Stretched Too Thin by Social Media: Beware its power to reshape your web of relationships 

Brett Frischmann is the Charles Widger Endowed University Professor in Law, Business and Economics, Villanova University. His most relevant book to his thoughts below is Re-Engineering Humanity (Cambridge University Press 2018).

Recently, I’ve received multiple invitations to leave Facebook and Twitter and join a new social network that promises to not destroy democracy. I’m tempted. I’m also tempted to delete my accounts and abandon social media altogether. The decision got me thinking, not about democracy but instead about how social media affect my behavior and relationships. 

Social media promise and deliver social networks with better or at least bigger scale and scope. Essentially, this means you can connect to many more people from many different places to relate on a wider variety of interests. To socialize is a core human need. The difficult question is whether social media improve our capability to relate to each other. 

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Chilling New Technologies for Surveillance


Ron Baecker is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of
Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, organizer of computers-society.org, and author of the recently published Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

Technologists are creating increasingly more sophisticated digital technologies capable of monitoring us. 

The most mature technology is that of RFID tags. Now as small as grains of rice, RFID tags typically track the location and movement of items through an assembly line, warehouse, store, or library. The tags can also be attached to personal possessions such as clothing, passports, or cash.  RFID tags can be and are implanted in animals in order to track them in the wild. This is not now done to humans, although people may be carrying items with RFIDs and be tracked without realizing it. 

Other location tracking uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) of satellites. It allows mobile devices to know where on earth they are located, and also allows location tracking on those devices, and hence to monitor the whereabouts of a person carrying the phone. A chilling example of this occurred in a political protest in Ukraine in January 2014, when individuals who were in the barricaded city centre of Kiev received text messages saying ‘Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance’. 

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K-12 Education Pods: Problems, Fears and Options

Contributed Judith A. Langer, who is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Education, a researcher who has specialized in language, literacy, and learning, and one of the co-authors of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide.

August and early September of 2020 were extremely difficult times for everyone who had a stake in education: parents, teachers, school administrators and local officials. In June and July, most people hoped school could resume in the ways it always had and this, I think, may have held them back from creating a fully planned “new normal.” Many early scenarios contained some online teaching in the event that in the future schools might need to be shuttered for periods of time, but they were hoping an overall easing of cases would permit in-class instruction. Most models contained scenarios for all in-class, hybrid and fully on-line to cover the unknown range of needs, but many did not. Unexpected spikes in Covid-19 in heretofore low-case regions escalated uncertainty about what the future might hold. Sizable ranges in the intensity of new cases within states and communities pointed to the need for more locally determined options. 

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COVID-19: Computer scientists and CS students can act proactively for good

Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, co-author of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide and author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).

Readers of my blog will recall what I describe as digital dreams and digital nightmares.

Our world has been enriched by digital technologies used for collaboration, learning, health, politics, and commerce. Digital pioneers imagined giving humanity greater control over the universe; augmenting knowledge and creativity; replacing difficult and dangerous physical labour with robot efforts; improving our life span with computationally supported medicine; supporting free speech with enhanced internet reason and dialogue; and developing innovative, convenient, and ideally safe products and services.  Online apps and resources are proving very valuable, even essential, in the era of COVID-19.

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Censored contagion on Chinese social media

Contributed by Masashi Crete-Nishihata. Masashi is the Associate Director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

The Citizen Lab just published a report: Censored Contagion: How Information on the Coronavirus is Managed on Chinese Social Media, authored by Lotus Ruan, Jeffrey Knockel and Masashi Crete-Nishihata.  

Among the key findings in this report, we show that YY, a popular live-stream platform based in China, began to censor keywords related to the coronavirus outbreak on December 31, 2019, only one day after doctors (including the late Dr. Li Wenliang) tried to warn the public about the then unknown virus. 

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Social credit


Ron Baecker is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of
Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, organizer of computers-society.org, and author of the recently published Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

Nosedive was the first episode of the third season of the British science fiction television anthology Black Mirror.  In this episode, everyone has a mobile phone which, when pointed at another person, reveals his or her name and rating. Everyone has a rating, which ranges from 0 to 5. The following happens continually as you are walking down a street or along the corridor of a building. You give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to each person you pass, based on your instantaneous impression of that person and the nature of the encounter, no matter how trivial or quick the encounter is. A ‘thumps up’ raises that person’s rating a tiny bit; a ‘thumbs down’ lowers it. The other person concurrently rates you. Ratings determine one’s status in life, and the ability to get perks such as housing and travel. Therefore, people are on a never-ending, stressful, and soul-destroying quest to raise their online ratings for real-life rewards. Heroine Lacie desires a better apartment; she has a meltdown as she deals with unsurmountable pressure in the context of her childhood best friend’s wedding.

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The age of surveillance capitalism


Ron Baecker is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of
Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, organizer of computers-society.org, and author of the recently published Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

There is still time to buy a substantive book for the thoughtful techie or concerned citizen in your life.  Allow me to recommend two choices that were published in 2019.  One good option is my wide-ranging textbook Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, enough said ….  But an unbiased choice is Shoshana Zuboff’s monumental The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.  The author signals her intentions with the book’s subtitle: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

Zuboff, the Charles Edward Wilson Professor Emerita, Harvard Business School, defines and describes surveillance capitalism (p. 8):

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Ethics throughout a Computer Science curriculum


Ron Baecker is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of
Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, organizer of computers-society.org, and author of the recently published Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

Every Computer Science student should get significant exposure to the social, political, legal, and ethical issues raised by the accelerating progress in the development and use of digital technologies.

The standard approach is to offer one undergraduate course, typically called Computers and Society or Computer Ethics.  I have done this during the current term at Columbia University, using my new textbook, Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).  We meet twice a week for 75 minutes.  In class, I present key topics covered in the book, and welcome a number of guest speakers who present their own experiences and points of view.  Every class is interactive, as I try to get the students to express their own ideas.  There have been four assignments: a policy brief, a book report, a debate, and a research paper.  Such courses are typically not required by major research universities, which is a mistake, but they are often required by liberal arts colleges.

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Digital technology firms, monopolies, and antitrust actions


Ron Baecker is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of
Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, organizer of computers-society.org, and author of the recently published Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

Today’s digital technology industries are characterized by intense degrees of corporate concentration.

Amazon revolutionized access to books and continues to grow its market share of both print books and eBook sales — approaching 50% of print sales and more than 90% of eBook sales.  It is also starting to dominate the sale of many other kinds of goods, and now vigorously seeks a dominant market share in sectors such as grocery retailing and pharmacies. Facebook, which owns 54% of the social media market, is responsible for a great deal of the Internet hate speech and fake news nightmares we face today. Google, which revolutionized the business of search, and now owns 76% percent of that market, seems to manipulate the search engine algorithm for its own commercial benefit.  Apple, which demonstrated that it was possible to design for ease of learning and ease of use and still achieve commercial success, now owns 66% of the tablet market and 22% of the mobile phone market, and seems to manipulate the policies of software distribution on its platforms for its own commercial benefit.

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