The problem of archiving the Internet may be just the first problem; how do we make causal arguments from its contents?

Archiving the Internet so that it can understood and studied by later researchers and scholars may be a big problem:

In a new paper, “Stewardship in the ‘Age of Algorithms,’” Clifford Lynch, the director of the Coalition for Networked Information, argues that the paradigm for preserving digital artifacts is not up to the challenge of preserving what happens on social networks.

Over the last 40 years, archivists have begun to gather more digital objects—web pages, PDFs, databases, kinds of software. There is more data about more people than ever before, however, the cultural institutions dedicated to preserving the memory of what it was to be alive in our time, including our hours on the internet, may actually be capturing less usable information than in previous eras…

Nick Seaver of Tufts University, a researcher in the emerging field of “algorithm studies,” wrote a broader summary of the issues with trying to figure out what is happening on the internet. He ticks off the problems of trying to pin down—or in our case, archive—how these web services work. One, they’re always testing out new versions. So there isn’t one Google or one Bing, but “10 million different permutations of Bing.” Two, as a result of that testing and their own internal decision-making, “You can’t log into the same Facebook twice.” It’s constantly changing in big and small ways. Three, the number of inputs and complex interactions between them simply makes these large-scale systems very difficult to understand, even if we have access to outputs and some knowledge of inputs.

In order to study something, you have measure and document it well. This is an essential first step for many research projects.

But, I wonder if even it can all be documented well, what exactly would it tell us about behaviors and aspirations? Like any “text,” it may be difficult to make causal arguments based on the artifacts of our Internet or social media. They are controlled by a relatively small number of people. Social media is dominated by a relatively small number of users. Many people in society interact with both but how exactly are their lives changed? The history of the Internet and social media and the forces behind it is one thing; it could be fascinating to see how the birth of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s or AOL or Facebook or Google are all viewed several decades into the future. But, it will be much harder to clearly show how all these forces affected the average person. Did it change personalities? Did day-to-day life change in substantial ways? Did political opinions change? Did it disrupt or enhance relationships? What if Twitter dominates the media and the lives of 10% of the American population but little impact on most lives?

There is a lot here to sort out and a lot of opportunities for good research. At the same time, there are a lot of chances for people to make vague claims and arguments based on correlations and broad patterns that cannot be explicitly linked.

Google Street View, machine learning, and social patterns

I have wondered why more researchers do not make use of Google Street View. Here is a new study that connects vehicles in neighborhoods with voting patterns and demographics:

Abstract: The United States spends more than $250 million each year on the American Community Survey (ACS), a labor-intensive door-to-door study that measures statistics relating to race, gender, education, occupation, unemployment, and other demographic factors. Although a comprehensive source of data, the lag between demographic changes and their appearance in the ACS can exceed several years. As digital imagery becomes ubiquitous and machine vision techniques improve, automated data analysis may become an increasingly practical supplement to the ACS. Here, we present a method that estimates socioeconomic characteristics of regions spanning 200 US cities by using 50 million images of street scenes gathered with Google Street View cars. Using deep learning-based computer vision techniques, we determined the make, model, and year of all motor vehicles encountered in particular neighborhoods. Data from this census of motor vehicles, which enumerated 22 million automobiles in total (8% of all automobiles in the United States), were used to accurately estimate income, race, education, and voting patterns at the zip code and precinct level. (The average US precinct contains 1,000 people.) The resulting associations are surprisingly simple and powerful. For instance, if the number of sedans encountered during a drive through a city is higher than the number of pickup trucks, the city is likely to vote for a Democrat during the next presidential election (88% chance); otherwise, it is likely to vote Republican (82%). Our results suggest that automated systems for monitoring demographics may effectively complement labor-intensive approaches, with the potential to measure demographics with fine spatial resolution, in close to real time.

And a little more explanation from a news source:

The researchers created an algorithm to identify the brand, model and year of every car sold in the US since 1990.

The types of cars also provided information about the race, income and education levels of a neighborhood, the study said.

Volkswagens and Aston Martins were associated with white neighborhoods while Chryslers, Buicks and Oldsmobiles tended to appear in African-American neighborhoods, the study found.

This study seems to do two things that get at different areas of research:

  1. Linking lifestyle choices to voting behavior as well as other social traits. Researchers and marketers have done this for decades. For example, see this earlier post about media consumption and voting behavior. This hints at the work Bourdieu who suggested class status is defined by cultural tastes and lifestyles in addition to access to resources and power.
  2. Connecting different publicly available big data sets to find connections. Google Street View is available to all and election outcomes are also accessible. All it takes is a method to put these two things together. Here, it was a machine learning algorithm by which different kinds of vehicles could be identified. It would take humans a long time to connect these pieces of data but algorithms, once they correctly are identifying vehicles, can do this very quickly.

Of course, this still leaves us with questions about what to do with it all. The authors seem interested in helping facilitate more efficient national data-gathering efforts. The American Community Survey and the Dicennial Census are both costly efforts. Could machine learning help reduce the effort needed while providing accurate results? At the same time, it is less clear regarding the causal mechanisms behind these findings: do people buy pick-up trucks because they are Republican? How does this choice of a vehicle fit with a larger constellation of behaviors and beliefs? If someone wanted to change voting patterns, could encouraging the purchase of more pick-up trucks or sedans actually change voting patterns (or are these more of correlations)?

Facebook’s goal: build community, help people find purpose

This story tracks Mark Zuckerberg’s language about community and the purpose of Facebook. There has been a recent change:

But when 2017 arrived, Zuckerberg immediately began talking about Facebook “building community.” In February, he wrote a massive post detailing his vision to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”

We now know that sometime in late 2016, Mark Zuckerberg directed some new questions at his employees. The company had noticed that there was a special subset of Facebook users, about 100 million of them. These were people who had joined “meaningful communities” on the service, which he defined as groups that “quickly become the most important part of your social-network experience and an integral part of your real-world support structure.”..

This marks the first mention of “meaningful communities” from Mark Zuckerberg. In the past, he’d talked about “our” community, “safe” community, and the “global” community, of course. But this was different. Meaning is not as easy to measure as what people click on (or at least most people don’t think it is)…

But the route to a “sense of purpose for everyone is by building community.” This community would be global because “the great arc of human history bends toward people coming together in ever greater numbers—from tribes to cities to nations—to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.”

I could imagine several possible reactions to this new message:

  1. Cynicism. How can Facebook be trusted if they are a company and their primary goal is to make money? Community sounds good but but perhaps that is what is customers want right now.
  2. Hope. Facebook began in the minds of college students and now has billions of users. This has all happened very quickly and alongside a number of social media options. While traditional institutions (particularly those related to the nation state) seem to struggle in uniting people, Facebook and other options offer new opportunities.
  3. Indifference. Many will just continue to use Facebook without much thought of what the company is really doing or trying to figure out what they can really get out of Facebook and other platforms. They just like having connections that they did not used to have.

Given that the messages on connecting people and community has changed in the past, it will be interesting to see how they evolve in the future. In particular, if Zuckerberg wants to get more involved in politics, how will these ideas change?

The potential problems with a city “built from the Internet up”

Sidewalk Labs, a part of Alphabet/Google, wants to develop 12 acres on Toronto’s waterfront and they have a unique vision:

Sidewalk describes its vision for Quayside in terms worthy of Blade Runner, as a city “built from the internet up … merging the physical and digital realms.” In reality, the company’s ambition lies first in the synthesis of established techniques like modular construction, timber-frame building, underground garbage disposal, and deep-water cooling. Not low-tech, but not rocket science either. Sidewalk’s success will depend on deploying those concepts at scale, beginning with a preliminary tract at Quayside but expanding—if all goes well—to Toronto’s Port Lands, a vast, underused peninsula of reclaimed land the size of downtown Toronto.

Sure, there will robots delivering packages, sensors for air quality and noise, and the deployment of a range of electronics that will help the infrastructure enable autonomous vehicles. But, says Rohit Aggarwala, Sidewalk’s head of urban systems, “I expect very little of the value we create is about information.” Indeed, a number of Sidewalk’s ideas are rather old-school: retractable, durable canopies to shelter sidewalks (hello, 11th-century Damascus); pedestrian pathways that melt snow (familiar from any ski town); composting, which is as old as human settlement itself. The company projects that managing wind, sun, and rain can “double the number of [year-round] daylight hours when it is comfortable to be outside.” The development, Doctoroff said, “is primarily a real estate play.”…

That’s part of the pitch for Sidewalk’s Toronto neighborhood. The company calculates the cost of living in Quayside will be 14 percent lower than the surrounding metro area. It believes timber-frame construction, modular units that can be assembled on site, microunits, and cohousing can significantly lower housing costs. Other ideas, like mixing office, production, institutional, and residential spaces together in buildings, do not draw on technology at all.

Many have tried to master-plan the vibrancy of an organic city; most have failed. You better believe a company named after Jane Jacobs has the lingo down: “The most exciting ways to activate the public realm are often a mix of traditional uses in flexible spaces,” the company’s proposal says. “The cafe that puts tables on the sidewalk, the teacher who uses a park for nature lessons, the artist who turns a street corner into a stage.” But is it really the case that that kind of street life can be built, as Sidewalk promises, on “a robust system of asset monitoring” that creates a reservation system for sidewalk space? No.

It sounds like this development could be an interesting mix of Jane Jacobs, New Urbanism, and Google. Or, it could be another splashy redevelopment project that Google eventually sells at a sizable profit.

In the long run, developing 12 acres or a sizable corporate campus – recently undertaken by Apple or Facebook – is very different than creating a city. There are numerous differences including these:

  1. Building and maintaining essential infrastructure including water, power, gas, and telecommunications. A smaller development has the advantage of plugging into existing systems.
  2. American communities tend to be built in pieces rather than all at once. There is the issue whether people can build a development or city in a certain way and just expect community to happen – there is enough evidence from New Urbanist projects that it does not exactly work this way. One way around this is to build in stages and give the community time to develop, grow, and have its own history and identity.
  3. A development project often is working within existing political structures. Google can’t do whatever it wants in Toronto; it has to answer to local government. This could be quite a hindrance and could lead some tech companies to practice their city-building in environments where they have more local control.
  4. A city run by a private company versus one operating in a democratic system could be very different. Graber hints at this at the end of the piece: what happens if residents do not like Google’s ideas? The company town idea has issues. At the same time, a private firm could develop the property or community and then hand it over to local residents and government – this happens everywhere from developers and HOAs to Disney building Celebration.

All that said, it could be worthwhile to let some private firms do large-scale development like this to see if they can offer new features or solve common problems facing municipalities.

Apple stores are not new town squares

American communities often lack vibrant public spaces but Apple stores may not be the answer:

The stores have good vibes. Everything is clean. There are no sounds of commerce. No clanging till. No specials on an aisle. No mechanical belt sliding products toward a beeping scanner. People will tell you they like your new shoes. I love Apple Stores.

But there is one problem with calling an Apple Store an Apple “Town Square”—which the company announced it’s now doing at Tuesday’s iPhone event. Namely, the Apple Store is a store and not a town square…

And most surreally, a dominant problem for democracy at this moment is that truly public space doesn’t exist on the internet you access through your phone.

Internet platforms, as John Herrman has argued, merely masquerade as democratic spaces. But they are not. They are private, as private as an Apple Store.

This is a regular issue that pops up: private retail or office space that often functions as public space is not truly public space. If you conduct activities that are not conducive to business, whether in an Apple store, a McDonald’s, the cavernous lobby of a hotel, a shopping mall, or even a landscaped area outside a business but that it is on private land, you can be removed from that space. These private spaces that allow people of different backgrounds to gather and interact can still be very valuable – see the concept of “third places,” an idea that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has discussed. Granted, there are restrictions on what you can do in public spaces as well but your activities are much more limited in private spaces.

Sociologists and others have asked for decades how American communities might develop more public spaces. The Internet was one space that offered new opportunities for democracy and public interaction. Alas, much of that early fervor has decreased as the Internet is dominated by major corporations and online discourse is often not very enlightening or civil.

CT suburb considering fines for “distracted walking”

The suburb of Stamford, Connecticut is considering penalizing those walking under the influence of phones:

Texting or even talking on an electronic device may soon be illegal in Stamford if a proposal to outlaw ‘distracted walking’ is approved…

“They’re oblivious to cars,” Stamford City representative, John Zelinsky said.

Zelinsky said the Pedestrian Safety Ordinance is modeled after one approved in Honolulu late last month, and would carry a $30 fine if police catch you in the act.

Such behavior can be dangerous for both users and others on the sidewalks and streets. Yet, legislating distractedness out of walking, bicycling, and driving is a tricky business. Does walking and talking with someone count as distracted walking? Is it okay to suddenly stop right in the middle of a busy sidewalk to take a phone call?

I have long wondered about implementing traffic regulations on busy sidewalks (see a story from England about this). Sidewalks are public spaces but also important conduits for foot traffic and some kinds of vehicles. Overcrowding can occur; see the recent example of Manhattan. And how people use the sidewalks can vary dramatically with use ranging from running and powerwalking to strolling to standing or sitting for conversation.

What it would take to approve Musk’s Northeast Corridor hyperloop

Elon Musk may have verbal approval for his underground hyperloop but there is much more work to be done to get the project underway:

“It means effectively nothing,” says Adie Tomer, who studies metropolitan infrastructure at the Brookings Institution. “The federal government owns some land, but they don’t own the Northeast corridor land, and they don’t own the right-of-way.” Sure, having presidential backing isn’t bad—but it is far, far from the ballgame…

First, you have to get the OK from all the states and cities and municipalities involved. This is essential because Musk promises this Northeast hyperloop will pass through city centers, so he’s counting on tunneling under places where lots of people live and work and play. Judging by the the official responses from local agencies and politicians along the proposed route, this process is not quite underway. “This is news to City Hall,” the press secretary for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted. Looks like the Boring Company has a lot of boring meetings with public officials ahead of it…

And then there’s the little problem of moolah. Just updating the current Northeast corridor railroad—you know, the one run by Amtrak—to high-speed rail standards would cost an estimated $123 billion. Tunneling will be even more expensive. Musk has promised his boring technology will speed up the construction and bring down costs. But boring will never be cheap, especially in populated areas. Carving less than two miles of tunnel under New York for the Second Avenue Subway took $4.5 billion. Even if this hyperloop were entirely privately financed, it would take lots of zeroes…

By law, projects need to be evaluated for the potential environmental consequences of their construction and operations, to create what’s called an Environmental Impact Statement. Federal agencies generally take a while to prepare these documents: One 2008 study found the average writeup took three and a half years, and some have taken as many as 18. They also cost a lot to prepare—millions and millions in government funds.

That is a lot to take on. I’ve seen suggestions in recent years that the United States is no longer able to tackle needed large infrastructure projects. In the past, large projects could be accomplished such as the intercontinental railroad or Hoover Dam. Today, American projects lean more toward interminable delays and huge cost overruns. In contrast, some other countries do not get bogged down in the same ways. Sure, some of that might require more authoritarian regimes – such as the new Silk Road railroad in China or the growth in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates – but things get done!

Moving forward, is there a way for a country like the United States to undertake large innovative projects without all the bureaucracy that slows it down? Can we still take risks? Musk’s hyperloop might be a perfect test case: the technology barely exists so it might be an incredible risk. But, the payoff could be tremendous (and not just necessarily for the intended purpose of a new transportation technology but the other helpful pieces that come along the way – including a way forward across multiple governments and requirements).