Fun with filters

The chat app SnapChat is back in the headlines after its new gender-swapping filter went viral. The filter makes boys look like girls and vice-versa, and as you can see above the results are pretty funny – although I seem to have the dubious honour of being the only person who looks older when the feminising filter is switched on. Boo!

I think it’s just a bit of daft fun, albeit horribly stereotypical in its idea of gendered appearance, but on trans forums I’ve seen a range of reactions from trans people: some like me just want to see what it does and how daft the results are, but others see what they might look like after transition – or more poignantly, what they might have looked like had they transitioned. Not everybody is in a place where they can be themselves.

Like anything else on the internet, some people have concerns about the filter – Time magazine covers the issues here.

While many acknowledged that the filter is fun, for some it’s been jarring to see their social networks manipulating their gender so casually. Others have said that they are concerned that some people are using the filter in problematic ways.

Most sensible concerns aren’t about the filters, but the way they’re being used. Some people – man people, inevitably – are using the filters to make profile pictures for dating apps. The intention is to have a laugh, and some have shared the saddeningly predictable responses they’ve received with hilarious consequences. But some people argue that what these people are doing ties into something that’s a lot darker, which is the concept of trapping.

“Trap” is a word some people use to describe trans people, primarily trans women, who don’t look trans; it’s a trope in some pornography where a man is seduced by a beautiful woman before, surprise! But out in the real world, trap is a slur associated with violence. There have been multiple occasions of very violent and sometimes fatal attacks on trans women, the perpetrators claiming the “trans panic” defence: I took her home, I didn’t realise she was trans, and when I discovered the truth I lost my mind. It’s a variation of the gay panic defence, and sadly it’s still a legal defence in many parts of the world.

As Cáel Keegan points out in the Time piece, playing around with gender is something many trans people don’t have the privilege to do in safety.

“If trans people are accused of trapping, it can be deadly,” said Keegan. “It’s a privilege to be able to play with being a different gender.”

I thought this post – which went viral on social media a few days ago – made a good point:

For trans people, transition is a lot more difficult and a lot more painful than playing with an app on a smartphone.

As one of Time’s interviewees put it:

At the end of the day, you get to just turn it off and it’s not sort of a reality for you.

Twitter: our rules don’t apply to white guys

As Twitter continues to ignore calls to ban nazis from its platform, a leak provides one explanation: fear of collateral damage. Twitter fears that if it were to ban white supremacist hate speech, that might mean banning some US republican politicians. Politicians such as, er, the President of the United States.

That fear only appears to apply if the collateral damage affects white people. According to Vice, reporting the claims of a disgruntled employee:

When a platform aggressively enforces against ISIS content, for instance, it can also flag innocent accounts as well, such as Arabic language broadcasters. Society, in general, accepts the benefit of banning ISIS for inconveniencing some others, he said.

In other words, it’s okay to have collateral damage if it affects brown people.

Twitter denies it all, of course. But Twitter is awfully slow to act on hate speech when it’s perpetrated by white guys. Founder Jack Dorsey followed a number of alt-right demagogues on the service and won’t even say if he’d have a problem with Trump posting tweets calling for the murder of journalists. Vanity Fair:

Dorsey has typically been evasive when questioned about banning white supremacists, only saying, “we’d certainly talk about it,” when asked point-blank if Trump asking his followers to murder journalists would warrant a ban.

Twitter has become a megaphone for hatred: white supremacy in particular, but bigotry of all kinds. And it does appear to operate a double standard where members of minorities can be abused in horrendous ways and then kicked off the service if they dare to answer back.

Last year, the actor Seth Rogen had a months-long conversation via Twitter direct messages with Dorsey about the problem of nazis and other white supremacists on the service. His conclusion:

I’ve been DMing with @jack about his bizarre need to verify white supremacists on his platform for the last 8 months or so, and after all the exchanges, I’ve reached a conclusion: the dude simply does not seem to give a fuck.

Sell your kids for clicks

There’s a deeply worrying article in The Guardian about the rise of child labour on the internet.

Making videos of your kids might not seem like work, but it is: as one interviewee puts it, “it’s not play if you’re making money”. Child performers are subject to laws designed to protect them from exploitation not just by employers but by their parents. Online, those laws are being evaded or avoided.

Money made online by children, and that money can be significant, goes directly to their parents, because children can’t have social media accounts on the likes of YouTube or Facebook.

We’re easily seduced by technology, and that seduction often blinds us to the distinctly old-fashioned things that technology enables: union-busting, unethical practices and “disruption” not just of industries but of the laws designed to protect individuals from rapacious employers and greedy parents alike. YouTube may be relatively new, but children being exploited by the people behind the cameras is not.

 

“Let it all burn down”

In an extract from his upcoming book Ruined By Design, Mike Monteiro explains the problem with social media and how it ruined the early promise of the internet.

The people who built Twitter (and other services) were a bunch of young men. This is important.

More accurately, they were a bunch of white guys. Those white guys, and I’ll keep giving them the benefit of the doubt and say they did it with the best of intentions, designed the foundation of a platform that would later collapse under the weight of harassment, abuse, death threats, rape threats, doxxing, and the eventual takeover of the alt-right and their racist idiot pumpkin king.

Women are woefully under-represented in the tech sector; ethnic minorities and LGBT people are barely on the radar. So straight white guys build systems that enabled such horrors because as cisgender straight white guys, they haven’t experienced the things that women and minorities experience in life and online.

Incidentally, nobody is saying there’s anything wrong with being a cisgender straight white guy. That’s not what Monteiro is saying, and it’s not what I’m saying. The point here is that people build stuff based on what they know.

Monteiro:

All the white boys in the room, even with the best of intentions, will only ever know what it’s like to make make decisions as a white boy. They will only ever have the experiences of white boys. This is true of anyone. You will design things that fit within your own experiences. Even those that attempt to look outside their own experiences will only ever know what questions to ask based on that experience. Even those doing good research can only ask questions they think to ask. In short, even the most well-meaning white boys don’t know what they don’t know. That’s before we even deal with the ones that aren’t well-meaning. (I see you, Travis.)

You don’t ask “could this be used maliciously by abusive exes?” if you haven’t fled an abusive ex. You don’t ask “could this be used to target gay people?” if you haven’t been targeted as a gay person. And so on.

Twitter never built in a way to deal with harassment because none of the people designing it had ever been harassed, so it didn’t come up. Twitter didn’t build in a way to deal with threats because none of the people designing it had ever gotten a death threat. It didn’t come up. Twitter didn’t build in a way to deal with stalking because no one on the team had ever been stalked. It didn’t come up.

This is one of the key problems with the internet as it is today: it’s been largely built by and for cisgender straight white guys. So for example Facebook enforces a real-name system that bans pseudonyms because cisgender straight white guys don’t need to hide their identities – but women fleeing abusive exes and LGBT people often do. Again and again we see platforms used maliciously because the people who built those platforms didn’t imagine such abuse, and don’t seem too keen on policing it either.

Technology is often portrayed as an unalloyed good, disrupting moribund industries and giving power to the people. But all too often it gives power to the wrong people: the oppressors, not the oppressed.

We designed and built platforms that undermined democracy across the world. We designed and built technology that is used to round up immigrants and refugees and put them in cages. We designed and built platforms that young, stupid, hateful men use to demean and shame women. We designed and built an entire industry that exploits the poor in order to make old rich men even richer.

One of the most telling signs that something is very wrong with social media is the flood of tech firm media founders and executives who won’t let their own children go online much, or at all. As Monteiro says:

When we refuse to let our own children use the fruits of our labor while still cashing the checks we’re earning by addicting other people’s children — all the while rending our garments over “what’s happening to kids today!” — we need to burn all our work down.
Nothing is happening to the children. We are doing something to the children. Let it all burn down, and let those that come after us sift through the ashes to learn from our mistakes.

Like tears in the rain

MySpace, the leading social network from the pre-Facebook days, has accidentally (?) deleted more than a decade’s worth of music. Every piece of music uploaded to the platform between 2003 and 2015, some 50 million songs from 14 million artists, is gone like tears in the rain.

This is an important lesson: digital does not last forever.

We’ve seen this happen again and again with user-submitted content; some of my own music was trashed back in 2003 when MP3.com was sold and its archive effectively destroyed. Always assume that sooner or later, remotely hosted services will be sold, will shut down or will do something unspeakable to your stuff.

But content you pay for isn’t forever either.

Your Spotify subscription, your Netflix account, your Apple Music: the availability of content on these services is not infinite. Contracts and licenses expire, catalogues are pruned, accidents happen, copyright holders revoke permissions… for myriad reasons, things disappear.

Sometimes things don’t disappear, but they stop working. My PlayStation told me today that some of the games I downloaded last year on the understanding that they were mine forever would lose most of their features later this year: the servers on which these older games depend will be switched off, removing features like online play and multiplayer. The games also depend on my PlayStation Plus subscription remaining current. If I don’t keep paying that, they stop working completely.

If you bought copy-protected music or movies in the early 2000s you may be familiar with a similar problem when authorisation servers are switched off: for example, in 2008 MSN and Yahoo both turned off the copy protection servers for their music services, so any downloads you’d bought could no longer be authorised. If you changed computer, you wouldn’t be able to authorise your legally purchased music to play on it.

There’s not much you can do about subscription services changing their catalogues, but for content you create yourself or that you’ve bought rather than rented it’s a very good idea to ensure that you have a local copy of whatever lives in the cloud. And while you’re at it, make sure that copy is in a format that’s free from copy protection, in a widely supported file format and in the best possible quality.

The great internet sex war

In the aftermath of the social network Tumblr banning all explicit content, some writers have considered the wider implications. The reasons for the bans are pretty clear – for example, Tumblr has a problem with illegal content and it’s easier and cheaper to ban all potentially problematic content than to moderate it – but the results can be far-reaching.

Steven Thrasher in The Atlantic explains What Tumblr’s Porn Ban Really Means.

But the Tumblr adult-content purge reveals the enormous cultural authority, financial extraction, and what the philosopher Michel Foucault called “biopower” that tech companies wield over our life. As intimate interactions are ever more mediated by tech giants, that power will only increase, and more and more of our humanity is bound to be mediated through content moderation. That moderation is subjective, culturally specific, and utterly political. And Silicon Valley doesn’t have a sterling track record of getting it right.

The problem with such subjectivity is summed up pretty well by one trans person’s question: they’re undergoing transition from male to female. At what point do their nipples become “female-presenting”, which is explicitly prohibited in the new Tumblr rules? It’s the same issue that means Facebook takes down breastfeeding images: boobs are just for porn, right?

There’s a problem with some explicit content. But not all of it. For some people it’s an opportunity to explore sexuality and identity in a safe environment. Take trans people, for example. Explicit Tumblr blogs are among the very few places where you can see positive portrayal of trans men and trans women as sexually desirable. They’re also among the few places where you can see what your body might look like after hormones, or after surgery. Content bans affect that content too.

Thrasher again:

Using social media intimately in our life hasn’t been all bad. Indeed, as a recent scientific article by Oliver Haimson on some 240 Tumblr gender “transition blogs” showed, social media can play “an important role in adding complexity to people’s experiences managing changing identities during life transitions.”

I can attest to that: before I came out I spent a lot of time reading LGBTI Tumblr blogs that posted what the new rules might well prohibit.

Over at Engadget, Violet Blue describes “the internet war on sex“.

While we were all distracted by the moist dumpster fire of Tumblr announcing its porn ban, Facebook updated its startling, wide-ranging anti-sex policy that is surely making evangelicals and incels cream their jeans (let’s just hope they don’t post about that). Facebook’s astonishing ban on language pertaining to sexuality, among many other things sex-related, is so sweeping and egregiously censorious that it’s impossible to list all its insanity concisely.

It’s called the “Sexual Solicitation” policy. Along with “sexual slang,” the world’s standard-bearing social media company is policing and banning “sex chat or conversations,” “mentioning sexual roles, sexual preference, commonly sexualized areas of the body” and more.

This, remember, is the social network that can’t tell the difference between hardcore pornography and women sharing photos of themselves breastfeeding.

Once again, the rules are designed to address a problem with some content. However:

…the arc of internet sex censorship is long, and it bends as far away from justice (and reason) as possible. Corporations controlling the internet had been steadily (and sneakily, hypocritically) moving this direction all along, at great expense to women, LGBT people, artists, educators, writers, and marginalized communities — and to the delight of bigots and conservatives everywhere.

The Facebook and Tumblr news came after Starbucks announced it will start filtering its WiFi with one of those secret porn blacklists that always screw productivity for anyone researching grown-up topics, and invariably filter out crucial health and culture websites.

The list goes on. Instagram goose-steps for Facebook’s censors; Amazon buries sex books; Patreon, Cloudflare, PayPal, and Square are among many which are tacitly unsafe for anyone whose business comes near sexuality. Google’s sex censorship timeline is bad, YouTube is worse. Twitter teeterson the edge of sex censorship amidst its many uncertainties of trust for its users.

The problem here is that even if you agree with the rationale behind the steps the tech giants take, there is always collateral damage – and that damage tends to affect minorities and creative people and educators.

Here’s an example from a few weeks back in Sweden: a government-run website made a sex education video. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat blocked it.

Unexpected item in the fast lane area

I’m very cynical about driverless cars. To an extent I think they’re a solution to the wrong question: now that humans are largely a city-dwelling species (and one facing devastating climate change), the smart thing to do would be to make public transport better and more efficient. For example, I live in Glasgow: our buses pollute, and our subway system is tiny and shuts down completely every Sunday evening at 6pm.

Expanding the Subway, as in this proposal, would transform public transport in my city and make thousands, maybe millions, of car journeys unnecessary. Unfortunately doing so would also cost £5 billion, at a time when some of our city’s treasures are under threat because of maintenance costs. I’m not optimistic.

There are other ways to improve cities. Electric bikes take up considerably less room than cars do and require considerably fewer resources to make and to power: because they don’t have to hurl one and a half tons of metal around, they use a fraction of the energy electric cars do. You don’t need enormous parking spaces, or wide streets, or any of the other things we need to cater for enormous vehicles that typically contain just one person.

But underground trains and bikes aren’t sexy, and driverless cars are.

My concern isn’t just the environmental impact. It’s the tech. We can’t get wireless printers to work. We think the tech industry can make driverless cars safe?

This Twitter thread by Michael T Spooky (everybody on Twitter changes their name for October; I’m currently Carrie, Like In The Film Carrie) articulates it very well by comparing self-driving cars to the self-checkouts you find in shops.

I agree with him on this bit:

…making an automated system that’s 95% as good as a human is relatively easy and one that’s 100% as good as a human is very hard. I think it’s becoming clear that autonomous vehicles are going to turn out like this

Self-checkouts aren’t fully automated. They’re semi-automated. The tech isn’t good enough to ensure that, say, eight people can checkout simultaneously without any of the tills going in a strop. I used one yesterday that in best Trump style refused to accept the existence of biscuits.

So what happens instead is you get things mostly automated, with a human overseer. That’s fine for checkouts. It’s not so good for cars.

A driverless system that needs human supervision isn’t driverless.

Tech is invaluable in cars. From ABS to airbags, traction control to parking sensors, it makes cars safer. But I think it’s best suited to driver assistance, not driver replacement. Driverless vehicles work fine on rails – the aforementioned Subway is getting driverless trains in 2020 – or in the air (fans of driverless cars like to talk about the success of autopilot, which is of course a great technology. However, show me the autopilot that can handle Glasgow’s West End during the school run). But on the roads the challenge is almost infinitely complex and the stakes are incredibly high.

As Mr Spooky concludes:

…when you hear the “World of Tomorrow” tales about driverless cabs whisking us on couches everywhere at 120mph, please also realize that the UNKNOWN ITEM IN BAGGING AREA dystopia is a just-as-likely path.

Calling time on my Apple Watch

I’ve had all three generations of Apple Watch, but it’s time to call time on it. It is an incredibly clever device and it felt very futuristic when it first came out. But it does absolutely nothing to make my life better.

That’s not to say it can’t be useful. It can. But it’s not useful for me. The longer I have it the more things I turn off, and the more annoying I find things that didn’t used to bug me quite so much. For example, the lack of an always-on display has become intensely irritating, especially when the display doesn’t always come on when I want it to. Of all the things I want a watch to do, showing me the time straightaway is the most important thing for me. And it still doesn’t do that properly.

Siri voice control still doesn’t work reliably, and dictation is still incredibly patchy. I don’t run or swim so its fitness tracking is irrelevant. I don’t need a remote control when I’m listening to music on my iPhone. The Hue complication doesn’t do what I want it to do. I keep notifications turned off because I don’t want to be interrupted when I’m doing something else, which is most of the time. I don’t use the weather app complications any more because more often than not, they don’t update. I don’t use Apple Pay on it because paying with your wrist is stupid and it means having to tap in a PIN code every time you want to unlock the watch. It wakes me up when I’m trying to have a nap. When I travel it means Yet Another Bloody Charger, and when I go to gigs it’s Another Bloody Thing To Put Into Airplane Mode.

Also, it’s ugly. I’ve experimented with endless colours and strap colours and fabrics, but it’s still a small computer screen rather than a piece of jewellery.

I like to point out that often, technology answers a question people aren’t asking. That’s definitely the case for me and the Apple Watch. For me, it doesn’t answer the only question I have about it, which is: why am I persisting with a device I don’t particularly like any more?

Time for a Timex instead. All it does is tells the time. That’s all I want a watch to do.

 

Locked out

I’ve been locked out of my Twitter account for a terrible, terrible crime.

No, not being a big old Nazi. Messing with the year of birth in my profile page. This, apparently, is a really bad thing and I can’t currently read anything on Twitter or see other people’s messages to me.

It’s been brilliant.

Being unable to access Twitter has made it clear that my relationship with social media is completely out of whack. I’m following too many people and indulging too many more, and the result is a firehose of fury with precious little of the funny cat pictures and dad jokes I signed up for. It’s become a massive time thief and a drain on my mental health.

I’m not quite ready to bin Twitter altogether, although I’m close, but assuming Twitter decides to let me back in again I’m going to massively reduce the number of people I follow – not because they’re bad people, because I don’t follow bad people, but because I’ve let myself fall into a situation where there are just too many people talking at once. I can’t hear myself think above the din.

It’s a start

Facebook has taken down much of Alex “Infowars” Jones’ content, as have Apple and Spotify.

(Update, 7/8/18: Apple was the first to move. The others were clearly waiting for somebody else to lead.)

Reuters:

The company [Facebook] said it removed the pages “for glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies.”

Apple:

Apple does not tolerate hate speech

This stuff is all in the terms and conditions. For example, for Apple’s podcasts there is an outright ban on:

  • Content that could be construed as racist, misogynist, or homophobic
  • Content depicting graphic sex, violence, gore, illegal drugs, or hate themes

Although its enforcement has been patchy, this is Facebook’s policy:

We do not allow hate speech on Facebook… We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics – race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity and serious disability or disease.

I have some sympathy for these firms, because enforcement is a big job. Facebook again:

Over the last two months, on average, we deleted around 66,000 posts reported as hate speech per week — that’s around 288,000 posts a month globally.

That’s a lot of hate. But the point is, it’s against the rules whether it’s uploaded to Apple, posted on Facebook, streaming on Spotify or tweeted on Twitter. Apple alone is now a $1 trillion company; Facebook $522 billion; Twitter $32 billion; and Twitter $24 billion. If they’re short of moderators, they can afford to hire more.