Menu

Timesdelhi.com

June 16, 2019
Category archive

Opinion

Friend portability is the must-have Facebook regulation

in Apps/Chris Hughes/data portability/Delhi/Facebook/Facebook Data Portability/Facebook Download Your Information/Facebook Policy/facebook privacy/Facebook Regulation/FTC/Government/India/Mark Zuckerberg/Opinion/Policy/Politics/privacy/Social/TC by

Choice for consumers compels fair treatment by corporations. When people can easily move to a competitor, it creates a natural market dynamic coercing a business to act right. When we can’t, other regulations just leave us trapped with a pig in a fresh coat of lipstick.

That’s why as the FTC considers how many billions to fine Facebook or which executives to stick with personal liability or whether to go full-tilt and break up the company, I implore it to consider the root of how Facebook gets away with abusing user privacy: there’s no simple way to switch to an alternative.

If Facebook users are fed up with the surveillance, security breaches, false news, or hatred, there’s no western general purpose social network with scale for them to join. Twitter is for short-form public content, Snapchat is for ephemeral communication. Tumblr is neglected. Google+ is dead. Instagram is owned by Facebook. And the rest are either Chinese, single-purpose, or tiny.

No, I don’t expect the FTC to launch its own “Fedbook” social network. But what it can do is pave an escape route from Facebook so worthy alternatives become viable options. That’s why the FTC must require Facebook offer truly interoperable data portability for the social graph.

In other words, the government should pass regulations forcing Facebook to let you export your friend list to other social networks in a privacy-safe way. This would allow you to connect with or follow those people elsewhere so you could leave Facebook without losing touch with your friends. The increased threat of people ditching Facebook for competitors would create a much stronger incentive to protect users and society.

The slate of potential regulations for Facebook currently being discussed by the FTC’s heads include a $3 billion to $5 billion fine or greater, holding Facebook CEO personally liable for violations of an FTC consent decree, creating new privacy and compliance positions including one held by executive that could be filled by Zuckerberg, creating an independent oversight committee to review privacy and product decisions, accordng to the New York Times and Washington Post. More extreme measures like restricting how Facebook collects and uses data for ad targeting, blocking future acquisitions, or breaking up the company are still possible but seemingly less likely.

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes (right) recently wrote a scathing call to break up Facebook.

Breaking apart Facebook is a tantalizing punishment for the company’s wrongdoings. Still, I somewhat agree with Zuckerberg’s response to co-founder Chris Hughes’ call to split up the company, which he said “isn’t going to do anything to help” directly fix Facebook’s privacy or misinformation issues. Given Facebook likely wouldn’t try to make more acquisitions of big social networks under all this scrutiny, it’d benefit from voluntarily pledging not to attempt these buys for at least three to five years. Otherwise, regulators could impose that ban, which might be more politically attainable with fewer messy downstream effects,

Yet without this data portability regulation, Facebook can pay a fine and go back to business as usual. It can accept additional privacy oversight without fundamentally changing its product. It can become liable for upholding the bare minimum letter of the law while still breaking the spirit. And even if it was broken up, users still couldn’t switch from Facebook to Instagram, or from Instagram and WhatsApp to somewhere new.

Facebook Kills Competition With User Lock-In

When faced with competition in the past, Facebook has snapped into action improving itself. Fearing Google+ in 2011, Zuckerberg vowed “Carthage must be destroyed” and the company scrambled to launch Messenger, the Timeline profile, Graph Search, photo improvements and more. After realizing the importance of mobile in 2012, Facebook redesigned its app, reorganized its teams, and demanded employees carry Android phones for “dogfooding” testing. And when Snapchat was still rapidly growing into a rival, Facebook cloned its Stories and is now adopting the philosophy of ephemerality.

Mark Zuckerberg visualizes his social graph at a Facebook conference

Each time Facebook felt threatened, it was spurred to improve its product for consumers. But once it had defeated its competitors, muted their growth, or confined them to a niche purpose, Facebook’s privacy policies worsened. Anti-trust scholar Dina Srinivasan explains this in her summary of her paper “The Anti-Trust Case Against Facebook”:

“When dozens of companies competed in an attempt to win market share, and all competing products were priced at zero—privacy quickly emerged as a key differentiator. When Facebook entered the market it specifically promised users: “We do not and will not use cookies to collect private information from any user.” Competition didn’t only restrain Facebook’s ability to track users. It restrained every social network from trying to engage in this behavior . . .  the exit of competition greenlit a change in conduct by the sole surviving firm. By early 2014, dozens of rivals that initially competed with Facebook had effectively exited the market. In June of 2014, rival Google announced it would shut down its competitive social network, ceding the social network market to Facebook.

For Facebook, the network effects of more than a billion users on a closed-communications protocol further locked in the market in its favor. These circumstances—the exit of competition and the lock-in of consumers—finally allowed Facebook to get consumers to agree to something they had resisted from the beginning. Almost simultaneous with Google’s exit, Facebook announced (also in June of 2014) that it would begin to track users’ behavior on websites and apps across the Internet and use the data gleaned from such surveillance to target and influence consumers. Shortly thereafter, it started tracking non-users too. It uses the “like” buttons and other software licenses to do so.”

This is why the FTC must seek regulation that not only punishes Facebook for wrongdoings, but that lets consumers do the same. Users can punch holes in Facebook by leaving, both depriving it of ad revenue and reducing its network effect for others. Empowering them with the ability to take their friend list with them gives users a taller seat at the table. I’m calling for what University Of Chicago professors Luigi Zingales and Guy Rolnik termed a Social Data Portability Act.

Luckily, Facebook already has a framework for this data portability through a feature called Find Friends. You connect your Facebook account to another app, and you can find your Facebook friends who are already on that app.

But the problem is that in the past, Facebook has repeatedly blocked competitors from using Find Friends. That includes cutting off Twitter, Vine, Voxer, and MessageMe, while Phhhoto was blocked from letting you find your Instagram friends…six months before Instagram copied Phhhoto’s core back-and-forth GIF feature and named it Boomerang. Then there’s the issue that you need an active Facebook account to use Find Friends. That nullifies its utility as a way to bring your social graph with you when you leave Facebook.

Facebook’s “Find Friends” feature used to let Twitter users follow their Facebook friends, but Facebook later cut off access for competitors including Twitter and Vine seen here

The social network does offer a way to “Download Your Information” which is helpful for exporting photos, status updates, messages, and other data about you. Yet the friend list can only be exported as a text list of names in HTML or JSON format. Names aren’t linked to their corresponding Facebook profiles or any unique identifier, so there’s no way to find your friend John Smith amongst everyone with that name on another app. And less than 5 percent of my 2800 connections had used the little-known option to allow friends to export their email address. What about the big “Data Transfer Project” Facebook announced 10 months ago in partnership with Google, Twitter, and Microsoft to provide more portability? It’s released nothing so far, raising questions of whether it was vaporware designed to ward off regulators.

Essentially, this all means that Facebook provides zero portability for your friendships. That’s what regulators need to change. There’s already precedent for this. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 saw FCC require phone service carriers to allow customers to easily port their numbers to another carrier rather than having to be assigned a new number. If you think of a phone number as a method by which friends connect with you, it would be reasonable for regulators to declare that the modern equivalent — your social network friend connections — must be similarly portable.

How To Unchain Our Friendships

Facebook should be required to let you export a truly interoperable friend list that can be imported into other apps in a privacy-safe way.

To do that, Facebook should allow you to download a version of the list that feature hashed versions of the phone numbers and email addresses friends used to sign up. You wouldn’t be able to read that contact info or freely import and spam people. But Facebook could be required to share documentation teaching developers of other apps to build a feature that safely cross-checks the hashed numbers and email addresses against those of people who had signed up for their app. That developer wouldn’t be able to read the contact info from Facebook either, or store any useful data about people who hadn’t signed up for their app. But if the phone number or email address of someone in your exported Facebook friend list matched one of their users, they could offer to let you connect with or follow them.

This system would let you save your social graph, delete your Facebook account, and then find your friends on other apps without ever jeopardizing the privacy of their contact info. Users would no longer be locked into Facebook and could freely choose to move their friendships to whatever social network treats them best. And Facebook wouldn’t be able to block competitors from using it.

If the company wanted to go a step further, it could offer ways to makes News Feed content preferences or Facebook Groups connections portable, such as by making it easier for Group members to opt-in to joining a parallel email or text message mailing list. For researchers, Facebook could offer ways to export anonymized News Feed and activity data for study.

Portability would much more closely align the goals of users, Facebook, and the regulators. Facebook wouldn’t merely be responsible to the government for technically complying with new fines, oversight, or liability. It would finally have to compete to provide the best social app rather than relying on its network effect to handcuff users to its service.

This same model of data portability regulation could be expanded to any app with over 1 billion users, or even 100 million users to ensure YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, or Reddit couldn’t lock down users either. By only applying the rule to apps with a sufficiently large user base, the regulation wouldn’t hinder new startup entrants to the market and accidentally create a moat around well-funded incumbents like Facebook that can afford the engineering chore. Data portability regulation combined with a fine, liability, oversight, and a ban on future acquisitions of social networks could set Facebook straight without breaking it up.

Users have a lot of complaints about Facebook that go beyond strictly privacy. But their recourse is always limited because for many functions there’s nowhere else to go, and it’s too hard to go there. By fixing the latter, the FTC could stimulate the rise of Facebook alternatives so that users rather regulators can play king-maker.

Facebook talked privacy, Google actually built it

in Apps/Artificial Intelligence/Delhi/Developer/Facebook/facebook privacy/Google/Google I/O 2019/google privacy/India/Mark Zuckerberg/mobile/Opinion/Policy/Politics/privacy/Sundar Pichai/TC by

Mark Zuckerberg: “The future is private”. Sundar Pichai: ~The present is private~. While both CEO’s made protecting user data a central theme of their conference keynotes this month, Facebook’s product updates were mostly vague vaporware while Google’s were either ready to ship or ready to demo. The contrast highlights the divergence in strategy between the two tech giants.

For Facebook, privacy is a talking point meant to boost confidence in sharing, deter regulators, and repair its battered image. For Google, privacy is functional, going hand-in-hand with on-device data processing to make features faster and more widely accessible.

Everyone wants tech to be more private, but we must discern between promises and delivery. Like “mobile”, “on-demand”, “AI”, and “blockchain” before it, “privacy” can’t be taken at face value. We deserve improvements to the core of how our software and hardware work, not cosmetic add-ons and instantiations no one is asking for.

AMY OSBORNE/AFP/Getty Images

At Facebook’s F8 last week, we heard from Zuckerberg about how “Privacy gives us the freedom to be ourselves” and he reiterated how that would happen through ephemerality and secure data storage. He said Messenger and Instagram Direct will become encrypted…eventually…which Zuckerberg had already announced in January and detailed in March. We didn’t get the Clear History feature that Zuckerberg made the privacy centerpiece of his 2018 conference, or anything about the Data Transfer Project that’s been silent for the 10 months since it’s reveal.

What users did get was a clumsy joke from Zuckerberg about how “I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this. I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well.” No one laughed. At least he admitted that “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

But it shouldn’t have to. Facebook made its first massive privacy mistake in 2007 with Beacon, which quietly relayed your off-site ecommerce and web activity to your friends. It’s had 12 years, a deal with the FTC promising to improve, countless screwups and apologies, the democracy-shaking Cambridge Analytica scandal, and hours of being grilled by congress to get serious about the problem. That makes it clear that if “the future is private”, then the past wasn’t. Facebook is too late here to receive the benefit of the doubt.

At Google’s I/O, we saw demos from Pichai showing how “our work on privacy and security is never done. And we want to do more to stay ahead of constantly evolving user expectations.” Instead of waiting to fall so far behind that users demand more privacy, Google has been steadily working on it for the past decade since it introduced Chrome incognito mode. It’s changed directions away from using Gmail content to target ads and allowing any developer to request access to your email, though there are plenty of sins to atone for. Now when the company is hit with scandals, it’s typically over its frightening efficiency as with its cancelled Project Maven AI military tech, not its creepiness.

Google made more progress on privacy in low-key updates in the runup to I/O than Facebook did on stage. In the past month it launched the ability to use your Android device as a physical security key, and a new auto-delete feature rolling out in the coming weeks that erases your web and app activity after 3 or 18 months. Then in its keynote today, it published “privacy commitments” for Made By Google products like Nest detailing exactly how they use your data and your control over that. For example, the new Nest Home Max does all its Face Match processing on device so facial recognition data isn’t sent to Google. Failing to note there’s a microphone in its Nest security alarm did cause an uproar in February, but the company has already course-corrected

That concept of on-device processing is a hallmark of the new Android 10 Q operating system. Opening in beta to developers today, it comes with almost 50 new security and privacy features like TLS 1.3 support and Mac address randomization. Google Assistant will now be better protected, Pichai told a cheering crowd. “Further advances in deep learning have allowed us to combine and shrink the 100 gigabyte models down to half a gigabyte — small enough to bring it onto mobile devices.” This makes Assistant not only more private, but fast enough that it’s quicker to navigate your phone by voice than touch. Here, privacy and utility intertwine.

The result is that Google can listen to video chats and caption them for you in real-time, transcribe in-person conversations, or relay aloud your typed responses to a phone call without transmitting audio data to the cloud. That could be a huge help if you’re hearing or vision impaired, or just have your hands full. A lot of the new Assistant features coming to Google Pixel phones this year will even work in Airplane mode. Pichai says that “Gboard is already using federated learning to improve next word prediction, as well as emoji prediction across 10s of millions of devices” by using on-phone processing so only improvements to Google’s AI are sent to the company, not what you typed.

Google’s senior director of Android Stephanie Cuthbertson hammered the idea home, noting that “On device machine learning powers everything from these incredible breakthroughs like Live Captions to helpful everyday features like Smart Reply. And it does this with no user input ever leaving the phone, all of which protects user privacy.” Apple pioneered much of the on-device processing, and many Google features still rely on cloud computing, but it’s swiftly progressing.

When Google does make privacy announcements about things that aren’t about to ship, they’re significant and will be worth the wait. Chrome will implement anti-fingerprinting tech and change cookies to be more private so only the site that created them can use them. And Incognito Mode will soon come to the Google Maps and Search apps.

Pichai didn’t have to rely on grand proclamations, cringey jokes, or imaginary product changes to get his message across. Privacy isn’t just a means to an end for Google. It’s not a PR strategy. And it’s not some theoretical part of tomorrow like it is for Zuckerberg and Facebook. It’s now a natural part of building user-first technology…after 20 years of more cavalier attitudes towards data. That new approach is why the company dedicated to organizing the world’s information has been getting so little backlash lately.

With privacy, it’s all about show, don’t tell.

‘The Division 2’ is the brain-dead, antipolitical, gun-mongering vigilante simulator we deserve

in Delhi/games/Gaming/India/Opinion/Politics/review/TC by

In The Division 2, the answer to every question is a bullet. That’s not unique in the pervasively violent world of gaming, but in an environment drawn from the life and richly decorated with plausible human cost and cruelty, it seems a shame; and in a real world where plentiful assault rifles and government hit squads are the problems, not the solutions, this particular power fantasy feels backwards and cowardly.

Ubisoft’s meticulous avoidance of the real world except for physical likeness was meant to maximize its market and avoid the type of “controversy” that brings furious tweets and ineffectual boycotts down on media that dare to make statements. But the result is a game that panders to “good guy with a gun” advocates, NRA members, everyday carry die-hards, and those who dream of spilling the blood of unsavory interlopers and false patriots upon this great country’s soil.

There are two caveats: That we shouldn’t have expected anything else, from Ubisoft or anyone; and that it’s a pretty good game if you ignore all that stuff. But it’s getting harder to accept every day, and the excuses for game studios are getting fewer. (Some spoilers ahead, but trust me, it doesn’t matter.)

To put us all on the same page: The Division 2 (properly Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, which just about sums it up right there) is the latest “game as a service” to hit the block, aspiring less towards the bubblegum ubiquity of Fortnite and than the endless grind of a Destiny 2 or Diablo 3. The less said about Anthem, the better (except Jason Schrier’s great report, of course).

From the bestselling author of literally a hundred other books…

It’s published by Ubisoft, a global gaming power known for creating expansive gaming worlds (like the astonishingly beautiful Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) with bafflingly uneven gameplay and writing (like the astonishingly lopsided Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey).

So it was perhaps to be expected that The Division 2 would be heavy on atmosphere and light on subtlety. But I didn’t expect to be told to see the President snatch a machine gun from his captors and mow them down — then tell your character that sometimes you can’t do what’s popular, you have to do what’s necessary.

It would be too much even if the game was a parody and not, as it in fact is, deeply and strangely earnest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

EDC Simulator 2

The game is set in Washington, D.C.; its predecessor was in New York. Both were, like most U.S. cities in this fictitious near future, devastated by a biological attack on Black Friday that used money as a vector for a lethal virus. That’s a great idea, perhaps not practical (who pays in cash?), but a clever mashup of terrorist plots with consumerism. (The writing in the first Division was considerably better than this one.)

Your character is part of a group of sleeper agents seeded throughout the country, intended to activate in the event of a national emergency, surviving and operating on your own or with a handful of others, procuring equipment and supplies on the go, taking out the bad guys and saving the remaining civilians while authority reasserts itself.

You can see how this sets up a great game: exploring the ruins of a major city, shooing out villains, and upgrading your gear as you work your way up the ladder.

And in a way it does make a great game. If you consider the bad guys just types of human-shaped monsters, your various guns and equipment the equivalent of new swords and wands, breastplates and greaves, with your drones and tactical launchers modern spells and auras, it’s really quite a lot like Diablo, the progenitor of the “looter” genre.

Moment to moment gameplay has you hiding behind cover, popping out to snap off a few shots at the bad guys, who are usually doing the same thing 10 or 20 yards away, but generally not as well as you. Move on to the next room or intersection, do it again with some more guys, rinse and repeat. It sounds monotonous, and it is, but so is baseball. People like it anyway. (I’d like to give a shout-out to the simple, effective multiplayer that let me join a friend in seconds.)

But the problem with The Division 2 isn’t its gameplay, although I could waste your time (instead) with some nitpicking of the damage systems, the mobs, the inventory screen, and so on. The problem with The Division 2 isn’t even that it venerates guns. Practically every game venerates guns, because as Tim Rogers memorably paraphrased CliffyB once: “games are power fantasies — and it’s easy to make power fantasies, because guns are so powerful, and raycasting is simple, and raycasting is like a gun.” It’s difficult to avoid.

No, the problem with The Division 2 is the breathtaking incongruity between the powerfully visualized human tragedy your character inhabits and the refusal to engage even in an elementary way with the themes to which it is inherently tied: terrorism, guns, government and anti-government forces, and everything else. It’s exploitative, cynical, and absurd.

The Washington, D.C. of the game is a truly amazing setting. Painstakingly detailed block by block and containing many of the most notable landmarks of the area, it’s a very interesting game world to explore, even more so I imagine if you are from there or are otherwise familiar with the city.

The marks of a civilization-ending disaster are everywhere. Abandoned cars and security posts with vines and grass creeping up between them, broken and boarded up windows and doors, left luggage and improvised camping spots. Real places form the basis for thrilling setpiece shootouts: museums, famous offices, the White House itself (which you find under limp siege in the first mission). This is a fantasy very much based in reality — but only on the surface. In fact all this incredibly detailed scenery is nothing more than cover for shootouts.

I can’t tell you how many times my friend and I traversed intricately detailed monuments, halls, and other environments, marveling at the realism with which they were decorated (though perhaps there were a few too many gas cans), remarking to one another: “Damn, this place is insane. I can’t believe they made it this detailed just to have us do the same exact combat encounter as the entire rest of the game. How come nobody is talking about the history of this place, or the bodies, or the culture here?”

When fantasy isn’t

Now, to be clear, I don’t expect Ubisoft to make a game where you learn facts about helicopters while you shoot your way through the Air and Space Museum, or where you engage in philosophical conversation with the head of a band of marauders rather than lob grenades and corrosive goo in their general direction. (I kind of like both those ideas, though.)

But the dedication with which the company has avoided any kind of reality whatsoever is troubling.

We live in a time when people are taking what they call justice into their own hands by shooting others with weapons intended for warfare; when paramilitary groups are defending their strongholds with deadly force; when biological agents are being deployed against citizenry; when governments are surveilling and tracking people via controversial AI systems; when the leaders of that government are making unpopular and ethically fraught decisions without the knowledge of their constituency.

Ultimate EDC simulator

This game enthusiastically endorses all of the previous ideas with the naive justification that you’re the good guys. Of course you’re the good guys — everyone claims they’re the good guys! But objectively speaking, you’re a secret government hit squad killing whoever you’re told to, primarily other citizens. Ironically, despite being called an agent, you have no agency — you are a walking gun doing the bidding of a government that has almost entirely dissolved. What could possibly go wrong? The Division 2 certainly makes no effort to explore this.

The superficiality of the story I could excuse if it didn’t rely so strongly on using the real world as set dressing for its paramilitary dress-up-doll fantasy.

Basing your game in a real world location is, I think, a fabulous idea. But in doing so, especially if as part of the process you imply the death of millions, a developer incurs a responsibility to do more than use that location as level geometry.

The Division 2 instead uses these deaths and the most important places in D.C. literally as props. Nothing you do ever has anything to do with what the place is except in the loosest way. While you visit morgues and improvised mass graves piled with body bags, you never see anyone dead or dying… unless you kill them.

It’s hard to explain what I find so distasteful about this. It’s a combination of the obvious emphasis on the death of innocents, in a brute-force attempt to create emotional and political relevance, with the utterly vacuous violence you fill that world with. It feels disrespectful to itself, to the setting, to set a piece of media so incredibly dumb and mute in a disaster so credible and relevant.

This was a deliberate decision, to rob the game of any relevance — a marketing decision. To destroy D.C. — that sells. To write a story or design gameplay that in any way reflects why that destruction resonates — that doesn’t sell. “We cannot be openly political in our games,” said Alf Condelius, the COO of the studio that created the game, in a talk before the game’s release. Doing so, he said, would be “bad for business, unfortunately, if you want the honest truth.” I can’t be the only one who feels this to be a cop-out of pretty grand proportions, with the truth riding on its coattails.

Perhaps you think I’m holding game developers to an unreasonable standard. But I believe they are refusing to raise the bar themselves when they easily could and should. The level of detail in the world is amazing, and it was clearly designed by people who understand what could happen should disaster strike. The bodies piled in labs, the desolation of a city overtaken by nature, the perfect reproductions of landmarks — an enormous amount of effort and money was put into this part of the game.

On the other hand, it’s incredibly obvious from the get-go that very, very little attention was paid to the story and characters, the dialogue, the actual choices you can make as a player (there are none to speak of). There is no way to interact with people except to shoot them, or for them to tell you who to shoot. There is no mention of politics, of parties, of race or religion. I feel sure more time was spent modeling the guns — which, by the way, are real licensed models — than the main “characters,” though it must have been time-consuming to so completely to purge those characters of any ideas or opinions that could possibly reflect the real world.

One tragedy please, hold the relevance

This is deliberate. There’s no way this could have happened unless Ubisoft, from the start, made it clear that the game was to be divorced from the real world in every way except those that were deemed marketable.

That this is what they considerable marketable is a sad sort of indictment of the people they are selling this game to. The prospect of inserting oneself into a sort of justified vigilante role where you rain hot righteous lead on these generic villains trampling our great flag seems to be a special catnip concoction Ubisoft thought would appeal to millions — millions who (or more importantly, whose wallets) might be chilled by the idea of a story that actually takes on the societal issues that would be at play in a disaster like this one. We got the game we deserved, I suppose.

Say what you will about the narrative quality of campaigns of Call of Duty and Battlefield, but they at least attempt to engage with the content they are exploiting to sell the game. World War II is marketable because it’s the worst thing that ever happened and destroyed the lives of millions in a violent and dramatic way. Imagine building a photorealistic reproduction of wartime Stalingrad, or Paris, or Berlin, and then filling it not with Axis and Allied forces but simplified and palatable goodies and baddies with no particular ethos or history.

I certainly don’t mean to equate the theoretical destruction of D.C. with the Holocaust and WWII, but as perhaps the most popular period and venue for shooters like this, it’s the obvious comparison to make thematically, and what one finds is that however poor the story of a given WWII game, it inevitably attempts to emphasize and grapple with the enormity of the events you are experiencing. That’s the kind of responsibility I think you take on when you illustrate your game with the real world — even a fantasy version of the real world.

Furthermore Ubisoft has accepted that it must take some political stances, such as the inclusion of same-sex player-NPC relationships in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey — not controversial to me and many others, certainly, but hardly an apolitical inclusion in the present global political landscape. (I applaud them for this, by the way, and many others have as well.) It’s arguable this is not “overt” in that Kassandra and Alexios don’t break the first wall to advocate for marriage equality, but I think it is deliberately and unapologetically espousing a stance on a politically and societally charged issue.

It seems it is not that the company cannot be overtly political, but that it decided in this case that to be political on issues of guns, the military, terrorism, and so on was too much of a risk. To me that is in itself a political choice.

I do think Ubisoft is a fantastic company and makes wonderful games — but I also think the decision to completely divorce a game with fundamentally political underpinnings from the real politics and humanitarian conditions that empower it is a sad and spineless decision that makes them look both avaricious and inhumane. I know they can do better because others already have and do.

The Division 2 is a good game as far as games go. But games, like movies, TV, and other media, are very much art now, deserving of criticism as to their ideas as well as their controls and graphics; and as art, The Division 2 is as much a barren wasteland scoured of humanity as the D.C. it depicts.

Tim Cook wants you to put down your iPhone

in app developers/app stores/Apple/Apps/Delhi/India/iOS/iOS App Store/iOS apps/iPhone/iTunes/mobile/mobile apps/Opinion/Politics/push notifications/screen time/smartphones/Tim Cook by

Tim Cook thinks people should get off their iPhones and decrease their engagement with apps. The Apple CEO, speaking at the TIME 100 Summit today, was discussing the addictive nature of our mobile devices and Apple’s role in the matter when he made these comments. He said the company hadn’t intended for people to be constantly using their iPhones, and noted he himself has silenced his push notifications in recent months.

“Apple never wanted to maximize user time. We’ve never been about that,” Cook explained.

It’s certainly an interesting claim, given that Apple designed a platform that allowed app developers to constantly ping their users with the most inane notifications — from getting a new follower on a social app to a sale in a shopping app to a new level added to a game and so much more.

The very idea behind the notification platform, opt-in as it may be, is that developers should actively — and in real-time — try to capture users’ attention and redirect them back to their apps.

This is not how such an alert mechanism had to be designed.

An app notification platform could have instead been crafted to allow app developers to notify users in batches, at designed intervals within users’ control. For example, users could have specified that every day at noon they’d like to check in on the latest from their apps.

Or, in building out the iOS App Store, Apple could have implemented a “news feed” of sorts — somewhere users could opt to check in on all the latest news from their installed apps in a dedicated channel.

Or perhaps Apple could have structured a notification platform that would have allowed users to pick between different classes of notifications. Urgent messages — like alerts about a security breach — could have been a top-level tier; while general information could have been sent as a different type of notification. Users could have selected which types of alerts they wanted, depending on how important the app was to them.

These are just a few of many possible iterations. A company like Apple could have easily come up with even more ideas.

But the fact of the matter is that Apple’s notification platform was built with the idea of increasing engagement in mind. It’s disingenuous to say it was not.

At the very least, Apple could admit that it was a different era back then, and didn’t realize the potential damage to our collective psyche that a continually buzzing iPhone would cause. It could point out how it’s now working to fix this problem by putting users back in control, and how it plans to do more in the future.

Instead, it created a situation where users had to turn to the only defense left to them: switching off push notifications entirely. Today, when users install new apps they often say “No” to push notifications. And with Apple’s new tools to control notifications, users are now actively triaging which apps can get in touch.

In fact, that’s what Tim Cook says he did, too.

“If you guys aren’t doing this — if you have an iPhone and you’re not doing it, I would encourage you to really do this —  monitor these [push notifications],” the CEO suggested to the audience.

“What it what has done for me personally is I’ve gone in and gutted the number of notifications,” Cook said. “Because I asked myself: do I really need to be getting thousands of notifications a day? It’s not something that is adding value to my life, or is making me a better person. And so I went in and chopped that.”

Yep. Even Apple’s CEO is done with all the spam and noise from iPhone apps.

The comment, of course, was supposed to be a veiled reference to the addictive nature of some apps — social media apps in particular, and especially Facebook. Today, Apple throws barbs at Facebook any time it can, now that the company has fallen out of public favor due to its ongoing data privacy violations and constant scandals.

But a more truthful telling of the iPhone’s past would recall that Facebook’s app — and all its many notifications — was originally a big selling point for Apple’s mobile device.

When the App Store first launched in 2008, Facebook proudly sat in the top row in a featured position. It was heavily promoted to users because it was a prime example of the iPhone’s utility: here was this popular social network you could now get to right from your phone. Amazing! 

The fact that Facebook — and every other app — later leveraged the iOS push notification platform to better its own business without regard to how that would impact users, isn’t entirely app developers’ collective fault. The notification platform itself had left the door wide open for that sort of psychological abuse to occur, simply because of its lack of user-configured, user-friendly controls.

Above: The App Store at launch, via The NYT

A decade after the App Store launched, Apple finally started to dial back on the free-for-all on user attention.

It announced its suite of digital wellness tools at WWDC 2018, which included Screen Time (a dashboard for tracking and limiting usage); increased parental controls; and finally a way to silence the barrage of notifications, without having to dig around in iOS Settings.

Now Tim Cook wants to have us believe that Apple had never wanted to cause any of this addiction and distraction — despite having created the very platform that made it all possible in the first place, which in turn, helped sell devices.

Isn’t it telling that the exec has had to silence his own iPhone using these new tools? Isn’t that something of an admission of culpability here?

“Every time you pick up your phone, it means you’re taking your eyes off whoever you’re dealing with are talking with, right?,” Cook continued. “And if you’re if you’re looking at your phone more than you’re looking at somebody else’s eyes, you’re doing the wrong thing,” he said.  “We want to educate people on what they’re doing. This thing will improve through time, just like everything else that we do. We’ll innovate there as we do in other areas.”

“But basically, we don’t want people using their phones all the time. This has never been an objective for us,” said Cook.

Except, of course, for those 10 years when it was.

3 fixes for Netflix’s “What to watch?” problem

in Amazon Prime Video/Apps/Delhi/Entertainment/Hulu/India/Netflix/Opinion/Politics/short films/Social/TC/tv/Video by

Wasting time every night debating with yourself or your partner about what to watch on Netflix is a drag. It burns people’s time and good will, robs great creators of attention, and leaves Netflix vulnerable to competitors who can solve discovery. A ReelGood study estimated that the average user spends 18 minutes per day deciding.

To date, Netflix’s solution has been its state-of-the-art artificial intelligence that offers personalized recommendations. But that algorithm is ignorant of how we’re feeling in the moment, what we’ve already seen elsewhere, and if we’re factoring in what someone else with us wants to watch too.

Netflix is considering a Shuffle button. [Image Credit: AndroidPolice]

This week Netflix introduced one basic new approach to discovery: a shuffle button. Click on a show you like such as The Office, and it will queue up a random episode. But that only works if you already know what you want to watch, it’s not a movie, and it’s not a linear series you have to watch in order.

Here are three much more exciting, applicable, and lucrative ways for Netflix (or Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, or any of the major streaming services) to get us to stop browsing and start chilling:

Netflix Channels

For the history of broadcast television, people surfed their way to what to watch. They turned on the tube, flipped through a few favorite channels, and jumped in even if a show or movie had already started. They didn’t have to decide between infinite options, and they didn’t have to commit to starting from the beginning. We all have that guilty pleasure we’ll watch until the end whenever we stumble upon it.

Netflix could harness that laziness and repurpose the concept of channels so you could surf its on-demand catalog the same way. Imagine if Netflix created channels dedicated to cartoons, action, comedy, or history. It could curate non-stop streams of cherry-picked content, mixing classic episodes and films, new releases related to current events, thematically relevant seasonal video, and Netflix’s own Original titles it wants to promote.

For example, the comedy channel could run modern classic films like 40-Year Old Virgin and Van Wilder during the day, top episodes of Arrested Development and Parks And Recreation in the afternoon, a featured recent release film like The Lobster in primetime, and then off-kilter cult hits like Monty Python or its own show Big Mouth in the late night slots. Users who finish one video could get turned on to the next, and those who might not start a personal favorite film from the beginning might happily jump in at the climax.

Short-Film Bundles

There’s a rapidly expanding demographic of post-couple pre-children people desperately seeking after-work entertainment. They’re too old or settled to go out every night, but aren’t so busy with kids that they lack downtime.

But one big shortcoming of Netflix is that it can be tough to get a satisfying dose of entertainment in a limited amount of time before you have to go to bed. A 30-minute TV show is too short. A lot of TV nowadays is serialized so it’s incomprehensible or too cliffhanger-y to watch a single episode, but sometimes you can’t stay up to binge. And movies are too long so you end up exhausted if you manage to finish in one sitting.

Netflix could fill this gap by bundling three or so short films together into thematic collections that are approximately 45 minutes to an hour in total.

Netflix could commission Originals and mix them with the plethora of untapped existing shorts that have never had a mainstream distribution channel. They’re often too long or prestigious to live on the web, but too short for TV, and it’s annoying to have to go hunting for a new one every 15 minutes. The whole point here is to reduce browsing. Netflix could create collections related to different seasons, holidays, or world news moments, and rebundle the separate shorts on the fly to fit viewership trends or try different curational angles.

Often artful and conclusive, they’d provide a sense of culture and closure that a TV episode doesn’t. If you get sleepy you could save the last short, and there’s a feeling of low commitment since you could skip any short that doesn’t grab you.

The Nightly Water Cooler Pick

One thing we’ve lost with the rise of on-demand video are some of those zeitgeist moments where everyone watches the same thing the same night and can then talk about it together the next day. We still get that with live sports, the occasional tent pole premier like Game Of Thrones, or when a series drops for binge-watching like Stranger Things. But Netflix has the ubiquity to manufacture those moments that stimulate conversation and a sense of unity.

Netflix could choose one piece of programming per night per region, perhaps a movie, short arc of TV episodes, or one of the short film bundles I suggested above and stick it prominently on the home page. This Netflix Zeitgeist choice would help override people’s picky preferences that get them stuck browsing by applying peer pressure like, “well, this is what everyone else will be watching.”

Netflix’s curators could pick content matched with an upcoming holiday like a Passover TV episode, show a film that’s reboot is about to debut like Dune or Clueless, pick a classic from an actor that’s just passed away like Luke Perry in the original Buffy movie, or show something tied to a big event like Netflix is currently doing with Beyonce’s Coachella concert film. Netflix could even let brands and or content studios pay to have their content promoted in the Zeitgeist slot.

As streaming service competition heats up and all the apps battle for the best back catalog, it’s not just exclusives but curation and discovery that will set them apart. These ideas could make Netflix the streaming app where you can just turn it on to find something great, be exposed to gorgeous shorts you’d have never known about, or get to participate in a shared societal experience. Entertainment shouldn’t have to be a chore.

1 2 3 14
Go to Top