Home > Current Affairs, Dystopia, Links, Reason, Secular Religions, Skepticism, Technology > Interesting Links: Aug 18, 2015

Interesting Links: Aug 18, 2015

Here are links to a few interesting news articles I came across recently. They are about the supposedly “unexpected”, yet highly predictable, effects of “big data” -derived algorithms on the ability of societies to exploit and abuse its members.

In case you are wondering, my recent series of link-posts are a buildup to a few upcoming inter-connected series on issues such as mechanisms behind the ongoing and inevitable demise of modern nation-states.

Link 1: Digital Star Chamber

In a recent podcast series called Instaserfs, a former Uber driver named Mansour gave a chilling description of the new, computer-mediated workplace. First, the company tried to persuade him to take a predatory loan to buy a new car. Apparently a number cruncher deemed him at high risk of defaulting. Second, Uber would never respond in person to him – it just sent text messages and emails. This style of supervision was a series of take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums – a digital boss coded in advance. Then the company suddenly took a larger cut of revenues from him and other drivers. And finally, what seemed most outrageous to Mansour: his job could be terminated without notice if a few passengers gave him one-star reviews, since that could drag his average below 4.7. According to him, Uber has no real appeal recourse or other due process in play for a rating system that can instantly put a driver out of work – it simply crunches the numbers.

For wines or films, the stakes are not terribly high. But when algorithms start affecting critical opportunities for employment, career advancement, health, credit and education, they deserve more scrutiny. US hospitals are using big data-driven systems to determine which patients are high-risk – and data far outside traditional health records is informing those determinations. IBM now uses algorithmic assessment tools to sort employees worldwide on criteria of cost-effectiveness, but spares top managers the same invasive surveillance and ranking. In government, too, algorithmic assessments of dangerousness can lead to longer sentences for convicts, or no-fly lists for travellers. Credit-scoring drives billions of dollars in lending, but the scorers’ methods remain opaque. The average borrower could lose tens of thousands of dollars over a lifetime, thanks to wrong or unfairly processed data.

Link 2: US No-Fly List Uses ‘Predictive Judgement’ Instead of Hard Evidence

The Guardian reports that in a little-noticed filing before an Oregon federal judge, the US Justice Department and the FBI conceded that stopping U.S. and other citizens from traveling on airplanes is a matter of “predictive assessments about potential threats.” “By it’s very nature, identifying individuals who ‘may be a threat to civil aviation or national security’ is a predictive judgment intended to prevent future acts of terrorism in an uncertain context,” Justice Department officials Benjamin C Mizer and Anthony J Coppolino told the court. It is believed to be the government’s most direct acknowledgment to date that people are not allowed to fly because of what the government believes they might do and not what they have already done. The ACLU has asked Judge Anna Brown to conduct her own review of the error rate in the government’s predictions modeling – a process the ACLU likens to the “pre-crime” of Philip K Dick’s science fiction. “It has been nearly five years since plaintiffs on the no-fly list filed this case seeking a fair process by which to clear their names and regain a right that most other Americans take for granted,” say ACLU lawyers.

The Obama administration is seeking to block the release of further information about how the predictions are made, as damaging to national security. “If the Government were required to provide full notice of its reasons for placing an individual on the No Fly List and to turn over all evidence (both incriminating and exculpatory) supporting the No Fly determination, the No Fly redress process would place highly sensitive national security information directly in the hands of terrorist organizations and other adversaries,” says the assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, Michael Steinbach.

Link 3: Data-Crunching Could Kill Your Downtime At Work

How many of you are reading this at work? One of the unspoken perks of many white-collar jobs is that you can waste time while still appearing productive. Workplaces are aware that this goes on, and they police it to some extent by blocking Facebook or simply looking over your shoulder — but there’s only so much they can do. The new generation of workplace analytics software is starting to change that. “Employers of all types — old-line manufacturers, nonprofits, universities, digital start-ups and retailers — are using an increasingly wide range of tools to monitor workers’ efforts, help them focus, cheer them on and just make sure they show up on time.” This inevitably leads to the question: does cracking the whip more often actually increase productivity? To hear the makers of this software tell it, the value is almost limitless, and it will never be misused to micromanage your job. But the article lacks any independent support for that idea, and I’m sure many of you could provide examples where time-keeping software has only been a hindrance.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. Webe
    August 19, 2015 at 3:32 am

    Analytics my ass.
    Americans allow employers far more latitude than Europeans deem acceptable in monitoring employees. Americans are apparently prepared to accept far more personal abuse from the employers’ ownership of you during the hours (and often the rest of the time as well) you work for them. You are not being paid to get something done, but you are selling yourself to be at their disposal.
    Analytics — it used to be called bondage, slavery, abuse, oppression, subjugation, captivity, servitude — perhaps it is time to get over the idea that this was history and relearn the meaning of those terms, instead of all this blathering about freedom.
    A propos: Historically, most slaves went into slavery willingly of their own free will. For instance after losing in battle, the population would each go through a ceremony in which they were handed a sword to kill themselves. If they would rather kneel and pay fealty, than they had willingly given their word and promise, and thus “owed their life” to their new masters. Or banished from the land they had cultivated their own life, whatever. There is always a lot of room for interpretation when it comes to “being forced” to do something.

  2. Butt Cheeks
    August 19, 2015 at 10:34 am

    I think one of two things could happen.

    #1 It could actually prove what other studies have shown for a while. That knowledge workers like managers and IT people, lose all their productivity after 6 hours of working.

    Europe already is on a six hours work day in most parts and their productivity is fine. Also these analytics could actually eliminate alot of toxic bosses. There are oodles of toxic bosses in corporate america. It’d be pretty darn hard for a toxic boss to defend himself if he’s moved to a new department and productivity increased after he’s gone, but the new boss hasn’t made any changes. And the productivity goes down in the new department he’s moved to after a short period of time.

    This software could also eliminate alot of bosses altogether (I’m sure that’s what they are hoping for) and sad to say impersonal bullying form a computer program would be an improvement from the personal bullying from toxic bosses for bigoted reasons in a lot of American workplaces.

    #2 I think this is less likely, but the software could be used to push workers past their breaking point. I think this is less likely because from what I’ve read about these analytics is that they are primarily based on correlations. The software doesn’t actually prove what analytics cause increased in productivity, just shows correlations between productivity increases and the analytics being measured. One laughable example was they found a correlation between people who read a certain Manga (Japanese Comic) and increased productivity, so HR Rep trolled fansites of this Manga for new prospects. Talk about a system ripe for cheating.

    Yeah I’m really productive, you find that I eat the same chips, read the same comics and watch the same TV shows as your most productive employees, hire me now! lol

  3. P Ray
    August 20, 2015 at 12:20 am

    If employees feel justified in spying on workers,
    workers should return the favour by bringing recorders to the workplace.
    Having spent some time at a “Chinaman Company” I have plenty of fodder for reflection.
    The amount of useless sadsacks in management is amazing, moreso when you consider they manage to control (with the aid of politicians that receive kickbacks) so much money.

    Of course, the fun thing about this is,
    by the time those know-nothing unqualified (0 degrees, just an MBA — which can be bought) managers can get their grubby hands on the money, they’re too old to migrate anywhere else.

    It’s doubtful their kids will inherit the crony relationships they had.

    • P Ray
      August 20, 2015 at 12:56 am

      “If employees feel justified in spying on workers,”
      should read
      “If EMPLOYERS feel justified in spying on workers,”

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