to discuss what new technology is coming up that actually works. We touched on things like workforce marketing, social referrals, cloud recruiting and the increase in the use of analytics. The latter can help you find people on the basis of what they do rather than on the basis of what they say. Tools like Knack It serve a similar purpose.

There are few companies that claim to have interesting technology that helps the recruitment and that might be worth checking out. I will look into Jobscience, Bullhorn and Joberate. Joberate is developing a product that sounds very interesting. It is called “signal” and tries to find candidates that seem to be ready to change jobs and are thus ripe for the picking. This has obvious external applications, but could even be useful internally: who doesn’t want to know when is on the cusp of leaving? Read more about signal here.

Another things that is happening more often is that companies organize events that manage to attract who don’t work for the company (think of a hackaton) and then let current employees decide who they like to hire from those events. It boils down to organizing things that expose people to you. I think that this is what the larger MOOC providers like Coursera will ultimately do. As a company don’t you want to know who are the top performers in certain courses?

I actually think there must be a market for what I’ll name slow recruitment (or slow recruiting for SEO purposes): not using the latest online technology to continuously accelerate the sourcing and selection process, but take your time instead because you know that is just better. When I mentioned this in the track no eyes lit up (yet).

“Marrying” the candidate – pro and cons (building a close relationship or not)

Inna Ferdman and Irina Točko discussed an important recruitment topic: how “intimate” can you afford to be with your candidates. There is a trend in recruitment to build longer term relationships with candidates maybe even before they are ready to move. They used the metaphor of marriage to explore the topic.

For me this topic is very much about what I’ll term the directionality of the hiring relationship. If I am a recruiter for a company that can find many people for a particular job, then I can afford not to have a relationship with the candidate. If a candidate’s skills are so rare that he can pick different employer (flipping the hiring process so to say), then it pays of to invest in a candidate. (A sidenote: I am toying with the idea of doing an RFI/RFP process for my own employment where I would put down my requirements and then let employers bid against each other, could be interesting).

I don’t know this profession at all, so maybe somebody else can tell me whether the following is a feasible business model for a recruiter. Could you build very solid relationships with a group of very talented people that you then each place once every four years or so? How many people would need to be in your talent pool? Would it be less than Dunbar’s number? I guess that would depend on the field and how high the commissions are.

Employer branding 2.0

This track was led by Jacco Valkenburg from Recruit2 who is a LinkedIn recruitment guru.

According to Jacco we’ve been building recruitment sites for the past 10 -15 years. He now believes that these websites are at the end of their product lifecycle. Mainly because the web is disappearing: people are checking Facebook in the morning, rather than visiting a website. He adviced everybody to move their whole recruitment site into Facebook. Facebook’s interactivity make it a great place to show what an interesting place to work you are.

He showed how a company like Q-Park has created a Facebook page for recruiting. They follow their employees and then share what they share (if it is interesting) on their company page.

Anybody who has read this blog before knows that I have some longstanding issues with Facebook. As a company I wouldn’t put all my eggs in the so-called free basket of a company that is notorious for changing their policies and their functionality at their whim. I also don’t find it decent to make your prospective employees (or even customers) pay with their data for the data and functionality that you are getting. I tried to argue these points in the session, but they seemed to fall to deaf ears mostly. The “dark side” of social technologies weren’t mentioned in any deep way during the day actually except for one fleeting reference to LinkedIn’s scary practices.

About this type of unconference format

Sitting in a circle without slides definitely leads to much better conversations. I wish more conferences had much larger parts of them organized in this way. The one things I did notice is that I have a hard time with the fact that it is perfectly normal to switch tracks mid-way. I personally can’t do it (I also finish books I dislike) and was distracted by people leaving mid-sentence. I do understand why allowing this is essential to making the format work. One other thing that was wonderful was how refreshingly non-commercial the whole thing was. You really had to put effort into finding out who worked for what vendor.

Tru actually seems to have turned itself into a very active and connected community with all angles of recruitment covered. I will definitely attend another one.

My open questions

After the full day I was left with a few open questions on the topic of recruitment:

  • Everybody seemed to think that it is necessary to have recruiters (I guess that is what I would think if I was a recruiter myself), but doesn’t the technology disintermediate the recruiter? How is the profession changing in reaction? We didn’t have any solid discussions on this topic.
  • What is a proper typology for recruitment? The directionality was barely ever addressed directly. What types of recruiters exist?
  • There is a lot of talk about “employer brand”, but there was no talk about changing the company to attract different staff. If you want better people, shouldn’t just be a better place to work? Seems like common sense to me.
  • Are we indeed moving from a discoverability problem to a selection problem?

As always curious to hear your thoughts!

Learning. Who is responsible?

A hero: Ivan Illich

A hero: Ivan Illich

Just now I delivered a keynote at the 20th Annual Israeli Learning Conference. I was there at the kind invitation of HR Israel and Amir Elion.

My talk was pitched as follows:

Over the next few years the role of the learning organization will shift, moving away from the current focus on course and curriculum design. Two new responsibilities will appear: 1. Supporting individuals with their self-directed learning and 2. Creating behavioral change interventions for smaller and larger teams. Hans de Zwart will take a fresh perspective on the underlying causes of this shift (like the increasing percentage of knowledge workers or the easy availability of global virtual collaboration tools), he wil give a wide and historical range of examples of existing “do-it-yourself” learning and he will share his thoughts on what this means for you as an HR professional.

I have come to believe that SlideShare is fundamentally broken, so while WordPress.com is hopefully working on providing the ability to show PDF files inline in my posts I’ve decided to just post a PDF version of my slides online.

The slides can be downloaded here (or here for a Dutch version)

The talk was divided into three parts:

Why is DIY Learning relevant?

Firstly I showed that the accelerating change of pace is not just a cliché, but that technology actually does progress exponentially. I showed some of Kurzweil’s graphs to back this up.

This means that we are increasingly living in a complex world. According to the Cynefin framework the sensible approach to problems in the complex domain is to first probe, then sense and finally respond. This aligns nicely with Peter Drucker’s definition of the knowledge worker who necessarily is solely responsible for their own productivity: they are the only ones who can understand their own job. For me a logical consequence of this is that you cannot create a learning curriculum for a knowledge worker. With the increasing mobility of labour, you could even argue that businesses will not want to invest in training a knowledge worker but that they will just assume competence.

Next I talked about Ivan Illich and his book Deschooling Society. We are institutionalizing students through the school system. We mistake teaching for learning and diplomas/certificates for competence. Illich’ solution is radical: to replace school with what he calls “learning webs”. He had some very practical ideas about this, that have become easier now that we have the web.

Another reason for DIY learning to come to the forefront is the ubiquity of free (mostly in beer, but also in speech) tools that enable us to connect with each other and organize ourselves. It is simple to set up your own website with something like WordPress.com and tools like Google+ (hangouts!), Facebook and Twitter are amazing in enabling people to take charge of their learning.

Examples of DIY Learning

I shared a set of examples of existing DIY learning efforts from a wide variety of fields.

The first example was from the European Juggling Convention in Lublin. People organized workshops there by using a simple central board and a set of activity templates.

Sugatra Mitra realizes that there aren’t enough good teachers to teach all the children in the world. He is therefore looking for a minimally invasive pedagogy. He has found a simple method: give groups of children a computer with access to the web, ask them an interesting question, leave them alone (maybe give them a bit of “granny pedagogy” support) and come back to find that the children have learned something. Do check out his wiki on Self Organising Learning Environments (SOLEs).

The original Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs (as first run by Stephen Downes, George Siemens and others, now known as cMOOCs) are great examples of learning in a decentralized fashion.

Open Space technology (with its four principles and a law) is another example of how people can learn in a completely self-organized way.

Yammer groups are a great way for communities of practice to construct knowledge together. Anybody can start a group and these are often on topics that are relevant, but don’t get addressed top-down (an example I know of is a group of Apple users in a Microsoft-only company sharing knowledge with each other on how to use Apple products in that situation).

Dale Stephens has shown that there are alternatives to a formal college education with his Uncollege platform.

The reading group I organized in 2010 was the final example I used of a group of people getting together to learn something.

What should you (= HR) do?

All of this means the role of the HR Learning department will need to change. I see three imperatives:

  1. It is crucial to devolve the responsibility for learning to the learner. Stop accepting their “learned helplessness” and stimulate everybody to become truly reflective practitioners.
  2. Make sure to provide scaffolding. You should build things that will make it easier for the learners to build their own things. This only works if your approach is very open. Both for the learning materials (think Creative Commons and OER Commons) and for who can join. Efforts should be across organizations and across businesses. Don’t accept the naive (layman’s) idea which always seems to equate learning with content. Instead focus on designing learning experiences. Nurture any communities of practice and invest time in moderation.
  3. Finally, change the unit of intervention. You should never focus on the individual anymore. The unit of change is now the team (at minimum).

Notes

I’ve used the fabulous Pinpoint to create this presentation. This allows me to just get a set of image files and write the presentation in a very simple text based format. The PDF output doesn’t quite look like I’d want it to. Does anybody know whether it is possible to set the width/height ratio of the PDF export (4:3 rather than 16:9)?

I started collecting the licenses for each of the images in the slidepack so that I could attribute them correctly (find my incomplete list here). At some point I just couldn’t be bothered anymore. My blog is just too insignificant and I really do believe I can have more positive impact on this world by doing something (anything!) different with my time. If your picture is used and you are very disgruntled then I would be more than happy to make amends.