To Bee or Not to Bee

by Deanna K. Kreisel

Now that Americans are emerging, blinking, into the post-pandemic daylight (perhaps temporarily! let’s not get too excited), a certain amount of stock-taking has been taking place. Some of it is braggadocious (languages learned, abdominal muscles honed), some of it is tragic (loved ones lost, livelihoods curtailed), and some of it is chagrined (Netflix queues emptied, drinking problems acquired). I am one of the lucky ones: a knowledge worker who was able to hunker down at home, with no children to wrestle and pin down in front of Zoom cameras; I lost no people and no material thing of importance. But that doesn’t mean that I escaped entirely unscathed. I have been cultivating a shameful new addiction in the secrecy of my own home, one that overcame me during the pandemic and still has me pinioned in its cruel, vise-like grip. My name is Deanna K., and I am a New York Times Spelling Bee addict.

It started innocently enough. My partner Scott and I used to do the New York Times crossword together all the time; during the pandemic lockdown, we got into the habit of stumbling out of our studies after hours of Zooming in order to eat lunch at the kitchen counter, and I would bring my iPad so we could do the crossword while we ate. Then, one fateful day, Scott noticed the bright yellow-and-black bumblebee logo on the Puzzles page, invitingly twitching its plump little bumblebutt at us like a schoolyard pusher offering a free taste. We gave it a go, found it intriguing and just the right amount of maddening, and were completely sucked in. Read more »

Down the Rabbit Hole With Schubert and Hawley

by Michael Liss

The Machine has me in its tentacles. Some algorithm thinks I really want to buy classical sheet music, and it is not going to be discouraged. Another (or, perhaps it is the same) insists that now is the time to invest in toner cartridges, running shoes, dress shirts, and incredibly expensive real estate.

Swinging over to the relative peace and quiet of my email box, I find an extraordinary number of politicians bidding against one another for my attention. It’s a little like Christmas come early: “Now, Stringer, now, Helen, now Andrew and Adams! On, Williams on, Loree! on, Kallos and Weprin!” Every single one of them vibrates with intensity, assuring me that he or she is ready to serve me, my family, my community, and the world. Oh, and, by the way, brother, can I spare a dime?

I need my dimes right now. I’m not moving to a deluxe apartment in the sky, and I’ll buy more dress shirts when the world gets back to normal and I ditch this pandemic-related beard. So, back to Schirmer’s Selected Piano Masterpieces (Intermediate Level). I know my sin. My daughter and I were talking about the accompaniment in Schubert’s Lieder and I (foolishly, without going into a private viewing mode) did a quick search. This was more than two weeks ago, and The Machine will keep at me until it is convinced I absolutely, positively, won’t give in. Machine, if you are reading (and I know you must be), please trust me, I can’t play the piano, and I definitely can’t sing. I’d be happy to post something to YouTube to prove it. Or ask my friends to confirm—after all, you know who they are. Read more »

From Nudge to Hypernudge: Big Data and Human Autonomy

by Fabio Tollon

We produce data all the time. This is a not something new. Whenever a human being performs an action in the presence of another, there is a sense in which some new data is created. We learn more about people as we spend more time with them. We can observe them, and form models in our minds about why they do what they do, and the possible reasons they might have for doing so. With this data we might even gather new information about that person. Information, simply, is processed data, fit for use. With this information we might even start to predict their behaviour. On an inter-personal level this is hardly problematic. I might learn over time that my roommate really enjoys tea in the afternoon. Based on this data, I can predict that at three o’clock he will want tea, and I can make it for him. This satisfies his preferences and lets me off the hook for not doing the dishes.

The fact that we produce data, and can use it for our own purposes, is therefore not a novel or necessarily controversial claim. Digital technologies (such as Facebook, Google, etc.), however, complicate the simplistic model outlined above. These technologies are capable of tracking and storing our behaviour (to varying degrees of precision, but they are getting much better) and using this data to influence our decisions. “Big Data” refers to this constellation of properties: it is the process of taking massive amounts of data and using computational power to extract meaningful patterns. Significantly, what differentiates Big Data from traditional data analysis is that the patterns extracted would have remained opaque without the resources provided by electronically powered systems. Big Data could therefore present a serious challenge to human decision-making. If the patterns extracted from the data we are producing is used in malicious ways, this could result in a decreased capacity for us to exercise our individual autonomy. But how might such data be used to influence our behaviour at all? To get a handle on this, we first need to understand the common cognitive biases and heuristics that we as humans display in a variety of informational contexts. Read more »