Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Google’

21 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Culturomics: What We Can Learn from 5 Million Books

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How to put your “beft” foot forward, or what the algorithm of censorship has to do with 1950.

We’ve already established that we could learn a remarkable amount about language from these 5 essential books, but imagine what we could learn from 5 million books. In this excellent talk from TEDxBoston, Harvard scientists Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden reveal fascinating insights from their computational tool that inspired Google Labs’ addictive NGram Viewer, which pulls from a database of 500 billion words and ideas culled from 5 million books across many centuries, 12% of the books that have ever been published.

They call their approach Culturomics — “the application of massive scale data collection and analysis to the study of human culture.” From advising you on the best career choices for early success to figuring out when an artist is being censored to proving that we’re forgetting the past exponentially more quickly than ever before, the data speaks volumes when queried with intelligence and curiosity.

[The database pulls from] a collection of 5 million books. 500 billion words. A string of characters a thousand times longer than the human genome. A text which, when written out, would stretch from here to the moon and back ten times over. A veritable shard of our cultural genome.”

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09 AUGUST, 2011

In The Plex: How Google Changed Our Lives and Everything Else

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What red gym balls have to do with censorship, privacy and organizing all the world’s information.

Earlier this year, we looked at 7 essential books on the future of the Internet, how the iPhone changed everything and why Google’s algorithms might be stunting our intellectual growth. But there’s hardly a better way to understand the future of information and the web than by understanding how Google — the algorithm, the company, the ethos — changed everything. That’s exactly what beloved technology writer Steven Levy, he of Hackers fame, does in In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives — a sweeping look at how Google went from a startup headquartered above a Palo Alto bike shop to a global brand bigger than GE.

Levy, who has been covering the computing revolution for the past 30 years for titles like Newsweek and Wired, had developed a personal relationship with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which granted him unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Big G, a company notorious for its caution with journalists. The result is a fascinating journey into the soul, culture and technology of our silent second brain, from Page and Brin’s legendary eccentricities that shaped the company’s creative culture to the uncompromising engineering genius that underpins its services. But most fascinating of all is the grace and insight with which Levy examines not only how Google has changed, but also how it has changed us and how, in the face of all these interconnected metamorphoses, it hopes to preserve its soul — all the while touching on timely topics like privacy, copyright law and censorship.

Levy, who calls himself “an outsider with an insider’s view,” recounts the mysteries he saw in Google, despite a decade of covering the company, which inspired his book:

Google was a company built on the values of its founders, who harbored ambitions to build a powerful corporation that would impact the entire world, at the same time loathing the bureaucracy and commitments that running such a company would entail. Google professed a sense of moral purity — as exemplified by its informal motto, ‘Don’t be evil’ — but it seemed to have a blind spot regarding the consequences of its own technology on privacy and property rights. A bedrock principle of Google was serving its users — but a goal was building a giant artificial intelligence learning machine that would bring uncertain consequences to the way all of us live. From the very beginning, its founders said that they wanted to change the world. But who were they, and what did they envision this new world order to be?” ~ Steven Levy

Levy’s intimate account of Google’s inner tensions offers a sober look delivered with a kind of stern fatherly tenderness, brimming with its own opposing forces of his clear affection for Page and Brin coupled with his, at times begrudging, fairness in writing about Google’s shortcomings.

What I discovered was a company exulting in creative disorganization, even if the creativity was not always as substantial as hoped for. Google had massive goals, and the entire company channeled its values from the founders. Its mission was collecting and organizing all the world’s information — and that’s only the beginning. From the very start, its founders saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence in augmenting humanity. To realize their dreams, Page an Brin had to build a huge company. At the same time, they attempted to maintain as much as possible the nimble, irreverent, answer-to-no-one freedom of a small start-up. In the two years I researched this book, the clash between those goals reached a peak, as David had become a Goliath.” ~ Steven Levy

For a taste, here’s Levy on what Google does and doesn’t know about you:

(For a more worrisome take, see Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.)

Besides the uncommon history of Google, Levy reveals a parallel history of the evolution of information technology itself, a sobering invitation to look at the many technologies we’ve come to take for granted with new eyes. (Do you remember the days when you plugged a word into your search engine and it spat back a wildly unordered selection of results, most of which completely irrelevant to your query? Or when the most generous free web mail offered you the magnanimous storage space of four megabytes?)

James Gleick writes in the New York Review of Books:

Most people have already forgotten how dark and unsignposted the Internet once was. A user in 1996, when the Web comprised hundreds of thousands of ‘sites’ with millions of ‘pages,’ did not expect to be able to search for ‘Olympics’ and automatically find the official site of the Atlanta games. That was too hard a problem. And what was a search supposed to produce for a word like ‘university’? AltaVista, then the leading search engine, offered up a seemingly unordered list of academic institutions, topped by the Oregon Center for Optics.” ~ James Gleick

(Gleick should know — he is the author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, easily the most important book on media history and information theory to come by in decades.)

More than an ambitious — and often entertaining — profile of one of today’s most powerful companies, In The Plex captures a priceless piece of cultural history, one that has shaped and continues to shape how we interact with information, the world and each other.

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30 MAY, 2011

Summer Reading List: 10 Essential Books for Cognitive Sunshine

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The history and future of the Internet, algorithms vs. curators, reinventing education, and how to live with optimism.

It’s Memorial Day Weekend, which means summer has officially begun. And what’s summer without a good summer reading list? So here it is — a cross-disciplinary selection of the 10 most essential cognitive fertilizers for a season of creative and intellectual growth. (Want more? Don’t hesitate to revisit last year’s list, full of timeless gems to catch up on.)

THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD

The future of information is something I’m deeply interested in, but no such intellectual exploit is complete without a full understanding of its past. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by iconic science writer James Gleick is easily the most ambitious, compelling, insert-word-of-intellectual-awe-here book to read this year, illustrating the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there.” ~ James Gleick

But what makes the book most compelling is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Full review here.

AN OPTIMIST’S TOUR OF THE FUTURE

After life threw comedian Mark Stevenson a curveball that made him face his own mortality, he spent a year traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and talked to scientists, philosophers, inventors, politicians and other thought leaders around the world, looking for an antidote to the dystopian visions for the technology-driven future of humanity so pervasive in today’s culture. He synthesized these fascinating insights in An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?” — an illuminating and refreshingly hopeful guide to our shared tomorrow.

From longevity science to robotics to cancer research, Stevenson explores the most cutting-edge ideas in science and technology from around the world, the important ethical and philosophical questions they raise and, perhaps most importantly, the incredible potential for innovation through the cross-pollination of these different ideas and disciplines.

This is a book that won’t tell you how to think about [the future], but will give you the tools to make up your mind about it. Whether you’re feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future is up to you, but I do believe you should be fully informed about all the options we face. And one thing I became very concerned about is when we talk about the future, we often talk about it as damage and limitation exercise. That needn’t be the case — it could be a Renaissance.” ~ Mark Stevenson

An Optimist’s Tour of the Future comes as an auspicious yet grounded vision for what we’ve previously explored in discussing the future of the Internet and what the web is doing to our brains.

Full review here.

LIVE NOW

Keeping with the theme of optimism — because, really, who wants to dampen sunshine and the summer wind with another dystopian downer? — here’s a lovely project born, just like Stevenson’s, out of a stark confrontation with mortality. When illustrator Eric Smith was diagnosed with three different types of cancer, he decided to start a collaborative art project inviting people to live in the moment through beautiful, poetic, earnest artwork that celebrates life. This season, the project was published as a book, the candidly titled Live Now: Artful Messages of Hope, Happiness & Healing — an absolute treasure of Carpe Diem gold in the vein of Everything Is Going To Be OK, full of stunning illustration and design reminding us of what we all semi-secretly want to believe but the cynics in us all too often discount.

'Live Humbly' by Mikey Burton

'Break Your Routine' by Mikey Burton

'Overflowing Optimism' by Chad Kouri

Cancer changed the way I ate, slept, and most importantly the way I live. Before cancer I was like most folks, just cruising along. It was during my treatment, when starting to discover what cancer could give to me — the ability to absorb every moment as if each one were my whole life.” ~ Eric Smith

Kirstin Butler’s full review, with more images, here.

THE INTERNET OF ELSEWHERE

Barely halfway though, 2011 has already been one of the most tumultuous years for global politics and civic unrest in modern history. And the most dramatic changes have taken place in societies where emerging technology is disrupting how citizen relate to their government and one another. While countries like Libya and Egypt have been the eye of the media storm, some of the most fascinating effects of these shifts have been in countries still off the mainstream radar. In The Internet of Elsewhere: The Emergent Effects of a Wired World, California-born, Germany-based technology journalist Cyrus Farivar explores the role of the internet as a social, political and economic catalyst through compelling case studies from four unexpected countries: Iran, Estonia, South Korea, and Senegal.

From how Skype was invented in Estonia to why Senegal may be Sub-Saharan Africa’s best chance for widespread public Internet access to what makes South Korea the most wired country in the world, the book offers profiles of local tech pioneers alongside insightful analyses of cultural context and what the “developed world” can learn from these countries, in some cases years ahead in harnessing the sociopolitical virtues of web technology. And, in a meta move true to the subject matter, Farivar successfully funded the book’s European tour on Kickstarter.

The Internet is not, in fact, a seed. It does not have the ability to bring about world peace and the elimination of the nation-state, any more than the telegraph did. It is but a tool that, when combined effectively with local political and economic realities, can have demonstrably positive and often surprising effects. However, this tool can be co-opted and/or fought against by regimes that are not ready for it to be used freely. Other developing societies, too, may not be completely ready to use the Internet effectively. This is why manifestations of the Internet remain so varied in different corners of the globe. This book is an attempt to tell the story of what happens when the Internet collides, head-on, with history unfamiliar to most Americans.” ~ Cyrus Farivar

You can sample The Internet of Elsewhere by reading the fascinating 15-page introduction for free online.

A NEW CULTURE OF LEARNING

Reinventing the broken system of today’s formal education is one of our era’s most pressing cultural concerns. And while most conversations on the subject can be redundant, navel-gazy and ultimately ineffectual, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown bring a refreshing perspective on the subject with equal parts insight, imagination and optimism. Besides being one of our 7 must-read books on education, their A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change is the most popular book featured on Brain Pickings this year, and for good reason — it makes a compelling case for a new kind of learning, one growing synchronously and fluidly with technology rather than resisting it with restless anxiety, a vision that falls somewhere between Sir Ken Robinson’s call for creativity in education paradigms and Clay Shirky’s notion of “cognitive surplus.”

We’re stuck in a mode where we’re using old systems of understanding learning to try to understand these new forms, and part of the disjoint means that we’re missing some really important and valuable data.” ~ Douglas Thomas

Full review, complete with video interviews with the authors, here.

THE FILTER BUBBLE

We live in a culture that puts a premium on customization, but this ultra-personalization has its price when it comes to the information we’re being served. That’s exactly what Eli Pariser, founder of public policy advocacy group MoveOn.org, explores in his fascinating and, depending on where you fall on the privacy spectrum, potentially unsettling new book, The Filter Bubble — a compelling deep-dive into the invisible algorithmic editing on the web, a world where we’re being shown more of what algorithms think we want to see and less of what we should see. (Did you know that Google takes into account 57 individual data points before serving you the results you searched for?) Implicitly, the book raises some pivotal questions about the future of the information economy and the balance between algorithm and curator — something I feel particularly strongly about.

In some ways, I think the primary purpose of an editor [is] to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.” ~ Eli Pariser

Full review, along with a revealing exclusive interview with Pariser, here.

The app itself is free, with various language pairs available for in-app purchase. The first pair released is Spanish-English, with more coming soon.

FLOURISH

Martin Seligman is best-known as the father of the positive psychology movement — a potent antidote to the traditional “disease model” of psychology, which focuses on how to relieve suffering rather than how to amplify well-being. His seminal book, Authentic Happiness, was one of our 7 must-read books on the art and science of happiness. This season, he has finally released his much-anticipated, and somewhat controversial, follow-up: Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being — a distinct departure from Seligman’s prior conception of happiness, which he now frames as overly simplistic and inferior to the higher ideal of lasting well-being.

Without being a self-help book, Flourish manages to offer insightful techniques to optimize yourself, your relationships and your business for well-being, based on empirical evidence culled from years of Seligman’s rigorous research.

Relieving the states that make life miserable… has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority. The time has finally arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the ‘good life.'” ~ Martin Seligman

Full review, along with a primer by way of Seligman’s 2004 TED talk, here.

THE LATE AMERICAN NOVEL

The future of publishing is something I ponder daily. And while mainstream media was busy announcing the death of the book, The Millions founders Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee did something better: They assembled an all-star team of literary visionaries and asked them what the future of the written word holds. The results — funny, poignant, relentlessly thought-provoking — are gathered in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, spanning a remarkable array of perspectives and styles, from historical context to comic relief to the difficult questions that have to be asked.

Are we going to have to find new ways to get noticed? Yes. Do we get to find news ways to get noticed? Yes. Is it trouble? Yes. But trouble is the stuff of writing and creation. Time to shut up and get to the making, get back to that sense of play where everything interesting, including the future, finally fast and soon to be here, starts.” ~ Ander Monson

Kirstin Butler’s full review, with ample quotes from the book, here.

RADIOACTIVE

Marie Curie is one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science. A pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, she was not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences at that, chemistry and physics. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout is an endlessly beautiful cross-pollination of art and science, in which artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Curie through the two invisible but powerful threads of her life: Radioactivity and romance. It’s a turbulent story — her passionate love with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize — brimming with poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons and more.

To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in an obscure early-20th-century image printing process called cyanotype, critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep blue color. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

Full review, with more images and a TEDx talk by Redniss, here.

GOD BLESS YOU, DR. KEVORKIAN

In 1997, iconic writer Kurt Vonnegut pitched an idea to New York public radio station WNYC: He would conduct fictional interview with dead cultural luminaries and ordinary people through controlled near-death experiences courtesy of real-life physician-assisted suicide proponent Dr. Jack Kevorkian, allowing the author to access heaven, converse with his subjects, and leave before it’s too late. The producers loved the idea and Vonnegut churned out a number of 90-second segments “interviewing” anyone from Jesus to Hitler to Isaac Asimov. The interviews — funny, poignant, illuminating, timeless, profoundly human — are collected in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a fantastic anthology playing on the title of Vonnegut’s 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, some of the best cultural satire of the past century.

During my most recently controlled near-death experience, I got to interview William Shakespeare. We did not hit it off. He said the dialect I spoke was the ugliest English he had ever heard, ‘fit to split the ears of groundlings.’ He asked if it had a name, and I said ‘Indianapolis.'” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Full review, with a rare transcript from Vonnegut’s original pitch for the series to WNYC, here.

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12 MAY, 2011

The Filter Bubble: Algorithm vs. Curator & the Value of Serendipity

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How the web gives us what we want to see, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Most of us are aware that our web experience is somewhat customized by our browsing history, social graph and other factors. But this sort of information-tailoring takes place on a much more sophisticated, deeper and far-reaching level than we dare suspect. (Did you know that Google takes into account 57 individual data points before serving you the results you searched for?) That’s exactly what Eli Pariser, founder of public policy advocacy group MoveOn.org, explores in his fascinating and, depending on where you fall on the privacy spectrum, potentially unsettling new book, The Filter Bubble — a compelling deep-dive into the invisible algorithmic editing on the web, a world where we’re being shown more of what algorithms think we want to see and less of what we should see.

I met Eli in March at TED, where he introduced the concepts from the book in one of this year’s best TED talks. Today, I sit down with him to chat about what exactly “the filter bubble” is, how much we should worry about Google, and what our responsibility is as content consumers and curators — exclusive Q&A follows his excellent TED talk:

The primary purpose of an editor [is] to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.” ~ Eli Pariser

q0

What, exactly, is “the filter bubble”?

EP: Your filter bubble is the personal universe of information that you live in online — unique and constructed just for you by the array of personalized filters that now power the web. Facebook contributes things to read and friends’ status updates, Google personally tailors your search queries, and Yahoo News and Google News tailor your news. It’s a comfortable place, the filter bubble — by definition, it’s populated by the things that most compel you to click. But it’s also a real problem: the set of things we’re likely to click on (sex, gossip, things that are highly personally relevant) isn’t the same as the set of things we need to know.

q1

How did you first get the idea of investigating this?

EP: I came across a Google blog post declaring that search was personalized for everyone, and it blew my mind. I had no idea that Google was tailoring its search results on an individual basis at all — the last I’d heard, it was showing everyone the same “authoritative” results. I got out my computer and tried it with a friend, and the results were almost entirely different. And then I discovered that Google was far from the only company that was doing this. In fact, nearly every major website is, in one way or another. (Wikipedia is a notable exception.)

q2

In an age of information overload, algorithms certainly finding the most relevant information about what we’re already interested in more efficiently. But it’s human curators who point us to the kinds of things we didn’t know we were interested in until, well, until we are. How does the human element fit into the filter bubble and what do you see as the future of striking this balance between algorithmic efficiency and curatorial serendipity?

EP: The great thing about algorithms is that, once you’ve got them rolling, they’re very cheap. Facebook doesn’t have to pay many people to edit the News Feed. But the News Feed also lacks any real curatorial values — what you’re willing to Like is a poor proxy for what you’d actually like to see or especially what you need to see. Human curators are way better at that, for now — knowing that even though we don’t click on Afghanistan much we need to hear about it because, well, there’s a war on. The sweet spot, at least for the near future, is probably a mix of both.

One interesting place this comes up is at Netflix — the basic math behind the Netflix code tends to be conservative. Netflix uses an algorithm called Root Mean Squared Error (RMSE, to geeks), which basically calculates the “distance” between different movies. The problem with RMSE is that while it’s very good at predicting what movies you’ll like — generally it’s under one star off — it’s conservative. It would rather be right and show you a movie that you’ll rate a four, than show you a movie that has a 50% chance of being a five and a 50% chance of being a one. Human curators are often more likely to take these kinds of risks.

q3

How much does Google really know about us, in practical terms, and — more importantly — how much should we care?

EP: That depends on how much you use Google — about me, it knows an awful lot. Just think: it’s got all of my email, so it not only has everything I’ve written to friends, it has a good sense of who I’m connected to. It knows everything I’ve searched for in the last few years, and probably how long I lingered between searching for something and clicking the link. There are 57 signals that Google tracks about each user, one engineer told me, even if you’re not logged in.

Most of the time, this doesn’t have much practical consequence. But one of the problems with this kind of massive consolidation is that what Google knows, any government that is friends with Google can know, too. And companies like Yahoo have turned over massive amounts of data to the US government without so much as a subpoena.

Companies like Yahoo have turned over massive amounts of data to the US government without so much as a subpoena.” ~ Eli Pariser

I’d also argue there’s a basic problem with a system in which Google makes billions off of the data we give it without giving us much control over how it’s used or even what it is.

q4

Do you think that we, as editors and curators, have a certain civic responsibility to expose audiences to viewpoints and information outside their comfort zones in an effort to counteract this algorithmically-driven confirmation bias, or are people better left unburdened by conflicting data points?

EP: In some ways, I think that’s the primary purpose of an editor — to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.

q4

Is it possible to reconcile personalization and privacy? What are some things we could do in our digital lives to strike an optimal balance?

EP: Well, personalization is sort of privacy turned inside out: it’s not the problem of controlling what the world knows about you, it’s the problem of what you get to see of the world. We ought to have more control over that — one of the most pernicious things about the filter bubble is that mostly it’s happening invisibly — and we should demand it of the companies we use. (They tend to argue that consumers don’t care — we should let them know we do.)

On an individual level, I think it comes down to varying your information pathways. There was a great This American Life episode which included an interview with the guy who looks at new mousetrap designs at the biggest mousetrap supply company. As it turns out, there’s not much need for a better mousetrap, because the standard trap does incredibly well, killing mice 90% of the time.

The reason is simple: Mice always run the same route, often several times a day. Put a trap along that route, and it’s very likely that the mouse will find it and become ensnared.

So, the moral here is: don’t be a mouse. Vary your online routine, rather than returning to the same sites every day. It’s not just that experiencing different perspectives and ideas and views is better for you — serendipity can be a shortcut to joy.

Ed. note: The Filter Bubble is out today and one of the timeliest, most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time — required reading as we embrace our role as informed and empowered civic agents in the world of web citizenship.

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