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The overlay bias

I’m not very fond of some highly popular pieces of writing (I won’t name them because I’m nervous about backlash from authors and/or their supporters) because a part of their popularity is undeniably rooted in technological ‘solutions’ that asymmetrically promote work published in the solution’s country of origin.

My favourite example is Pocket, the app that allows users to save copies of articles to read later, offline if required. Not long ago, Pocket introduced an extension for the Google Chrome browser (which counts hundreds of millions of users) such that every time you opened a new tab, it would show you three articles lots of other Pocket users have read and liked. It’s fairly brainless, ergo presumably non-malicious, and you’d expect the results to be distributed equally from among magazines, journals, etc. published around the world.

However, nine times out of ten – but often more – I’d find articles by NYT, The Atlantic, The Baffler, etc. there. I was reluctant to blame Pocket at first, considering their algorithm seemed too simple, but then I realised Pocket was just the last in a long line of other apps and algorithms that simply amplified existing biases.

Before Pocket, for example, there might have been Twitter, Facebook or some other platform that allowed stories from some domains (nytimes.com, thebaffler.com, etc.) to persist for longer on users’ feeds because they were more easily perceived to be legitimate than articles from other sources, say, a Venezuelan newspaper, a Kenyan blog, a Pakistani magazine or a Vietnamese journal. Or there might have been Nuzzle, which auto-compiles a digest of articles that others your friends on the social media have shared most – likely unmindful of the fact that people quite often share headlines, or domains they’d like to be known to be reading, instead of the articles themselves.

This is a social magnification like the biological magnification in nature, whereby toxic substances pile up in greater quantities in the gizzards of animals higher up in the food chain. Here, perceptions of legitimacy and quality accumulate in greater quantities in the feeds and timelines of people who consume, or even glance through, the most information. And this way, a general consciousness of what’s considered desirable erects itself without anything drastic, with just the more fleeting and mindless actions of millions of people, into a giant wheel of information distribution that constantly feeds itself its own momentum.

As the wheel turns, and The Atlantic publishes an article, it doesn’t just publish a good article that draws hundreds of thousands of readers. It also rides a wheel set in motion by American readers, American companies, American developers, American interests and American dollars, with a dollop of historical imperialism, that quietly but surely brings the world a good article plus a good-natured reminder that The Atlantic is good and that readers needn’t go looking for anything else because The Atlantic has them covered.

As I wondered in 2017, and still do: “Will my peers in India have been farther along in their careers had there been an equally influential Indian for-publishers tech stack?” Then again, how much is one more amplifier, Pocket or anything else, going to change?

I went into this tirade because of this Twitter thread, which describes a similar issue with arXiv – the popular preprint repo for physical sciences, computer science and applied mathematics papers (don’t @ me to quibble over arXiv’s actual remit). As the tweeter Jia-Bin Huang writes, the manuscripts that were uploaded last – i.e. most recently – to arXiv are displayed on top of the output stack, and what’s displayed on top of the stack gets more citations and readership.

This is a very simple algorithm, quite like Pocket’s algorithm, but in both cases they’re algorithms overlaid on existing bias-amplifying architectures. In a sense, they’re akin to the people who might stand by and watch a lynching, neither egging the perpetrators on nor stopping them. If the metaphor is brutal, remember that the effects on any publication or scientist that can’t infiltrate or ‘hack’ social biases are brutal as well. While their contents and their ideas might deserve international readership, these publications and scientists will need to spend more – energy, resources, effort – to grab international attention again and again.

The example Jia-Bin Huang cites is of scientists in Asia, who – unlike their American counterparts – can’t upload a paper on arXiv just before the deadline so that their papers sit on top of the stack because 2 pm in New York is 3 am in Taipei.

As some replies to the thread indicated, the people maintaining arXiv can easily solve the problem by waiting for the deadline to pass, then randomising the order of papers displayed in its email blast – but as Jia-Bin Huang notes, doing that would mean negating the just-in-time advantage that arXiv’s American users enjoy. So here we are.

It isn’t hard to see how we can extend the same suggestion to the world’s Pockets and Nuzzles. Pick your millions of users’ thousand most-read articles, mix up their order – even weigh down popular American publishers if necessary – and finally advertise the first ten items from this list. But ultimately, until technological solutions actively negate the biases they overlie, Pocket will lie on the same spectrum as the tools that produce the biases. I admit fact-checking in this paradigm could be labour-intensive, as could relevance-checking vis-à-vis arXiv, but I also think the latter would be better problems to solve.

Injustice ex machina

There are some things I think about but struggle to articulate, especially in the heat of an argument with a friend. Cory Doctorow succinctly captures one such idea here:

Empiricism-washing is the top ideological dirty trick of technocrats everywhere: they assert that the data “doesn’t lie,” and thus all policy prescriptions based on data can be divorced from “politics” and relegated to the realm of “evidence.” This sleight of hand pretends that data can tell you what a society wants or needs — when really, data (and its analysis or manipulation) helps you to get what you want.

If you live in a country ruled by a nationalist government tending towards the ultra-nationalist, you’ve probably already encountered the first half of what Doctorow describes: the championship of data, and quantitative metrics in general, the conflation of objectivity with quantification, the overbearing focus on logic and mathematics to the point of eliding cultural and sociological influences.

Material evidence of the latter is somewhat more esoteric, yet more common in developing countries where the capitalist West’s influence vis-à-vis consumption and the (non-journalistic) media are distinctly more apparent, and which is impossible to unsee once you’ve seen it.

Notwithstanding the practically unavoidable consequences of consumerism and globalisation, the aspirations of the Indian middle and upper classes are propped up chiefly by American and European lifestyles. As a result, it becomes harder to tell the “what society needs” and the “get what you want” tendencies apart. Those developing new technologies to (among other things) enhance their profits arising from this conflation are obviously going to have a harder time seeing it and an even harder time solving for it.

Put differently, AI/ML systems – at least those in Doctorow’s conception, in the form of machines adept at “finding things that are similar to things the ML system can already model” – born in Silicon Valley have no reason to assume a history of imperialism and oppression, so the problems they are solving for are off-target by default.

But there is indeed a difference, and not infrequently the simplest way to uncover it is to check what the lower classes want. More broadly, what do the actors with the fewest degrees of freedom in your organisational system want, assuming all actors already want more freedom?

They – as much as others, and at the risk of treating them as a monolithic group – may not agree that roads need to be designed for public transportation (instead of cars), that the death penalty should be abolished or that fragmenting a forest is wrong but they are likely to determine how a public distribution system, a social security system or a neighbourhood policing system can work better.

What they want is often what society needs – and although this might predict the rise of populism, and even anti-intellectualism, it is nonetheless a sort of pragmatic final check when it has become entirely impossible to distinguish between the just and the desirable courses of action. I wish I didn’t have to hedge my position with the “often” but I remain unable with my limited imagination to design a suitable workaround.

Then again, I am also (self-myopically) alert to the temptation of technological solutionism, and acknowledge that discussions and negotiations are likely easier, even if messier, to govern with than ‘one principle to rule them all’.

DotA redux – AI loses

What happened

An artificially intelligent (AI) gaming system built by a company co-led by Elon Musk took on some of the best human players at a game more complex than chess or Go last week – and lost. AI losing is not something you hear about in the media often because it doesn’t lend itself to interesting discussions about how the AI was better. This is partly because the game in question, Defence of the Ancients (DotA) 2, is like little else that AI has attempted to master.

In late June, the AI, named Five, played against human players at DotA 2. Five’s builder is OpenAI, a California-based non-profit organisation helmed by Musk and Sam Altman, and it was created just to play DotA 2. This is a popular video-game in the style of a battle arena in which two teams engage in combat to take down each other’s base.

A team has five players (hence the AI’s name), each of whom can play as a ‘hero’ selected from over 100 options before the game’s start. Each hero in turn has various unique abilities that can be developed through the game to attack, defend, support other players, etc. When the hero kills a (playable or non-playable) character during the game, she earns gold that can be used to purchase items that enhance the hero’s abilities. A game typically lasts around 45 minutes.

In the three June games, Five demolished its semi-pro human opponents. However, there were three factors that enabled this outcome. First, the benchmark games were heavily rigged such that many of the features of regular human gameplay were disabled. This was because the benchmarks were the first that Five was playing against humans. Before that, including when OpenAI had taught it to play DotA 2, Five had only combated itself.

Second, as a result of the limited featureset, the human players couldn’t deploy the strategies they were used to. As one Reddit user put it, “right now, it is sorta like the two teams are trained in two different games – but the match is being played in the game in which the bots have the most experience.” Third, irrespective of the denial of features, Five – by virtue of being a sophisticated computer – sported faster reaction times than its human counterparts, possibly availing an advantage human players can’t ever do so themselves.

So what did the June games benchmark for? Mostly, Five’s preparedness to play against professional human DotA 2 players at The International, the equivalent of the football world cup for the game. These ‘regular’ games had far fewer restrictions, including the removal of some of the major ones from last time, and featured human players considered to be among the best in the world. And this time, Five lost the two games it played.

Five’s first loss was on August 5 against paiN Gaming, a team from Brazil ranked in the world’s top 20 but which had been eliminated early on in The International. Five’s second loss was scripted later in August by an ensemble of Chinese ‘superstar’ players (xiao8, BurNIng, rOtK, Ferrari_430, SanSheng).

According to an OpenAI blog post, Five “maintained a good chance of winning for the first 20-35 minutes of both games.”

These losses don’t present straightforward takeaways. Thanks to the multidimensional nature of DotA, there are numerous ways to analyse how Five played and little victories, as well as little mysteries, to be salvaged from the ruins. Here are four.

Team-play: The five heroes controlled by Five seemed reluctant to split up. The DotA 2 battle arena is very big (in terms of how much time any hero takes to traverse it), so maintaining an advantage requires heroes to split up when necessary, undertake patrols, plant wards (stationary items that act like sensors) and frustrate/deter opponent heroes. However, Five’s heroes tended to stay together even when it wasn’t necessary, opening themselves up to some attacks that the humans exploited. On the flip side, whenever the moment came for the heroes to play as one, Five’s coordination and execution was flawless. It is possible Five thought that unity was the better overall strategy considering its heroes (and opponents) had been selected by an independent group.

Mortal couriers: Five didn’t seem ready for single couriers. In DotA 2, a courier is a diminutive FedEx-like service that goes between a shop and the hero, carrying items that she might need. The benchmark games in June had five invulnerable couriers that couldn’t be killed by opponent heroes. The games played on the sidelines of The International, however, allowed for one very mortal courier. Five’s heroes seemed unprepared to deal with this (virtual) reality because they constantly played as if they would be able to access the items they needed wherever they were. In a normal game, heroes usually abandon the battlefield and fall back to pick up the items they need if they don’t have couriers.

Reaction time: After the benchmark tests, some players (not involved in the games against Five) had expressed concern that Five might be getting ahead by ‘unnaturally’ faster decision-making and computational abilities, mostly in the form of reaction time. The adult human reaction time is between 150 ms and 500 ms depending on the stimulus, physiology and task. According to OpenAI, Five had had a reaction time of 80 ms, since increased to 200 ms to appease these concerns. However, this does not seem to have made Five appear particularly weaker.

Brain freeze: There were multiple instances in both games where Five made decisions that put it in a weaker position even as human observers were able to quickly identify alternative courses of action that could have helped the AI maintain its dominance. A notable kind of these errors was a Five hero using a very strong attack spell against an opponent too weak to deserve it. When a hero uses a stronger spell, the longer she has to wait for it to recharge so she can use it again.

Why you should care

Games like DotA 2 present unique, low-cost opportunities to train AI in multiplayer combat with a colossal number of possible outcomes. However, a bigger gain in the context of Five is the techniques that OpenAI is pioneering and which the company says can be deployed in a variety of real-world situations. Some of them include the objects of interest called Rapid, Gym and competitive self-play, each building on the next to deliver sophisticated AI models.

Rapid is the name of a general-purpose reinforcement learning algorithm developed by OpenAI. It uses a technique called proximal policy optimisation (PPO), which in turn is a form of policy gradient method, to make and reward decisions. Policy gradient methods are used to help machines make decisions in environments in which they don’t have enough data to make the best decisions and when the machines have limited computational power to work with. OpenAI researchers published a preprint paper in July 2017 describing PPO as a gradient method that “outperformed other online policy gradient methods” while being simpler to implement.

The algorithms born as a result are generally classified as agents, and their performance is tested as they play out within an ambient context known generally as the environment. The latter role is played by Gym. That is, Rapid is tested with Gym. To their credit, OpenAI has made the Gym development library freely available to all developers and has qualified it to work with any numerical computation agent (including Google’s widely used TensorFlow). This means any engineer can build an agent and use Gym to test its performance.

When multiple agents made from the same algorithm are tested in a common Gym environment, the result is competitive self-play. This is how Five trained to become better at DotA 2 by playing against itself: two different agents from the same Rapid mould engaged each other, each in pursuit of its own triumph. And to force each version of Five to become better, the researchers only needed to identify the trajectories of success and then add the necessary rewards and sanctions to guide the Fives down those paths.

While DotA 2 may be too complicated to visualise this, consider the following video, where an agent needs to step over a line blocked by another agent, who has the same mandate, in order to win. The first two runs produce the same results, with the agents setting off for their respective lines in an unplanned race. The third run onwards, something else happens…

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2EZBre2hp1_RFJpRXUxc3JSWDg/preview

(More examples here.)

Competitive self-play is becoming increasingly popular. The other very-famous AI that trained this way is AlphaGo, the machine that beat the world’s foremost Go champion last year, including one game in which it developed previously unknown strategies to win. Keep in mind this is a game humans have been playing for about 2,500 years and which AlphaGo taught itself in three days. Competitive self-play is especially useful either when engineers want the agent to acquire a skill for which they can’t create rewards in a given environment or when they want the agent to develop new ways to solve an old problem.

So as a consequence of the way it is designed and trained, OpenAI Five is expected to be all the more powerful before The International next year, with some gamers predicting that it will take the crown. But more than disrupting the human kingdom of DotA 2, Five’s education can prepare it for even more complicated tasks. For example, OpenAI has also been developing a robotic hand to be controlled by AI, and the hope is to make it as agile and dexterous as a human hand. Thereon, it becomes a matter of questions: “Five, what is the best way to return a serve?”

OpenAI is one of the two major billion-dollar non-profit organisations in the West focusing on using AI to solve humanity’s problems. The other is the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, founded by former Microsoft bigwig Paul Allen, with the express intention of making “scientific breakthroughs”. However, OpenAI is in a uniquely sticky situation vis a vis its resources. As Miles Brundage, an AI expert recently employed by OpenAI, wrote on his blog in 2015:

With Amazon’s investment and Tesla’s indirect involvement through Musk, it would seem that OpenAI will potentially have access to a lot of the data needed to make deep learning and other AI approaches work well. But these are different sorts of datasets than Google and Facebook have, and may lend themselves to different technical approaches. They also raise the question of proprietary data – how will OpenAI balance its push for openness with this proprietary access? Will it release code but not data? How will its experiments be replicable if they are tailored to particular data streams? How will privacy be addressed? Some of these questions are unique to OpenAI and others aren’t. However, they’re the sorts of questions OpenAI will need to answer.

The Wire
September 3, 2018

View from the beanstalk

In early 2015, I developed an unlikely hobby: tinkering around with hosting solutions on the web, specifically providers of infrastructure as a service (IaaS). It’s unlikely because it’s not something I consciously inculcated; it just happened. Three years later, this hobby has morphed into a techno-garden of obsessions that I tend to on the side, in between the hours of my day-job editing science pieces.

When in college, I worked a little with Google App Engine – a BaaS (backend as a service) popular at the time for hosting apps but not so much now. I followed that up with Linode in 2012 after Posterous shut down, and then Digital Ocean in 2015.

Linode and Digital Ocean both provide virtual private servers (VPSs). A VPS is a virtual server installed on a physical server that utilises a specified fraction of the server’s resources. For example, one of Digital Ocean’s ‘popular’ VPS configurations comes with 4 GB RAM, 80 GB SSD and 4 TB bandwidth (for $40/mo). Another VPS config has 2 GB RAM, 50 GB SSD and 2 TB bandwidth (for $20/mo). Both these VPSs could be running on the same physical server, with a type of software called a hypervisor installed on it to partition and manage VPSs according to users’ requirements.

Other options include shared hosting, where you have access to a part of a server’s resources (RAM, SSD and bandwidth) but not full control over how you use them. This is encapsulated by saying you don’t have root-level access. Shared hosting is preferred for small blogs and websites because it’s low-priced (starting at ~$3/mo). Then there’s bare-metal hosting, whereby you take charge of an entire server and all its resources.

Digital Ocean was godsend because of the one-click installs it provided. You purchase a VPS config – a.k.a. provision a VPS – such that it comes pre-installed with software of your choice, chosen from a menu. The Digital Ocean UI made the offering look much less like the intimidating cPanel and more like a fun testing area, considering VPSs were available for just $5. I think that’s how my interest truly took off.

Thanks to Digital Ocean, I was able to quickly learn the basics of working with cloud-computing, SSH, Linux-like operating systems, security auditing, webservers, content delivery networks, VPNs, firewalls, SSL/TLS and APIs. I don’t think the whole enterprise cost me more than $10. Additionally, both Digital Ocean and Linode offer excellent documentation; if you don’t find answers there, you will at stackoverflow. So there’s really no excuse to not start learning these things right away, especially if you’re so inclined.

Actually, you should probably pick up on these things even if you’re not so inclined because these are the basic technologies through which humanity engages the Information Age’s most powerful medium of communication: the internet. Their architecture, technical specifications and functional affordances make up the framework in which we conduct our techno-politics. What they allow us to do become freedoms and violations; what they don’t allow us to do become safeguards and restrictions.

Extending the importance of understanding how they work to one higher level of abstraction – we have the foundations of online commerce, digital art and information sharing protocols. Going even further, we start to bump into questions about memory, persistence, intelligence and immortality.

Every one of us is situated somewhere on this beanstalk, and with each passing day, there are fewer ways as well as fewer reasons to get off. (Even those who reject the internet must engage with it – either to implement their rejection or to engage with others who continue to use the internet.) As one developer wrote:

Ignoring the cloud or web services because they are out of your comfort zone is no longer an option. The app economy is shifting. Adapt or die.

As I tried to learn more about how these technologies impacted our daily lives – an nth or zeroth level of abstraction depending on your POV – I also realised the world’s foremost interpreters of the internet’s implications were white men. They’re too numerous to list but sample these authors of my bookmarked blogs: Sam Altman, Marco Arment, Andy Baio, John Gruber, Jason Kottke, Jay Rosen, Bruce Schneier, Ben Thompson and Jeffrey Zeldman, among others.1 Even to begin to decide whether the privilege enjoyed by this coterie biases their aspirations vis a vis the internet, you will need to pick up the basics.

Fortunately, the cost of acquiring this knowledge has been falling. Tending to my garden of obsessions has meant surfing the interwebs for different IaaS providers for hours on end, the various features they offer (usually the same but every once in a while something new comes up) and – interestingly – comparing their Terms of Service. During one such excursion recently, I came upon two great forums: LowEndTalk (LET) and WebHostingTalk (WHT). If you’re looking for cheap but reliable hosting providers, especially of the shared or VPS variety, LET and WHT have got you covered.

For example, this is how I came upon some hosts – esp. RamNode, KnownHost, WebFaction and SecureDragon – that provide infra at costs you will find not low but altogether “cheap” if you’re coming in from the world of Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, etc. If you’ve picked up the basics of server management and security, the prices drop further (sub-$5). Even managed WordPress hosting hasn’t been spared; compare the prices of LightningBase and, say, Pressable.

(Managed hosting is a form of shared hosting where the hosting provider manages an application installed on the machine for the user, such that the user will have to be concerned only with using the application rather than also maintaining it. WordPress is a popular application for which managed options are abundant because those who use WordPress often have a very different skillset than that required to maintain WordPress.)

In all, you will need to spend about five hours a week for a month and a total of $10 to unlock a whole new, and very socially and politically relevant, world. If you want to do more, check out Slashdot Deals for amazing learning ‘bundles’.

 

1. The only exception I’ve been able to think of is Om Malik. Then again, all the white people I’ve mentioned, and Malik, are also all American, and perhaps I’m focusing on American interpretations of the interet’s implications. I can think of a few people who operate out of India – Pranesh Prakash, Srinivas Kodali, Malavika Jayaram, Anuj Srivas, Kiran Jonnalagadda – but none of them are recognised worldwide whereas the white men all are. This, of course, isn’t surprising.

Things to keep in mind before picking a webhost

In descending order of priority

1. Support

This isn’t just about receiving help when you need but also about when you don’t. The hosting providers’ support staff should be easily accessible at all times and you should be able to have a conversation with them about any of their services. Your point of contact should also be communicative and not intimidate you, deliberately or otherwise.

2. Billing

Billing needs to be transparent and clear about what a provider is charging for and how much. Some providers have overage fees that kick in when your site experiences temporary spikes in traffic, and these fees can be substantial. Hidden fees and lock-ins are a menace. For example, Green Geeks advertises one rate on its homepage but as you’re about to complete the signup process, you find it’s applicable only if you’re signing up for more than a year at once. There’s also a setup fee.

3. Reliabiity

Pore through web-hosting forums like LowEndTalk and WebHostingTalk (and the Review Signal blog if you’re working with WordPress) to see what others are saying about the provider. Do not trust review websites because paid reviews are rampant. A company’s support system and billing might be fine but they might be having deeper technical issues. For example, RamNode is very well-regarded but it seems some of their servers have been rebooted repeatedly to maintain normal functioning.

4. Scaling

Some good providers have configs that are well-suited for small blogs and websites. So if your product is growing, it might be useful to switch to a provider that offers plans that expand as you do.

5. Ease of use

Even if you find a provider who’s able to give you exactly what you want for the price you want it at, the resources you’ve paid for should be available without any encumbrance. Additionally, you shouldn’t be made to contact support more than is necessary (which is ideally never).

6. Ownership and management

i. Kevin Ohashi at Review Signal has been documenting a trend whereby the quality of services provided by companies plummets within a year of being acquired by the EIG Group. Ownership won’t matter as long as things are peachy but when it changes hands, beware – often because big companies get big by providing low-quality services.

ii. The better hosting providers, with the exception of low-cost ones like RamNode and SecureDragon, also have a page on their site where they display the names and profiles of their managerial staff. This level of transparency is important because it helps establish that the business isn’t shady, and if something breaks and support is difficult to come by, you’ll know who else you can contact.

7. Other

Joyent doesn’t provide a conventional support system and isn’t easy to use either. However, it’s clear about being a solution for developers, not rookies. Its website is also beautifully designed; I admire that. Most importantly, Joyent hosts John Gruber’s blog. If Gruber trusts Joyent, I will, too.1The same is true for Arcustech, because it hosts Jason Kottke’s blog.

1. Except when I can’t afford it.

On that Poynter debate about stock images and ethical visual journalism

Response to Mark Johnson, Article about free images ‘contradicts everything I hold true about journalism’, Poynter, February 9, 2018. 

Let’s get the caveats out of the way:

  • The article to which Johnson is responding did get some of its messaging wrong. As Johnson wrote, it suggested the following: “We don’t think about visuals BUT visuals are critically important. The solutions offered amount to scouring the web for royalty-free and (hopefully) copyright-released stock images.”
  • In doing so, the original article may have further diminished prospects for visual journalists in newsrooms around the country (whether the US or India), especially since Poynter is such a well-regarded publisher among editors and since there already aren’t enough jobs available on the visual journalism front.
  • I think visual journalists are important in any newsroom that includes a visual presentation component because they’re particularly qualified to interrogate how journalism can be adapted to multimedia forms and in what circumstances such adaptations can strain or liberate its participants’ moral and ethical positions.

That said, IMO Johnson himself may have missed a bit of the nuances of this issue. Before we go ahead: I’m going to shorten “royalty-free and/or copyright-released” to CC0, which is short for the Creative Commons ‘No Rights Reserved’ license. It allows “scientists, educators, artists and other creators and owners of copyright- or database-protected content to waive those interests in their works and thereby place them as completely as possible in the public domain, so that others may freely build upon, enhance and reuse the works for any purposes without restriction under copyright or database law.” However, what I’m going to say should be true for most other CC licenses (including BY, BY-SA, BY-SA-NC, BY-SA-ND and BY-SA-NC-ND).

By providing an option for publishers to look for CC0 images, the authors of the original piece may have missed an important nuance: publishers come in varying sizes; the bigger the publisher is, the less excusable it is for it to not have a visual journalism department in-house. For smaller (and the smallest) publishers, however, having access to CC0 images is important because (a) producing original images and videos can invoke prohibitive costs and (b) distribution channels of choice such as Facebook and Twitter penalise the absence of images on links shared on these platforms.

Bigger publishers have an option and should, to the extent possible, exercise that option to hire illustrators, designers, video producers and reporters, podcasters, etc. To not do so would be to abdicate professional responsibilities. However, in the interest of leveraging the possibilities afforded by the internet as well as of keeping our news professional but also democratic, it’s not fair to assume that it’s okay to penalise smaller publishers simply because they’re resorting to using CC0 images. A penalty it will be if they don’t: Facebook, for example, will deprioritise their content on people’s feeds. So the message that needs to be broadcast is that it’s okay for smaller publishers to use CC0 images but also that it’s important for them to break away from the practice as they grow.

Second: Johnson writes,

Choosing stock images for news stories is an ethically questionable choice — you don’t know the provenance of the image, you don’t know the conditions under which it was created and you don’t know where else it has been used. It degrades the journalistic integrity of the site. Flip it around — what if there were generic quotes inserted into a story? They wouldn’t advance the narrative at all, they would just act as filler.

He’s absolutely right to equate text and images: they both help tell a story and they should both be treated with equal respect and consequence. (Later in his article, Johnson goes on to suggest visuals may in fact be more consequential because people tend to remember them better.) However, characterising stock images as the journalistic equivalent of blood diamonds is unfair.

For example, it’s not clear what Johnson means by “generic quotes”. Sometimes, some quotes are statements that need to be printed to reflect its author’s official position (or lack thereof). For another, stock images may not be completely specific to a story but they could fit its broader theme, for example, in a quasi-specific way (after all, there are millions of CC0 images to pick from).

But most importantly, the allegations drub the possibilities of the Open Access (OA) movement in the realms of digital knowledge-production and publishing. By saying, “Choosing stock images for news stories is an ethically questionable choice”, Johnson risks offending those who create visual assets and share it with a CC0 license expressly to inject it into the public domain – a process by which those who are starved of resources in one part of the world are not also starved of information produced in another. Journalism shouldn’t – can’t – be free because it includes some well-defined value-adds that need to be paid for. But information (and sometimes knowledge) can be free, especially if those generating them are willing to waive being paid for them.

My go-to example has been The Conversation. Its articles are written by experts with PhDs in the subjects they’re writing about (and are affiliated with reputable institutions). The website is funded by contributions from universities and labs. The affiliations of its contributors and their conflicts of interest, if any, are acknowledged with every article. Best of all, its articles are all available to republish for free under at least a CC BY license. Their content is not of the ‘stock’ variety; their sentences and ideas are not generic. Reusing their articles may not advance the narrative inherent in them but would I say it hurts journalists? No.

Royalty-free and copyright-released images and videos free visual journalists from being involved every step of the way. This is sadly but definitely necessary in circumstances where they might not get paid, where there might not be the room, inclination or expertise necessary to manage and/or work with them, where an audience might not exist that values their work and time.

This is where having, using and contributing to a digital commons can help. Engaging with it is a choice, not a burden. Ignoring those who make this choice to argue that every editor must carefully consider the visual elements of a story together with experts and technicians hired just for this purpose is akin to suggesting that proponents of OA/CC0 content are jeopardising opportunities for visual journalists to leave their mark. This is silly, mostly because it leaves the central agent out of the picture: the publisher.

It’s a publisher’s call to tell a story through just text, just visuals or both. Not stopping to chide those who can hire visual journalists but don’t while insisting “it’s a big part of what we do” doesn’t make sense. Not stopping to help those who opt for text-only because that’s what they can afford doesn’t make sense either.

Featured image credit: StockSnap/pixabay.

Eroding the dignity of Jayalalithaa's memories

On December 20, P. Vetrivel, a former MLA and member of the AIADMK party, convened a press meet and released a 20-second video clip purportedly showing former Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa lying on a hospital bed shortly before she died on December 5, 2016. Since that day, the affairs of the AIADMK have been in tatters – an inconvenience they’ve been forced to confront twice over, both when Jayalalithaa’s constituency, R.K. Nagar, had by-polls to elect their next representative.

A major rift within the party itself meant that there were those within and without who suspected Jayalalithaa may not have died a natural death, as the currently dominant AIADMK faction – to which Vetrivel belongs – has insisted. The same faction is led by T.T.V. Dinakaran, who is former Jayalalithaa aide V.K. Sasikala’s nephew. Vetrivel’s new video, which he said was made by Sasikala with Jayalalithaa’s consent, tries to allay these fears by showing that the former leader was really at a hospital being treated for diabetes and kidney problems. This happened even as voting began in R.K. Nagar in the morning on December 21.

No Tamil news channel seems to have heeded the Election Commission’s directive to not air the video clip, which itself arrived only four+ hours after Vetrivel’s press meet concluded. While some people have tried to poke holes in the video, especially focusing on how palm trees are visible outside Jayalalithaa’s room in the hospital when her treatment was widely publicised to have happened on the seventh floor, news channels aired it all day yesterday.

The clip shows Jayalalithaa on a large bed, unmoving, in a gown. Her facial features aren’t apparent. Her left leg is visible outstretched but her right leg isn’t. In her left hand, there’s a cup of some liquid that she brings to her mouth once and drinks through a straw. It’s quite a sad sight to behold.

When Jayalalithaa died, the pall of sorrow that hung over Chennai was palpable. Even functionaries of the DMK, which has been the AIADMK’s principal opponent for decades, were shaken and paid heartfelt tributes to a woman they called a ‘worthy opponent’. Although she’d run an opaque, pro-business government and centralised a majority of its decision-making, her rule was marked by many popular social development schemes. There’s no bigger testimony to her leadership than the blind, self-serving hutch the AIADMK has devolved to become without her.

To see a woman considered to have been tactful, shrewd and graceful when she lived depicted after her death in a way that minimised her agency and highlighted an implicit sense of distress and decay is nauseating1. Jayalalithaa was known to have actively constructed and maintained her appearances in public and on TV as characterising a certain persona. With Sasikala’s and Vetrivel’s choices, this personality has been broken – which makes Vetrivel’s claim that Jayalalithaa consented to being filmed, and for that video to be released to TV channels, triply suspect.

Jayalalithaa, when alive, took great care to make herself appear a certain way – including going all the way to issuing statements only to select members of the press, those whose words she could control. What would she have said now with the image of a weakened, unsustaining Jayalalithaa being flashed everywhere?

There’s little doubt that Dinakaran and Vetrivel wanted to manipulate R.K. Nagar’s voters by releasing the clip barely a day before voting was to begin. Most people recognise that their faction within the AIADMK shouldn’t have released the video now but much earlier and with proof of the footage’s legitimacy to the Commission of Inquiry, which has been investigating her death.

Then again, considering what has been caught on camera, consuming it has been nothing short of engaging in voyeurism. So the video shouldn’t have been shot in the first place, especially since there’s no proof of Jayalalithaa’s having consented to being filmed as well as to being shown thus on TV beyond what Vetrivel told the press about what Sasikala had told him.

For this alone, I hope the people of R.K. Nagar reject Dinakaran’s faction and its exploitative politics. But more importantly, I hope journalists recognise how seriously they’ve erred in showing Jayalalithaa the way they did – and helped Dinakaran achieve what he’d wanted to in the first place.

1. This also happened with Eman Ahmed.

Featured image credit: Nandhinikandhasamy/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Eroding the dignity of Jayalalithaa’s memories

On December 20, P. Vetrivel, a former MLA and member of the AIADMK party, convened a press meet and released a 20-second video clip purportedly showing former Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa lying on a hospital bed shortly before she died on December 5, 2016. Since that day, the affairs of the AIADMK have been in tatters – an inconvenience they’ve been forced to confront twice over, both when Jayalalithaa’s constituency, R.K. Nagar, had by-polls to elect their next representative.

A major rift within the party itself meant that there were those within and without who suspected Jayalalithaa may not have died a natural death, as the currently dominant AIADMK faction – to which Vetrivel belongs – has insisted. The same faction is led by T.T.V. Dinakaran, who is former Jayalalithaa aide V.K. Sasikala’s nephew. Vetrivel’s new video, which he said was made by Sasikala with Jayalalithaa’s consent, tries to allay these fears by showing that the former leader was really at a hospital being treated for diabetes and kidney problems. This happened even as voting began in R.K. Nagar in the morning on December 21.

No Tamil news channel seems to have heeded the Election Commission’s directive to not air the video clip, which itself arrived only four+ hours after Vetrivel’s press meet concluded. While some people have tried to poke holes in the video, especially focusing on how palm trees are visible outside Jayalalithaa’s room in the hospital when her treatment was widely publicised to have happened on the seventh floor, news channels aired it all day yesterday.

The clip shows Jayalalithaa on a large bed, unmoving, in a gown. Her facial features aren’t apparent. Her left leg is visible outstretched but her right leg isn’t. In her left hand, there’s a cup of some liquid that she brings to her mouth once and drinks through a straw. It’s quite a sad sight to behold.

When Jayalalithaa died, the pall of sorrow that hung over Chennai was palpable. Even functionaries of the DMK, which has been the AIADMK’s principal opponent for decades, were shaken and paid heartfelt tributes to a woman they called a ‘worthy opponent’. Although she’d run an opaque, pro-business government and centralised a majority of its decision-making, her rule was marked by many popular social development schemes. There’s no bigger testimony to her leadership than the blind, self-serving hutch the AIADMK has devolved to become without her.

To see a woman considered to have been tactful, shrewd and graceful when she lived depicted after her death in a way that minimised her agency and highlighted an implicit sense of distress and decay is nauseating1. Jayalalithaa was known to have actively constructed and maintained her appearances in public and on TV as characterising a certain persona. With Sasikala’s and Vetrivel’s choices, this personality has been broken – which makes Vetrivel’s claim that Jayalalithaa consented to being filmed, and for that video to be released to TV channels, triply suspect.

Jayalalithaa, when alive, took great care to make herself appear a certain way – including going all the way to issuing statements only to select members of the press, those whose words she could control. What would she have said now with the image of a weakened, unsustaining Jayalalithaa being flashed everywhere?

There’s little doubt that Dinakaran and Vetrivel wanted to manipulate R.K. Nagar’s voters by releasing the clip barely a day before voting was to begin. Most people recognise that their faction within the AIADMK shouldn’t have released the video now but much earlier and with proof of the footage’s legitimacy to the Commission of Inquiry, which has been investigating her death.

Then again, considering what has been caught on camera, consuming it has been nothing short of engaging in voyeurism. So the video shouldn’t have been shot in the first place, especially since there’s no proof of Jayalalithaa’s having consented to being filmed as well as to being shown thus on TV beyond what Vetrivel told the press about what Sasikala had told him.

For this alone, I hope the people of R.K. Nagar reject Dinakaran’s faction and its exploitative politics. But more importantly, I hope journalists recognise how seriously they’ve erred in showing Jayalalithaa the way they did – and helped Dinakaran achieve what he’d wanted to in the first place.

1. This also happened with Eman Ahmed.

Featured image credit: Nandhinikandhasamy/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

A close encounter with the first kind: the obnoxious thieves of good journalism

A Huffington Post article purportedly published by the US bureau has flicked two quotes from a story first published by The Wire, on the influenza epidemics ravaging India. The story’s original author and its editor (me) reached out to HuffPo India folks via Twitter to get them to attribute The Wire for both quotes – and remove, rephrase or enclose-in-double-quotes a paragraph copied verbatim from the original. What this resulted in was half-assed acknowledgment: one of the quotes was attributed to The Wire, the other quote was left unattributed, giving the impression that it was sourced first-hand, and the plagiarised paragraph was left in as is.

I’m delighted that The Wire‘s story is receiving wider reach, and is being read by the people who matter around the world. (And I request you, the reader, to please share the original article and not the plagiarised version.)

But to acknowledge our requests for change and then to assume that attributing only one of the quotes will suffice is to suggest that “this is enough”. This is an offensive attitude that I think has its roots in a complacence of sorts. Huffington Post could be assuming that a partial attribution (and plagiarism) is ‘okay’ because nobody cares about these things because they’re getting valuable information in return that’s going to distract consumers, and because it’s Huffington Post and their traffic volumes are going to make up for the oversight.

For the average consumer – by which I mean someone who only consumes journalism and doesn’t produce it – does it matter that Huffington Post, in some sense, has cheated to get the content it has? I don’t think it does. (This is a problem; there should be specific short-term sanctions if a publisher chooses to behave this way. Edit: Priyanka Pulla, the original author: “It DOES hurt you, the reader. Each time you read bad journalism, it’s because content thieves destroy market for good journalism and skew incentives.”) However, if anything, the publisher effectively signals that consumers will be getting content produced in newsrooms other than the Post’s. The website is now a ‘destination’ site.

Who this kind of irreverence really hurts is other journalists. For example, Pulla spent a lot of time and work writing the piece, I spent a lot of time and work editing it and The Wire spent a lot of money for commissioning and publishing it. By thinking our work is available to reuse for free, Huffington Post disparages the whole enterprise.

This enterprise is an intangible commodity – the kind that encourages readers to pay for journalism because it’s the absence of this enterprise, and the attendant diligence, that leads to ‘bad journalism’. And at a time when every publisher publishing journalistic content online on the planet is struggling to make money, what Huffington Post has done is value theft. At last check, the article on their site had 3,300 LinkedIn Shares and 5,100 shares on StumbleUpon.

(Edit: “We didn’t know” wouldn’t work with HuffPo here because my issue is with their response to our bringing the problems to their notice.)

This isn’t the first time such a thing has happened with The Wire. From personal experience (having managed the site for 18 months), there are three forms of content-stealing I’ve seen:

  1. The more obnoxious kind – where a publisher that has traffic in the millions every month lifts an article, or reuses parts of it, without permission; and when pulled up for it, gives this excuse: “We’re giving your content free publicity. You should let us do this.” The best response for this has been public-shaming.
  2. The more insidious kind – where a bot from an algorithmic publisher freely republishes content in bulk without permission, and then takes the content down 24-48 hours later once its shelf-life has lapsed. The most effective, and also the most blunt-edged, response to this has been to issue a DMCA notice.
  3. The more frustrating kind – where a small publisher (monthly traffic at 1 million/month or less and/or operating on a small budget) reuses some articles without permission and then pulls a sad face when pulled up for the act. The best response to this has either been to strike a deal with the publisher for content-exchange or a small fee or, of course, a strongly worded email (the latter is restricted to some well-defined circumstances because otherwise it’s The Wire strong-arming the little guy and nobody likes that).

Dear Huffington Post – I dearly hope you don’t belong to the first kind.

Featured image credit: TheDigitalWay/pixabay.