Links and Thinks: Conscious Computing for Junk-free July

Today, Senior Policy Advisor James Ting-Edwards shares links and thinks about some of the modern Internet's problems and distractions, including whether the Internet is too centralised, Facebook's new moves to show how ads are being shared, how bad email security enabled house-buying fraud in Oz, and some steps to avoiding device distractions for junk-free July.

Is the Internet centralised or not?

Is the Internet open and organic, or deeply centralised and controlled? In 2018, it sort of depends where you look. At an underlying technical level, the Internet is built on open, technologies which let computers talk to each other, without any central control. On top of that, lots of the ways people use the Internet are "decentralised" in the sense that they are deeply personal: chatting with friends, catching up with family photos online. But most of that use now happens through big centralised platforms, which use that often very personal engagement to inform and target their advertising business. That's a big shift.

Old brick building under new steel-framed dome

So how did we get here? The Economist has a series of articles on the history, with some ideas on fix the resulting problems from this shift to centralisation, linked below. For now, I'll highlight one point. Both now and historically, the independent approach still requires a high level of technical confidence and commitment to figuring stuff out for yourself. By comparison, the big platforms have made being online both more meaningful and more convenient. That's part of how the Internet has grown to reach over 3 billion people, like a city with vast and shiny towers built on top of the old roads and pipes.

Making it easier will be a big part of giving more people more control of how they interact online.

A new level of transparency for Facebook

The biggest of those big platforms is Facebook, which has had a lot of negative headlines in the past couple of years. The biggest way Facebook makes money is through selling advertising. Even leaving aside big important concerns about the collection and use of user data, the way those ads are targeted to people has also been a big source of concern, particularly in relation to political advertising meant to influence elections.

This week, Facebook has announced a new set of tools for users to see ads across the platform. That's a welcome step, and hopefully part of a longer journey to making their platform more transparent for users and advertisers.

House-buying hack

Here's a quick little story. Housing markets and shortages are always in the news - today the focus has been on the new KiwiBuild scheme, and who gets to qualify for those houses. But where there's money, hype, and people distracted by daily busy-ness, there will be things going wrong with computer security. One recent example from across the Tasman was a really unlucky house-buyer, who got everything together for their property purchase... and then had their money go to a fraudster's account instead. This relates to the new PEXA system for house transfers in Australia, but the way things went wrong was about email security. Someone was able to take over a conveyancer's account, and at the crucial moment, change the bank account for payment so they got the $250,000 at stake.

The lesson is that even really good systems are only as good as the weakest step. Here it was email security. That's another good example where adding a second factor to log-in could have saved a lot of heartache. The article below has a good overview, though the headline isn't really accurate.

Junk-free July and conscious computing

For some people on my social media feeds, it's "Junk-free July". As an Internet-focused blog and organisation, we're not interested in our food intake, so much as our information intake. I'm making my July about conscious use of devices. I know that will mean different things to different people. Here's how I'm approaching it.

I have a love/hate relationship with my smartphone. It's awesome to have access to the wealth of the world's information in the palm of my hand. But it's also a huge distraction. My goal is to have fewer times when I find myself holding up my phone and thinking "what was I meant to be doing with this device?".

To help with that, I've turned off some notifications, shifted a bunch of apps out of the way, and set up a few reminders about how I want to use my phone. The most important reminder is the text on my lock screen, that says "ask why". That's an abbreviation for "why are you holding this device right now?". By setting that up on the lock screen, I've found myself thinking more about what I want to use the phone for, rather than just opening it up reflexively and disappearing into a set of Internet-driven distractions. I've also reorganised my apps, making my home screen basically empty, and creating app folders based on a range of different activities like "finding", "reading", and "listening". That helps me think about what I want to do before an app gets me doing something else.

Steps like this won't solve the bigger issues at play, like the advertising-driven business models which encourage companies to grab our attention. But I'm finding this a useful experiment, and maybe other people will too.

Phone lock screen with message 'Ask "why"'Phone home screen in greyscale with four app icons

There's a lot of writing online by distracted people aiming to be more mindful, and I didn't find all of it equally useful. If you're interested in trying out some conscious computing for July, here's a couple of links I found helpful, despite the clickbait-style titles: