The social web, hallucinating robots, and mapping rail journeys

Well, a lot sure has happened since my last edition of Marginalia. This month I've collected some of the more thoughtful pieces about what it seems the real “Web 3” might become, plus some odds and ends. Let's dive in.

Socialising on the Wwweb

Ian Bogost had a fantastic piece in The Atlantic titled The age of social media is ending, where he makes a distinction between social networks and social media. It's a smart analysis:

As I’ve written before on this subject, people just aren’t meant to talk to one another this much. They shouldn’t have that much to say, they shouldn’t expect to receive such a large audience for that expression, and they shouldn’t suppose a right to comment or rejoinder for every thought or notion either. From being asked to review every product you buy to believing that every tweet or Instagram image warrants likes or comments or follows, social media produced a positively unhinged, sociopathic rendition of human sociality. That’s no surprise, I guess, given that the model was forged in the fires of Big Tech companies such as Facebook, where sociopathy is a design philosophy.

CrimethInc looked not so much to the past for answers, as to the future for actions. They'd already published a fascinating reminder that the origin of Twitter was, in fact, a tool for street protesters called TXTmob:

If the unrelenting urgency of social media in general and Twitter in particular can be exhausting, that’s to be expected—the infrastructure of Twitter was originally designed for street communications during high-stakes mass mobilizations in which information must go out immediately, boiled down to its bare essentials.

In their later piece, Canary in the Coal Mine: Twitter and the End of Social Media, CrimethInc reminded us that there's a big world out there full of analogue opportunities to communicate, converse, and collaborate. Instead of mourning, activists and radicals should free their minds:

When the canary dies, it’s time to get out of the mine. Now, we’re not necessarily urging you to quit Twitter; it would be better to get permanently suspended for raising a fuss. The point is that it’s not good to have to be in a coal mine in the first place. Even if it doesn’t kill you outright, it diminishes your quality of life. Corporate social media and the social relations it fosters cut us off from other ways of understanding and experiencing the world—and if we maintain the coal mine metaphor, the target of extraction is our sociality itself.

The reactionary takeover of social media, which culminated with Elon Musk buying Twitter, will force us to renew other forms of connection. Otherwise, what we can create together will indeed be limited by the algorithms of the ruling class.

This situation is an opportunity as well as a setback. It reminds us to root our relationships in deep connection, to build affinity offline.

So once you got yourself suspended from the bad website, what were you to do? It seems to me that a lot of people are suddenly thinking about what they actually want to do online, as if waking from a fever dream. Many joined Mastodon, though most also seemed to struggle with the concept that it's not an exact Twitter clone. Anil Dash is one of those Silicon Valley personalities who seems to have been around forever but somehow not actually be awful. He had a pretty good take on how one might build a Fediverse search tool that wouldn't be instantly rejected by most of the fediverse. But apart from a bunch of frankly fairly boring wandering around in circles about various technical features Mastodon should or shouldn't have, there's been lively discussion about publishing to and reading from the web outside of The Same Five Websites. Marc Brooker thinks that you should write more because it helps clarify ones thinking and hone an idea or argument before communicating it to others. I agree. Matt Gemmell, on the other hand, thinks you should write less – which I also agree with 😉 Matt's observation is that one of the things that has led to blogs atrophying in recent years is the idea that many of us have (I'm guilty) that since we're able to write lots of short texts on social media platforms, we must write only long, weighty things on our blogs. Matt is having none of that:

Write less, and be at peace with it. It’s your site, and your rules. Blogs were originally a kind of diary, and they were mostly repositories of short pieces, not huge articles. It’s an absolute fallacy that longer works are better, or more valuable; indeed, shorter pieces are more likely to be read and digested, which intrinsically increases their value.

Fewer words are fine. Social-length posts are fine. Link blogs are fine. You get to keep your own output, where you want it, and the form it takes is entirely up to you.

You only need to give yourself permission.

Ploum wants to change how we use computers in a different way. Ploum is interesting in the hardware we're using, and looking into ways it can be imagined more like an heirloom clock than a cheap flatpack cupboard.

We currently own a screen with very minimal input to allow us to consume content and access our own data which are on some company servers. The only thing we own, the only thing we pay for is a screen. Sometimes with a bad keyboard.

What I call the Forever Computer is exactly the opposite. You own your input (your favourite keyboard and trackball). You own your data (stored with the computer itself in the keyboard housing). The screen is only a commodity. You can share the screen, you can use someone else screen, you can plug to the one in your hotel room.

Hallucinating plagiarism machines

Of course, over the last month all talk has been of chatGPT and “artificial intelligence”. The ever reliable Librarian Shipwreck reminds us in a long piece that we've been here before and didn't listen to the warnings.

Central to Weizenbaum’s analysis of computing technologies was his clear sense (as far back as the 1960s) that the computer exists in society, that the computer impacts society, and that therefore those who will be impacted by the computer (all of us) should have some say in the matter. After all, the question of what tasks “ought not” be done by computers is clearly not one that can be left to the “computer enthusiasts.”

Back in December, Melissa Heikkilä wrote a piece for MIT Technology Review about the hot new AI tool before chatGPT appeared – Lensa. In a surprise to exactly nobody, turns out it was incredibly mysogenistic and racist! Wonderful.

it’s not just the training data that is to blame. The companies developing these models and apps make active choices about how they use the data, says Ryan Steed, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University, who has studied biases in image-generation algorithms.

“Someone has to choose the training data, decide to build the model, decide to take certain steps to mitigate those biases or not,” he says.

The app’s developers have made a choice that male avatars get to appear in space suits, while female avatars get cosmic G-strings and fairy wings.

Ugh, surely there's somebody trying to do the right thing here? Maybe training their machine learning models to be less awful? Turns out a crew from Los Alamos National Laboratory are! Teaching AI when to care about gender is a really interesting article from Code4Lib Journal, back in August 2022.

Mita Williams has a really smart take on what the world needs in 2023, and what librarians really need to be thinking about in the increasingly bullshittified online environment: Authentic human results:

the real danger of AI-generated text [is that] these systems can and will impersonate expertise enough to fool those who don’t know what are the differences that make a difference in a subject.

I found that I have lost so much trust already in the information I that I find online… I wonder Who can I ask who would know the answer to this question? I am looking for Authentic Human Results. And I want to be seen as a person that people can turn to for Authentic Human Results.

Transport maps and vigilante urbanism

I found out about a couple of wonderful public transport maps recently. The first is the Australian national rail map, which is a slighly conservative name because it also includes regional bus routes and even the Spirit of Tasmania ferry. Meanwhile Willem Klumpenhouwer has created an extraordinary isochronic map of Melbourne public transport, re-creating a map from a century ago. Even cooler, he made it all with open source software and explains how he did it! Finally, an article from the New York Times that was shared by The War on Cars. I have mixed feelings about this because it's ...a little odd. A group of vigilante license-plate repairers are trying to ensure that drivers in New York are able to be automatically fined for traffic infringements and toll payments. The city police force seems uninterested in the problem of drivers obscuring their plates, and I'm a fan of any war on cars, but the tactic here is to make people more visible to the state so ...I'm conflicted. Anyway, have a read and judge for yourself.

See you in a month – happy reading!

Marginalia is an email and web newsletter about things that made me think over the last month – articles, books, podcasts, and perhaps from time to time some videos. It comes out on the first Monday of every month. You can subscribe by following on any ActivityPub platform (e.g. Mastodon) or via email using the form below.

You might also enjoy my weekly newsletter Libraries & Learning Links of the Week, or my irregular blog Information Flaneur.