This week an Android and Apple ‘water feature’ highlighted that content on Google Maps was probably a little less than accurate. The uncovering of smiley face shaped parks raised speculation feeding yet more speculation about whether this was an internal Google employee, a Google Easter Egg, hackers or something else. It transpires it was all simply the result of a user contributing crowd-sourced content.
Technically, this is a hack as defined in the neutral sense of the word (i.e. using some-thing for some-use, in some-way for which it wasn’t initially intended). This poses a number of questions and opportunities on a number of different fronts and has positive and negative connotations in each case. Lets’ not forget that using this definition, lots of things fall into hacks that otherwise wouldn’t appear and indeed a number of things we now take for granted wouldn’t be here. For example, medics treating patients using medications unlicensed for that use; children using baskets as helmets in play-fights; broken CDs/DVDs as coasters; using telephone directories; bed-sheets for a ghost costume; or over-zealous software systems specifications as doorstops and of course, the greatest provider of grazed knees in history:
It’s the modus operandi of the pioneer.
However, being a pioneer isn’t enough to be capitally successful. Far from it. Success depends on the pioneering act coupled with the ability to communicate that act and the act sustainably ‘stick’ within a receptive target populous. A failure in any one of those variates and the pioneering act dies. It’s a typically human popularity contest.
As someone who works in tech, I probably see this happen more frequently than most. It’s no great secret that the best technology very rarely translates to the most successful. USB 1.0 v Firewire for system to device communication and HD-DVD v BlueRay for data storage were two fairly big cases in point. The unpopular or discontinued versions of the technology were faster and stored much more than their more popular counterparts today. As a meritocrat, I personally find this quite sad, but that’s the way of the world.
In this sense, capitalist environments and businesses within them aren’t all that different from business in socialist or communist environments, even if the political models are vastly different. Indeed, they are not all that different from what happens in the playground, which kind of makes sense, since that is where our foundational frames of reference are formed which then stay with us for the rest of our lives and because we share our lives with other people, to a greater or lesser extent, that perspective naturally propagates through to others in the memes and genes we secrete. Indeed, some of this article wouldn’t have been possible without knowledge or YouTube videos.
To take this back to the start of this article, we’ll go via a tour of some of the three elements. The first we’ve covered. A great product is necessary. The third is audience reception. Classically TV viewing figures are skewed to drama and soap opera over documentaries. Many people learn what they learn about life from television, the internet and smartphones. They makes our world much smaller and allows us to visit places we’d otherwise never experience or even know about. It can be credited with helping eradicate overt racism whilst at the same time propagating myths about xenophobia and religion that have seeded certain groups into attacking communities of people and justifying war.
It’s often said that in order to control the masses in democracies without force, you have to seed what they think. It’s the case even if that bares no resemblance to the actual data which is shouting at you at the top of it’s voice from the corner. We treat that knowing voice as a patronising child by muffling their cries or shouting louder. It’s how traditional politics still has a hand in influencing the masses. We’re voting for people to lead us who generally don’t have a willing acceptance or understanding of the information which is key to our success as a society or even civilization.
It’s easiest to present a populist agenda visually and the receptive audience are already predisposed to this kind of presentation as a group, since we can look (body shaming, fashion, the subjective science of attraction etc.), even if we can’t see. Hence the path of least resistance for that information to take is to seed it using something visual. Gender, body shape, colour, dress. Associate that with some types of language and we suddenly have ourselves a platform and this can be hateful or positive or perhaps anything in between. However, what we see we see through our own eyes and recognise stuff we’re predisposed to seeing. Usually something usually emotionally important to us in some way, even if that isn’t important to anyone else, including the person the something belongs to.
Nod to Memetics
Once something takes, as we’ve seen with the way virals spread, they self-perpetuate through the minds of people who come into contact with it, perhaps gaining or losing something in the process (facebook memes often see folk comment or tag someone when sharing. Twitter conversations see replies from others which are then retweeted etc.). It’s basically mass hysteria, since the critical mass needed for the propagation of the information without any effort on behalf of the initial filibuster has been breached and the propagation of knowledge of the the product then takes on a life of it’s own. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it’s given rise to charity activity; disease awareness; poverty and famine campaigns and of course, helped raise the profile of open source software.
However, as with big conglomerates in the off-line world, an agenda from a powerful entity can force other perspectives out of reach and in any case, it takes time for non-impositional perspectives to reach that critical mass compared to dictate. Hence, anyone working in the latter space has a number of opportunities to jump in before they are themselves pushed to the fringes of the marketplace. Just like bullies can thump their victims for many many years before they both grow up and bullying is deemed wrong. Perhaps 20 years worth of bumps. However, the memory of those days still lives in both parties long after those events and indeed for some victims they may tragically never reach a point where they perhaps get to appreciate that they were ultimately right.
This is what our human nature, the one we’ve created and positively respond to, can cause. Humans are irrational.
What About the Maps?
As you can tell from the revealing article, the way the review process works at G-Maps seems to be that they required human approval. Hence, this ‘digital graffiti’ hack was a social engineering exercise, not one of hacking computer systems per se. Indeed, you can even track how he learned to use Google MapMaker from earlier this year.
This sort of activity isn’t really new. Probably one of the longest standing Crowdsourcing information sites, Wikipedia, was previously been infamed for having inaccurate and biased articles which promoted brands and false beliefs. To pull/edit that information out through a crowdsourcing mechanism takes time, as someone with knowledge on the subject needs to come along and spot it and in the meantime, a million and one other folk have read the mistaken article from a considered credible source and acted on that noise. Hence, it’s a game of who gets in there first. A pre-emptive strike on truth and excellence if you like. Like a punch to the nerds face, it often needs someone who isn’t the nerd to help the nerd out.
It’s a statistical game. The rarer the views, the rarer the spots, the rarer the speciality of the information, the less likely there is to be someone who knows enough to call it out. Combine those and it lives forever, even if nobody sees it. Sustainable certainly, great product? Not if you need it for something important. Like an accurate map.
However, the more popular and vocal a perspective, the more it gets believed and any outliers then get stomped on even if they’re the component who are right. It’s the ‘type 2 error’ result and it happens a lot! Very often to the same people. A negative manifestation of the so called ‘wisdom of the crowds’ — which is the underlying mechanism for crowdsourcing information (not accuracy and not innovation). If you’re in a world of science, that’s the eyes you see the world through; ubiquitous mainstream religion, that’s the eyes you see the world through; materialistic and/or aesthetic, that’s the eyes you see the world through. You can’t easily cross-communicate effectively across these boundaries, even if you should and society needs you to. However, within the boundaries, it’s very easy to cross pollinate information since the same language and interests dominate and can riddle these arena with group-thinking, conformist or conventional wisdom. It’s how communities of practise works, but also fundamentalist or cult dictate. It’s just the way it is, especially where critical thinking and challenging the status quo is not tolerated, accepted or welcome.
People are inherently fallable. Indeed, given our genes have evolved and will continue to evolve to improve on previous species for particular fitness (in our case, we’re generalists, since we can’t beat monkeys for what we’ve always considered human-like memory), we are effectively huge giant chemistry balls of trade-offs and mistakes. Not just that, but it’s very very easy for our fallacies to spread as the de facto information. Some of it is comical, without it shows like QI woudn’t exist, but they are significantly less popular than emotionally appealing fantasy such as Eastenders or Coronation street. Indeed, the vast majority of information we know of isn’t accurate or current to an expert in each field.
In itself this isn’t important unless it starts to affect our ability as a society or civilization to function, perhaps by voting in the wrong leadership, or as individuals because society is unfairly imposing its will upon other people, due to a lack of understanding of information, miscommunication, spin or catastrophically all of the above. Some of which has resulted in irreversible decisions to those affected by some of those policies. Parents have lost children. Spouses have lost partners. Children lost parents, time education, self-esteem, identity and futures! We excuse ourselves and absolve ourselves of guilt by reverting to the information used to make the decision in the first place, even if it’s completely discredited in real terms on top of expert opinion. Like the Iraq war dossier was the biggest contributing factor in a decision to kill 600,000 people as the “intelligence information available to us at the time”… coming from a Google search…. History is riddled with genocide, holocaust and massacres as the popular vote was taken over any empirical sense. Continue with the popularity contest or should the crowd just get better at understanding things so they can make informed decisions? I know which one I’d prefer, after all, in the end, the ‘Comical Ali’ in this turned out to be us!