The Changes A-coming

Covid-19 has reminded us, if we needed reminding, that people behave in unpredictable ways. We are not, it turns out, rational beings. Our leaders lead from the front, the back, not at all, or just feather their own nest first. People defy curfews; they cough on others, smear their saliva on lift buttons, and fight over toilet rolls. Others sacrifice themselves helping strangers, look out for neighbours they barely know, sing and perform to lift others’ spirits. This should give us pause before we start predicting what the world will look like after the virus.

A piece by Politico confirmed my bias that there is a tendency among those viewing the crisis unfold towards confirmation bias — nearly all the experts asked to contribute their thoughts on how the world will be changed effectively said what you think they would say: the author of a book called “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarisation” said that there would be a, er, decline in polarisation. The author of a book called “The Death of Expertise” said there would be a, um, return to seriousness and respect for expertise. The author of a book about how social infrastructure can help fight inequality said the virus would “force us to reconsider who we are and what we value” and “make substantial new investments in public goods-for health.”

I’m not mocking these writers, or the article itself. It’s natural enough to see in the virus the seeds of the change one is hoping for or has already predicted would happen. Such predictions rarely stand the test of time. We saw the same phenomenon after 9/11, the last great external shock to the West’s system. People talked then about leaving New York, about embracing a different, simpler life. They bought canoes, bulletproof vests, ammunition, parachutes. Analysts predicted a quite different future for us all. A N.R. Kleinfield wrote a decade on in the New York Times:

Paul Simon said he didn’t know if he could ever complete another album. A woman wrote on a remembrance site that she regretted that she had had children, that she had brought their innocence into a world no longer fathomable to her.

But there has been a chasm between expectations and reality. The prophecy of more attacks on the United States has not been the case, not yet at least. Bumbling attempts got close — involving underwear and a shoe and a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder — but the actuality has been that terrorist acts on American soil in the succeeding years have been, as always, largely homegrown.

So many things were expected to be different that have not been. Time passes, and passes some more. Exigencies of living hammer away impatiently. People — most of them, at least — began to become themselves. New York, which by its nature accommodates so much, was willing to absorb 9/11 and keep moving.

That day for many of us is as fresh as if it were yesterday, but the way we thought it would change us has grown stale. Yes, we have the security theatre of airport checks — though they too, might change emphasis once the viral dust has settled — but for most of us our lives didn’t change substantially. (Paul Simon has released six albums, six compilations and one boxed set since 9/11.)

It’s understandable we feel that momentous events have momentous, long-term impacts on our lives, but the reality is that the changes wrought are both less and more than what we anticipate, even by the boffins among us.  

Probably the best way to view the impact of Covid-19 is to view the impact of its predecessor. Not SARS or MERS, although they highlighted how those countries with a institutional and collective memory of a recent epidemic are best equipped mentally and logistically for a new one; but the Spanish ‘Flu of 1918-20, which affected much of the same territory as Covid has — namely the world.

Beds with patients in an emergency hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas, in the midst of the influenza epidemic. Date: circa 1918. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
With masks over their faces, members of the American Red Cross remove a victim of the Spanish Flu from a house at Etzel and Page Avenues, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Firstly there are significant similarities between the two in the way they played out. As we have seen in Europe, Australia and the U.S., there’s a reluctance on the part of government to impose unpopular measures — most obviously to get people out of pubs, off beaches and indoors. The same was true in France in 1918, where local officials were reluctant to enforce measures such as closing theatres, cinemas, churches and markets “for fear of annoying the public.” Japan happily banned mass gatherings in its Korean colony, but didn’t even consider trying the same thing back home.

People are people. Officials don’t want to do unpopular things (except when they do not actually face the voter — Japan was by then a democracy of sorts.) And while during the pandemic itself people behaved much as we’re behaving — most of us with “collective resilience”, as Laura Spinney puts it in her excellent Pale Rider — that group identity eventually splinters, and “bad” behaviour emerges. She points to the 1919 Rio carnival, intended to mark the end of the crisis even while the flu was still claiming lives, where the partying took a dark twist: one historian, Sueann Caulfield, found that in the period after the epidemic, there was a surge in reported rapes in the city, temporarily outnumbering other types of crime. The point — beyond the horror of the crimes themselves — is that people behave in strange ways, and crises both fundamentally change their behaviour, but also amplify existing traits. There is no simple outcome.

So predicting is a dangerous game, or it would be if we were ever held to the predictions we make. And it is, of course, far too soon to even know how this crisis will unfold, how long it will take and how many of us it will take with it. So it’s probably unfair to ask others to predict the lasting impacts, at least at this point, and unfair to mock them for their confirmation bias. I would love a more civil society that takes electing its leaders seriously enough to realise they aren’t electing someone to entertain them as much as operate the levers of government. I would love to believe that the selflessness we’ve seen come out of the crisis thus far would linger after peace returns, that we will properly honour those in and serving the medical professions — from the cleaner to the surgeon. That we will realise it can’t go on like this, that we have to take better care of the planet, not move so selfishly through it and past each other, that Gaia is a complex being that weaves everything into her web, even unseen droplets that can pass between us, which we can use to kill each other if we do not take the utmost care.

But that would probably be asking too much. We have to assume that the crisis brings out both the best in us and the worst in us, and we need to stop virtue-signalling about helping old folk with their groceries or checking in on neighbours and just do it, sotto voce, both during the quarantine and after it. If you need a reason why, it’s because collective resilience is as selfish as looking after yourself alone; during crises we tend to perceive ourselves not as individuals but as members of a group, and hence (so the psychological theory goes) helping others in the group is a form of selfishness. Do it, but don’t pat yourself on the back and post something to Facebook about it. If you were really serious about it you would have been doing it long ago, and keep doing it long after.

So my predictions? I’ll jump off that cliff in a later post, but for now, it seems likely that we will both underestimate and overestimate the length and impact of this crisis. Those of us who think we’re well prepared for this, will find that it hits us in other ways. Those of us fearful for the future will probably find fresh reservoirs of strength. The only thing I can predict with any certainty is that it will start to get boring quickly, and while people are dying, others will be defying curfews and sabotaging efforts to stamp out the virus. At the same time, I believe there will be more quiet heroics that will go untold, more quiet domestic solidarity among families that once fought, and the rise of business ideas amidst the lockdown that will make millions for those who nurse them to life. I’ll hang my hat on those predictions, alongside my mask and hand sanitizer gel.

A Bad Day for Social Media

You may be forgiven for thinking I’m a fan of social media, and, in particular, Twitter.

Headlines like “Twitter: the future of news” and “Twitter, the best thing since the invention of the thong” may have given the misleading impression I thought Twitter was a good thing.

In which case I apologize. The truth is I think Twitter is bumping up against its limits. It’s possibly just a speed bump, but it’s a bump nonetheless.

The problem as I see it is that we thought that social media would scale. In other words, we thought that the more people got involved, the more the crowd would impose its wisdom.

We saw it happen sometimes: Wikipedia, for example, is a benign presence because it (usually, and eventually) forces out the rubbish and allows good sense and quality to take control.

But it doesn’t always work.

Take, for example, Twitter.

Twitter works great for geeky stuff. Fast moving news like an iPhone launch.

And, in some cases, news. Take earthquakes. Twitterers—and their local equivalents–beat traditional news  to the Szechuan (and the less famous Grimsby) earthquakes last year.

But these may be exceptions.

When stories get more complex, social media doesn’t always work. The current swine ‘flu scare, for example, is highlighting how rumor and, frankly, stupidity can drown out wisdom and good sense. As well as traditional reporting media.

Twitter, you see, allows you to monitor not just the output of those people you “follow”—i.e., whose updates you receive—but also to track any update that includes a keyword.

Follow “swineflu” and you get a glimpse into an abyss of ignorance and lame humor.

At the time of writing this tweets on swine ‘flu—updates from Twitter, from someone, somewhere containing the words—are appearing at the rate of more than one a second.

image

Screenshot from Twist, Monday April 27 GMT 02:00

Most of these updates are, to put it charitably, less than helpful:

31 minutes past my appointment time, still sitting in doc’s waiting room, probably inhaling pure swine flu.

The humor is poor:

If swine flu is only passed on by dirty animals I’ll be ok but I feel sorry for my ex-wife!

Viral marketing campaign: Swine Flu…it’s the next SARS!

Amid the noise is the occasional plea for usable information:

Can someone tell me how to avoid swine flu? I really don’t want to get it.

Some of it is weird:

Your ad on my swine flu mask. Live/work on Chicago’s northside. Will wear mask at all times when outdoors. No joke. [Message] me if interested.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised about this.

Twitter is a wonderful way to share information. It is immediate and undiscriminating. Anyone can contribute, and a BBC tweet looks exactly the same as a tweet from that guy who lives next door who always has a toothpick in his mouth. It’s a great leveler.

So we believed—and still believe—that it’s a sort of global brain: a way to distribute news and information without censorship and without regard to the importance of the twitterer.

Which is fine if it’s an eyewitness account of a terrorist attack or an earthquake.

But with a potential pandemic it’s just an epidemic of noise.

Some argue it’s fostering panic. Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute writes on the Foreign Policy website that

The “swine flu” meme has so far  that misinformed and panicking people armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic.

I’m not sure that panic is the right word for what is going on. After all, nearly every mainstream media has put swine flu atop its bulletin for the past few days, so it’s actually not surprising.

Panic’s not the word. I’d say it’s more like a babble of noise—most of it poor attempts at humor–which drowns out the useful stuff.

One of the tenets of social media is that the more people involved, the smarter everyone gets. But Twitter doesn’t always work that way.

Twitter is a stream. A waterfall of words. Great if you’re just gazing, but not if you’re looking for information.

The sad thing is that amidst that tweet-a-second cascade are all the links necessary to understand what is going on.

They’re just not being  heard.

Sometimes the system works. A good example is what happened in Austin, Texas, when word spread on Twitter earlier this month of a gunman atop a bar. Within half an hour the local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman was updating its twitter feed with the news. An hour or so later the paper was not only carrying what the police were saying; it was actively countering twitter reports of hostages being taken, and of someone getting shot, by saying what the police were not saying.

The reporter involved Robert Quigley, wrote on a blog that

once we confirmed what was actually happening, the rumors stopped flying (or at least slowed down). This is not meant to embarrass anyone – tweets from the public are what often alert us to news event, and they many times have been accurate and excellent reports. But in a case like this one, having a journalist who has access to the police and the habit of verifying information is valuable. It did turn out that the guy did not have a gun, and police now say he was never in danger of harming himself or others.

This worked, because it was a responsible journalist who understood the medium. More important, the volume was not so great that his voice prevailed.

This isn’t, so far, happening, with swine flu. There are news sites posting links to informed stories. And there’s the Centers for Disease Control, with its own twitter feed. (http://twitter.com/cdcemergency, if you’re interested.)

The problem: they’re only updating the feed every hour, meaning that for every tweet they’re sending out, there are about 4,000 other tweets out there.

In other words, it’s a problem of scale. Twitter works well when there are clearly authoritative voices which prevail. Perhaps when the weekend hubbub dies down, this will be the case with swine flu. Arguably, Twitter has done its job, because a lot of folk probably heard about the story not through traditional media but through their friends making lame jokes about it.

But I think, for now, this can’t be considered a victory for social media.

On News Visualization, Part II

This week’s Loose Wire column in WSJ is about visualizing news. Researching the column I had a chance to interview Craig Mod, the guy behind the excellent Buzztracker. Here’s an edited transcript of our chat:

Craig Mod: We have over 550,000 articles in the DB now, spanning back to Jan 1st 2004. “Buzztracker” went from 750 hits on google the day before the launch to now … 39,000+ which was suprising
Jeremy: when was the launch?
Craig Mod: About 3 weeks ago
Craig Mod: got slashdotted within 12 hours
Jeremy: could you walk me thro how you think people might use it, or derive benefit from it?
Craig Mod: sure. the project started about 2 years ago as a pure art project .. some of the original output was just the dots, with no map .. but the closer you looked, suddenly land masses began to emerge and you started forming associations
Craig Mod: I’ve obviously tried to make it a lot more pragmatic and functional now
Craig Mod: fundamentally it’s supposed to get people thinking about why these connections exist — why is Shanghai and Canada connected (during the SARS outbreaks)?
Craig Mod: How did the virus spread?
Craig Mod: What sorts of checks can you preform to prevent that sort of spreading?
Craig Mod: Is it possible?
Craig Mod: etc etc
Craig Mod: and from there begin to explore how these events are being covered
Jeremy: interesting.. is there a page for the SARS stuff in the archive?
Craig Mod: clicking on the locations obviously gives you a list of the articles they appear in
Craig Mod: unfortunately the SARS stuff happened when I was building the beta 2 years ago .. so it’s not in the current DB
Craig Mod: but the recent demonstrations in China have popped up a lot
Craig Mod: there’s a China-Tokyo-Jakarta triangle that appeared during the summits
Craig Mod: and you can click the “tomorrow / yesterday” buttons and see just how long these stories linger in the collective media conscience
Craig Mod: which is kind of fun

Jeremy: is there a danger the external links die off?
Craig Mod: There is .. and we orignally had links to our internal cache but .. obvious copyright infringements issues scared us away from keeping the feature on new articles
Craig Mod: although, we still have all the data, of course
Jeremy: yes, the copyright thing is tricky…
Jeremy: how do you plan to deal with that?
Craig Mod: By not publicly offering the articles
Jeremy: right.
Craig Mod: And by keeping advertising off the site .. keeping it as pure an art project / public service project as possible

Jeremy: tell me a bit about you.
Craig Mod: I’m 24
Craig Mod: Born in Hartford, CT
Craig Mod: graduated from UPenn 2 years ago — degree in Digital Media Design (BSE in Comp. Sci with a very strong Fine arts component)
Craig Mod: Came to Tokyo 4 years ago for a year abroad, came back 1 1/2 years ago to run the Tokyo component of a small publishing company I helped start
Craig Mod: So a total of 2 1/2 years in Tokyo
Craig Mod: 2 years of which was spent at Waseda University in the intensive language program
Jeremy: how’s your japanese now?
Craig Mod: Extremely functional but I still can’t “relax” with a novel (although I just finished Murakami Ryu’s Almost Transparent Blue in Japanese)

Jeremy: so what are your plans for buzz?
Craig Mod: Right now I’m working on re-writing the drawing routines in a more power language .. the plan is to produce super-high-resolution prints for gallery display
Craig Mod: but being the only guy working on this + running sales / pr for CMP in Tokyo means it unfortunately takes a while to rewrite components
Jeremy: when you say hi-res prints, you mean of the maps?
Craig Mod: Correct
Craig Mod: There is a lot of information being lost in the low resolution of comp. screens
Craig Mod: especially Buzztracker connections (the thin, light lines get lost)

Jeremy: with thinking gap donned, where do you see this kind of thing going? do you think as people turn more and more to the net for news, these kind of visual displays will catch on?
Craig Mod: I don’t think traditional news delivery will be subverted anytime soon, but I do think that as digitized nformation increases (digital photographs, journals, etc) people are going to need clean, effecient methods to engage with the data / find what they want
Craig Mod: Something like buzztracker is an attempt to both clean up the delivery of a tremendous amount of information while also brining to the surface patterns otherwise invisible — missing the forest for the trees, etc.
Craig Mod: but what I’m hoping … what I had in mind as I was designing and building the information structure of buzztracker was that things need to be as clear and simple as possible
Craig Mod: this isn’t meant to provide an incredibly exhaustive set of news mining features — it’s meant to be highly accessible by anyone
Craig Mod: I haven’t seen any of the other newsmap interfaces but perhaps unlike Marcos’ work or, hopefully, mine, their information architecture wasn’t as transparent
Jeremy: transparent meaning?
Craig Mod: meaning, they innundated the user with superfluous interface elements, cluttered typography, illogical hierarchies .. I don’t want anyone using buzztracker to be concerned with how they engage the software/site .. the focus should, I hope, be engaging the data, the news
Craig Mod: (although I don’t know if they did that since I never saw any of them 🙂 )

Craig Mod: on the tech side of things, there was a point where I was debating between flash and pure html .. in the end, I think going with html made sense for those exact reasons — quick loading, standards based, etc
Craig Mod: There’s also, I suppose (to a small degree) a sense of bias being eliminated in these sorts of ways of navigating the news ..
Jeremy: very true.
Craig Mod: But almost unavoidable .. but those biases are also interesting ..
Craig Mod: buzztracker being completely rooted in anglophone news sources
Craig Mod: you start to see things like .. Africa doesn’t exist in the mind of enlgish speaking sources .. most all news takes place on a thin line just above the center of the map

Craig Mod: Animations are also comming .. along side the high-res output ..
Jeremy: how would the animations work? evolution of a story over a period of time?
Craig Mod: you could follow certain keywords — allowing you to follow certain stories .. You could also map the news on an hourly basis — interpolating the rise and fall of events smoothly ..
Craig Mod: the thing with the animations is that, I believe, by watching repeated time lapses you’ll start to see “news rhythms” erupt ..
Craig Mod: which begs the questions — if you map these animations to sound, can you decern other patterns that you were missing visually?

Jeremy: what about some of the criticisms that you’re leaning towards datelines, and so stuff like the tsunami wasn’t represented properly?
Craig Mod: There are some events (like the tsunami) which appear after the day they happened .. one of the best and worst parts of Buzztracker is that it’s fully automated so if something doesn’t appear when it “should” that’s representative of the media in some ways
Craig Mod: The spain explosions last year are incredibly represented
Craig Mod: I think some — such as false results, or skewed distrobution in the wrong ways — could be corrected by simple human intervention .. Looking for, spotting these “errors” in calculation, and adding rules to fix them
Craig Mod: but at the same time, that takes away from a bit of the purity of the automation of Buzztracker .. it’s always about balance I suppose

Thanks, Craig.

The Phone Belch

Why is it that cellphones ring louder the longer they go unanswered? The ring starts quietly, then builds up to an ear-splitting crescendo. I know what the apparent logic to this is — if the phone is right in front of the person, they don’t need it loud to be able to hear it, so the loudness is only needed if the phone hasn’t been answered immediately — but is that really logical?

What happens most of the time is that folk don’t hear the phone ringing immediately because it’s in their pocket/bag/desk/mouth. So they remove it just as the ring gets louder. The phone is now ringing at the loudest volume it can reach, without any clothing/leather/hardboard/teeth to muffle it. By now other folk in the bus/train/office/bed are getting irritated, which is not helped by the callee staring intently at the phone display to figure out who it is and whether it’s worth answering. It’s at that point that the phone’s clever software cranks the volume up a notch.

If phones are so smart, why don’t they fix the volume so that it starts quietly for two seconds, gives one polite belch if no one has answered, and then stays at a modest volume — or no sound at all — until answered or ignored? The belch would be good because everyone will look around, something people never do if a phone is ringing, so there’s very little chance of the callee not being made aware that something is going on. Those offended by the belch idea, or living in classier neighbourhoods, could go for discreet coughs, sneezes or subtle but distinctive exhalations of air. In Hong Kong, still nervous about SARS, a cough or sneeze would empty the bus. That’s how you’d know your phone was ringing: Everyone suddenly got off at the same stop.

Anyway, my message to the phone industry is: Think before you implement clever tweaks like the increasingly-loud-ring-tone. Oh, and if you need someone to record the polite belches, I’m free next Thursday.