This blog was originally posted to mark the publication of the Small Data Forum Podcast, episode 28.
In England’s distant past, long before the spread of wealth and the explosive growth of the middle classes, holidays were a rarity. Overseas holidays were unheard of, except for those gilded few who’d grown fat on the Empire and took a ‘grand tour’ of Europe for months at a time, or else went off to add new lands to said Empire.
The closest most workers got to any kind of holiday was being taken in a charabanc to the nearest seaside resort, where enforced fun would be had on piers stretching out into coastal waters. One of the highlights of such a visit would be an end-of-the-pier show, where metropolitan idols would perform song-and-dance, music hall routines for the masses. The shows were often billed as Summertime Specials.
In the world of the Small Data Forum podcast, this latest episode – 28 already – is our equivalent of an end of the pier show, our very own Summertime Special. As regular listeners will know, Thomas, Neville, and Sam don’t meet together IRL all that often. But in a tradition stretching back – ooh – as long as last December, last week we three braved metaphorical thunder, lightning, and rain to meet again at our favourite pre-pod haunt, Olivelli in the Cut, Waterloo, London.
Suitably stoked by pizza, pasta, and a surprisingly modest couple of bottles of Nero d’Avola, we set about our task of looking at the uses and abuses of data big and small in business, politics, and public life. But for only the third time in the three years we’ve been recording the podcast we did it in person.
As the Cannes Festival of Media drew to its frosé-fuelled finale all along La Croisette, Extinction Rebellion protestors closed down Facebook’s party on the beach with the promise of bringing 10,000 in 2020 to encourage the global marketing communications industry to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change; to use their Mephistophelean arts for good for once.
Earlier in the week, it had seemed likely that Cannes would be the backdrop for the pantomime villain Alexander Nix – the founder and folder of Cambridge Analytica – to return to the public stage. After a swift and potent social media campaign that revelled in the hashtag #nixnix, the caught-on-film procurer of prostitutes to honeytrap Them In Power had a volte face.
Straight-faced news releases announced that “the festival organisers accept his decision to withdraw”. As with Extinction Rebellion, the official version of things ignored the presence of protests to maintain the semblance of control. Rather like the Brigade Anti-Gang special French police who backed up Cannes security earlier in the week.
The law of unintended consequences
In our meandering discussion, Sam segued quickly into a cautionary tale of sharenting. In February this year, major advertisers AT&T, Disney, and Epic Games (the makers of the phenomenon that is Fortnite) pulled their not-insignificant advertising dollars from YouTube. This was because the video sharing platform’s automated recommendation algorithm had gone wonky. For it had started to serve innocent videos of children to paedophiles, who couldn’t resist adding perverted, lust-filled comments to them because … they’d shown historical interest in videos of young children.
The algorithm is the biggest driver of activity on Alphabet’s video-sharing site and is responsible for up to 70% of all traffic. But in this case it’s also another example of unsupervised AI delivering unintended consequences – paedophile views and comments, followed by advertisers withdrawing funding.
There’s an excellent long-read on this latest scandal to engulf YouTube in a recent edition of the New York Times which uses one specific example to make potent, more general points about the long-term viability of the platform. In typical style, Neville broadens our perspective still further, from what this says about YouTube and its own challenges to what it says about the nature of the relationship between the internet and society more broadly.
Of course we need controls to prevent (or at least minimise) incidents like this, and ideally they should occur pre-emptively rather than retrospectively. But the internet is not the cause of paedophilia or perverted thoughts or comments. But it provides a home – and a permanent trace – for thoughts and comments that previously remained hidden or unrecorded.
At first Thomas equates this argument with “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” and the faulty logic that follows from that line of thinking. But Sam manages to persuade him that the two arguments aren’t quite the same quality, and that the internet serves more as a vector to amplify and accelerate the issue onto the public stage, while at the same time tarnishing the entirely innocent and pro-social intent of families and friends sharing videos of their children.
Neville concludes that it is impossible to prevent this type of outcome when humans are in the equation, and that if you have to put in place a whole raft of restrictions, then what’s the point? He also questions the model of using human reviewers to assess and censor images and videos of murders, paedophilia, and all the dark corners of the human soul, paying them minimum wage, and not giving a thought for the psychological impact on the reviewers. And Sam chimes in with the Monty Python line that “society is to blame”.
In repeated recent books, Harvard Professor of Psychology, Steve Pinker, has shown that nastiness and brutishness are by most measures at historic lows and on the global decline, be it war or murder, while wealth and prosperity and health are on the consistent uptick. These verities are worth remembering, as the late, lamented Swedish stats god Hans Rosling points out so deftly in 2018’s must-read, Factfulness.
How it’s going with GDPR
Thomas then pops a mental champagne cork for the first anniversary of GDPR, or DSGVO as it’s called in Germany; Datenschutz Grundverordnung. Has it, muses Thomas, sorted out the things it’s supposed to have done, or is it more like his favourite Del Amitri song? Is it actually a case of “the needle returns to the start of the song and we all carry on like before”? With some cause, Neville is optimistic. In the European Commission’s own news release, they proudly claimed that GDPR was a “game-changing event” with regulation that “not only made the EU fit for the digital age, but it has also become a global reference point”.
Although such claims from government officials often sound like vainglorious boasts or exercises in wish fulfilment, in this case Neville believes they may well have a point. For not have most European companies and non-commercial organisations now got their house in order. GDPR is now a global reference point, not just for the EU28 (still 28 – just), but also more broadly, from the US to Singapore, from South Africa to India.
Neville is frustrated, however, by the lipservice being paid but some US media outlets which deny access to content because “you appear to be viewing this site from the European Union and we’re still working on a fix”. That, he rightly concludes, is a bit pathetic 12 months on. What’s more, Neville reports on a major survey which suggests that many consumers – citizens – are totally in the dark about data collection, storage, and usage. The UK Consumers’ Association (aka Which?) data suggest that a third of those questions had no idea that data privacy laws had changed and widespread confusion about the impact or even existence of GDPR.
On trends and pivots
Thomas highlights the publication of two major reports since last we chatted – the Reuters’ Institute for Journalism’s annual digital news report and the oft-lampooned Mary Meeker’s internet trends report.
Reuters claims three pivots:
- A pivot back to paid content, led by the Guardian (in profit for the first time in aeons) and the New York Times, though this is not working for local and regional media;
- A pivot to private conversations on encrypted rather than open channels, hence the rise and rise of WhatsApp; and,
- A pivot to audio – to audio, including (naturally) podcasts, but also Alexa and the onwards march of voice and voice control.
Despite these pivots, there is both a digital literacy divide and a clash with the business model of the FAANG five, particularly the world’s three biggest advertising platforms, Facebook, Amazon, and Google.
Controversial figure Mary Meeker’s net trends report comes in at a modest 331 slides (genocide by PowerPoint rather than death or even mass murder). Two nuggets that particularly catch Thomas’ eye are:
- The comparison between time spent on mobile vs time spent on TV which, for the first time ever, sees mobile overtaking TV in a total daily combined attentional count of 7h 22m
- The suggestion that now is the time for an algorithmic Bill of Rights, updating the US constitutional mechanism first introduced in 1791 to encapsulate such freedoms (through amendments) of free speech and bearing arms.
For Neville, this second trend (though maybe it’s a pivot) comes from a very US Weltangschauung, and is not necessarily likely to go down well in Europe. What both reports represent for Neville is that we are most definitely in the throes of a realignment and redefinition of what actually constitutes “the media”.
Thomas gives a shout-out to Jens, a super-bright MBA student of his VUCA media world course at Quadriga University in Berlin (hi, Jens!), who was at pains in a recent seminar to highlight the very real differences, speed of change, and attitudes to media – particularly social – in Germany vs the UK vs the rest of Europe and particularly the US.
To be or not to be …
We wrap up in the embers speculating who may or may not be the next PM, with Neville confident it won’t be Boris – despite his commanding lead in the polls, late-night disturbances at his girlfriend’s flat suggest Neville might have a point – and Sam convinced that Brexit Party turkey Nigel “NF” Farage is likely to sweep to power if Boris (or Jeremy Hunt) fail to railroad Brexit through by Hallowe’en. Thomas – eyeing routes to resettle in continental Europe – hopes that whatever else listeners to the Small Data Forum do, they like and rate it highly (five stars will be just fine) on iTunes.
Despite anger at Nix (and joy at #nixnix) Sam concludes with a paean to the powers of empathy. Currently in the throes of reading Jamil Zaki’s excellent The War for Kindness – to be strongly recommended – he reports on evidence that suggests that social media makes us confrontational in the following way. When we encounter people IRL, we look for similarities and what draws us together. Online, we look for differences and points of difference in order to drive ourselves apart.
What is interesting – as Eve Pearlman shows in her great TED Talk, “How to lead a conversation between people who disagree” – is how to get people with opposing views to understand the drives and motivations of those whose opinions they don’t hold. And the key to that is the universal human faculty of empathy – the very subject of Zaki’s book – which is the ability to look at the world from other people’s perspective. As Atticus Finch says to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird:
“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Here endeth the Summertime Special of the Small Data Forum Podcast. The actual Summertime Special probably lives long in the memory of those who seek to “take (back) control” and force through the UK’s separation from the European Union at whatever cost. This poll from UK Conservative Party members is informative for many reasons.
Perhaps we could all – on all sides – benefit from a bit more ‘climbing inside another person’s skin and walking around in it’. As the theme tune for BBC TV’s 1982 – yes, really as recently as 1982 – then popular entertainment series, spookily also called Summertime Special, sang: “I’m tired of fighting, I’ve had enough, I need some blue sky to lift me up.”
Amen to that.
Sam Knowles is a data storyteller and the Founder & MD of Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations talk Human and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, speaker, and podcaster, he is the co-founder and co-host of the Small Data Forum podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council.
Sam is the author of the critically-acclaimed book Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data (Routledge, 2018, with more at www.narrativebynumbers.com). This has just been followed by a sequel, How To Be Insightful: Unlocking the Superpower that Drives Innovation (also Routledge, May 2020, and more at www.HowToBeInsightful.com).