Monday, October 19, 2015

The Spam Filter Apocalypse

Spam filters almost prevented these gorgeous photo ops.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I were planning to go apple-picking when I noticed she was curiously silent in the group planning email thread. I texted her to inquire. She immediately texted back, "What thread?"

I forwarded her the thread and, after checking that it had included her, asked if perhaps the message had gotten caught in her spam filter. She said no.

The next day in the car, she revealed that the message had gotten caught not in her university spam filter, but in her Gmail spam filter.

This was troubling. University spam filters were widely known the usual culprit for missing emails. In university-land, the best excuse for failing to respond to an email is to say the message "somehow" got "stuck." Who knows what decade the technology was from? Who knows what kinds of dark corners there are, waiting to eat important work emails and social invitations alike?

Gmail, on the other hand, is another story. It is generally acknowledged to be the state of the art when it comes to spam filters. Occasionally I will check my "spam" folder to see what has gotten caught, but in general it does a good job. If Gmail spam filters were categorizing important social emails as spam, then surely it was beginning of the end.

A few months ago, I would have filed this as another piece of evidence that the Robot Apocalypse is not coming anytime soon. When Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian interviewed a couple of computer scientist friends and me for the Upvoted podcast, I had been surprised that he asked how afraid we should be about the Robot Apocalyse. We had all laughed and said that the current state of artificial intelligence is not sufficiently sophisticated to produce robots who will take over the world.

What I have been coming to realize, however, is that unsophisticated robots have already taken over the world. Tethered to our emails, we are at the mercy of the less glamorous, but no less scary, spambots and spam filters. On the way to apple-picking, my friends and I wondered whether it is possible to prevent someone from ever having their emails received again if everyone collectively spam-filtered them. It turns out this depends on the sophistication spam filtering algorithms. It should be terrifying that this is possible--and that this can seriously compromise someone's standard of living.

Fortunately, there are measures that prevent the current robot situation from being more apocalyptic. We more or less trust Google to live up to their promise to "do no evil." We have some degree of trust that if technology creators abused their power, regulators would step in and protect us. And, importantly, we still live in a culture where we give people the benefit of the doubt when technology seems to fail. Behind most important decisions there remains a human to make the final call.

When things become too dangerous is when we begin to trust the algorithms too much. In The Fires, Joe Flood describes how a liberal city government caused New York City's poorest neighborhoods to burn down in the 1970s. The well-meaning government placed trusted the algorithms of RAND corporation to fairly allocate resources. What ended up happening was that, in the poorest neighborhoods, infrastructure was not well maintained and insufficient firefighting resources were allocated. Buildings became prone to fire and firefighters were slow to respond. These algorithms, like humans, were biased. Because the government trusted so much in the algorithms, however, there was too little oversight for too long.

The way to prevent the full Spam Filter Apocalypse is to avoid giving the robots too much power. As consumers, we have the responsibility to educate ourselves about what our technology is doing, think critically about how it could affect our lives, and push back when algorithms are doing too much without oversight. Protecting ourselves is as much a social engineering problem as it is a technical one. It involves educating ourselves enough that, as a society we can establish policies, both informal "best practices" kind and ones that are legally enforced. A first step is to stop regarding the Robot Apocalypse as a nebulous inevitability and to start seeing it as something that is already happening, but whose trajectory we can control.

As software comes to run our lives, the Robot Apocalypse we should fear is not the one that comes about because the technology become too advanced. We should instead worry about what happens when we place too much trust in technology that is not quite ready for the task at hand. The Spam Filter Apocalypse is perhaps less glamorous than what the futurists of times past may have hoped, but it certainly is no less scary.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Work is (Not) a Four Letter Word

I recently finished reading comedian Mindy Kaling’s second memoir, Why Not Me? What I found most empowering was her openness about hard work.

In the book, Mindy is refreshingly honest about being a “workaholic.” In the Glamour excerpt of the book, Mindy cites hard work as the path to “killer confidence.” She writes, “...the truth is, I have never, ever, ever met a highly confident and successful person who is not what a movie would call a ‘workaholic.’” Mindy describes herself as a “vampire” following a daily routine consisting of 5am wakeups and days so long in the studio she never sees the sun.

Amidst this discussion, Mindy acknowledges that her honesty about work is in opposition to how we are socialized. She describes how we are taught to work hard until we finish school and then, all of the sudden, people seem to regard work as something harmful. We live in a society that values achievement but not the work required to get there.

Yes, Mindy Kaling. YES. I have long felt caught between pressures for my achievements to appear effortless yet well-deserved. This tension is particularly fraught because of the connection between work and social identity. To some people, I work “all the time”--and to only a subset of these is this a good thing. Others have asked me, “Do you ever work?”--some with admiration and some with disdain. Why is it that my attitude towards work seems to matter more than the work I produce?

Increasingly, narratives around work have become a means for reinforcing current structures of power. In Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite, Shamus Khan writes about how attitudes towards work serve as a gatekeeping function for socioeconomic status. The elites, Khan writes, value hard work and appearing busy as a way of justifying their superior status. It is, however, important to maintain an air of effortlessness. True elites need not work.

Race plays a role in narratives of work. In his New York Magazine piece “Paper Tigers,” Wesley Yang writes about the phenomenon of Asian-American families placing a higher value on academic work--and thus schools requiring Asian students to, on average, score 140 points higher on the SAT for college admissions. Throughout their careers, Asian-Americans continue to be penalized for the perception that they are predisposed to be hard-working, facing the “bamboo ceiling.” Asian-Americans must work harder while maintaining the facade of effortlessness, lest they be labeled as one of the one who knows little else than hard work.

Unsurprisingly, narratives on work also have a gendered element. People have told me, “But you’re a woman. Don’t you want to have a family?” While men have the freedom to be “obsessive” like Judd Apatow or “cocky” like Jerry Seinfeld (okay, I have been reading a lot of comic memoirs), there are fewer equivalent roles for women. The hard-working woman is often vilified, portrayed as cold and distanced from the ones she could love. There is no doubt that this perceived incompatibility between being female and hard-working contributes to the glass ceiling. I have all the more respect for Mindy Kaling for being among the few celebrity women who talks openly about hard work.

In “Is Food the New Sex?," Mary Eberstadt argues that food has replaced sex as the dominant mechanism for maintaining social hierarchy. It is fitting that Mindy Kaling is as open about loving McDonald’s as she is about working hard. If we are to promote inclusiveness and equal opportunity, we need to talk openly about work--and be critical of our fascination with the narratives around work, rather than the work that is done.