Episode 032: Curation vs Algorithms: Who Is Writing Our History? with Amy Unger


Jessica Kerr | Sam Livingston-Gray | Rein Henrichs | Coraline Ada Ehmke

Guest Starring:

Amy Unger: @cdwort | Heroku

Show Notes:

00:16 – Welcome to “JIRA Card Catalogs and The People Who Love Them” …we mean, “Greater Than Code!”

01:05 – Superpower Origin Story, Growing Up with a Computer in the Family, and Being a Teenager

Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher

08:30 – Humanities and History

10:39 – Access to and Preservation of Literacy (Who is writing our history?)

15:03 – Categorizing Information and Making it Accessible…But, Also Privacy?

17:21 – Reliance on Google as the “Defacto Archive”?

19:49 – Digital Records (Algorithms) vs Human Curation

24:10 – What can librarians and library science offer a company?: Information Architecture

For sponsorship inquiries: please contact mandy@greaterthancode.com

27:32 – Algorithm Manipulation, Social Engineering, and Information Security

32:24 – Whose stories are we collecting, archiving, and making available to the public?

Tragedy of the Commons

41:09 – “Meme Hacking”, Getting Involved, and Owning Your Own Story

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Rein: Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media  

Sam: How economics and politics rear their ugly heads unexpectedly.

Coraline: Who is responsible for our history?

Jessica: The vast amounts of data we have and what we choose to preserve.

Amy: Consider the possibility of working in the public sector.

Please leave us a review on iTunes!


CORALINE:  Hello and welcome to Episode 32 of ‘JIRA Card Catalogs and The People Who Love Them.’ I’m here today with the lovely, Jessica Kerr.

JESSICA:  Good morning. Thank you, Coraline. That may be our show name today but don’t forget that the podcast is called Greater Than Code. I’m super happy to be here with Rein Henrichs.

REIN:  Thank you, Jessica and it is my great pleasure to introduce Sam Livingston-Gray.

SAM:  Hello everybody and I’m here to welcome Amy Unger to the show. The granddaughter of a former MIT Computer and yes, that was a job title, Amy was clearly supposed to be a programmer but just did not get the message. Her wanderings have taken her through the land of libraries and archives and into software consulting, like you do. Now a software engineer at Heroku, she’s deeply grateful for every [inaudible], she does not use vim commands and Google Docs. Welcome to the show, Amy.

AMY:  Hi everyone. I’m excited to be here.

CORALINE:  Amy, we would like to start the show by getting to know our guest a little bit better and our favorite question to ask is what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?

AMY:  I think my superpower has got to be walking cats. I did not think I would be a cat person. I’m very much of a dog person. I love dogs but my partner has cats so I have taken the time to learn to walk cats, which is basically understanding that you have no role. Absolutely, none in the mission of actually getting from one place to another and you just sit along for the ride as the cat sits down in the middle of a grassy field and takes a nap.

JESSICA:  So you are well-prepared to work in a team of software developers.


SAM:  Pretty much.

AMY:  Yeah, I do have some literal experience with herding cats.

CORALINE:  Nice. What was it like growing up with a computer in your family?

AMY:  When I was going through library school, I had a wonderful advisor who suggested I read the Unlocking the Clubhouse book, about women in the computer science program at, I believe this is Carnegie Mellon. It basically goes into all of the ways in which women are suggested by society that maybe tech stuff isn’t relevant. At the back of the book, there’s this wonderful chapter that is about the few women who did absolutely survive and thrive to certain degree. I realized that I was so lucky because my family — not me — hit every single one of those.

My grandmother was a computer. What that title meant at the time was that you would do the computation so for her, she was a computer in the MIT wind tunnel and they would get a whole bunch of measurements coming in from this big, massive system and they would be the ones doing the computations to determine if a certain design of wing would have enough lift to allow a plane to fly. She went through the math program at Wellesley. I have two other grandfathers who went through MIT, both my parents went through MIT so there was always this expectation that science and technology were things that we’re part of their legacy.

I live with the fact that I am a granddaughter of a computer because to me, I feel like mostly because of luck that I happened to be in a family that really encouraged and supported me in doing a lot of techie things, even when I didn’t think that I was going to be capable of it myself. For so many other people, that is very much not the case.

JESSICA:  You said you didn’t think you were capable of it yourself. Do you know why that was?

AMY:  You know, honestly I don’t and it took a long time for me to build that confidence. I think I lost that confidence right around high school and I don’t really know why.

JESSICA:  It seems pretty common.

AMY:  Yes and I think looking back at my high school self, it’s hard to see any rhyme or reason to a lot of things so who knows? I think there was absolutely some aspect at that time in your life, you start to get to realize that maybe your interest in equations is not going to affect some of the things that matter to you, such as popularity, such as having a decent social life. I definitely know I made a conscious choice to focus on the humanities at that point in my life because spending time learning about people and how organizations interact and have profound influences on people’s lives, really spoke to me as a 13 or 14-year old, going through all the changes that happened at that age and feeling a little bit, perhaps out of the loop and not necessarily at ease with some of the dynamics that were swirling around me. But I think by about age 15, I had pretty much given up on math and science and had decided I wanted to go into history.

JESSICA:  In some sense, you discovered very early something that of, I know I’m only coming into in recent years of how interesting those human pieces are. But in another sense, as kids we have this idea that we can do anything and be anything and then sometimes we lose that. But you’ve totally got, particularly your superpower back now.

AMY:  Yeah, I think it was a really painful thing to be forced into learning. Obviously, there are incredibly more painful things to experience other than a little bit of teenage angst. But I am, to a certain degree grateful that I had enough challenges, feeling at ease with people that I took a direction that was very focused on the humanities because I do think that if I had just been able to continue on my happy way, I would have completely ignored the humanities and I might be one of those people who does not see the value in a strong humanities background in the tech field.

JESSICA:  Kind of those people who just wants to be a computer?

AMY:  Yeah, that’s fair.

CORALINE:  How did your family react to your shift in course because it sounds like there was this family legacy of devotion to math and science? Were they supportive of you or to they’ve tried to steer you back?

AMY:  You know, I think I was having enough problems and there’s a legacy of enough problems in my family that they were happy that I was most likely not taking drugs and was relatively sane so the steer towards the humanities was not quite at the top on the list of concerns.

SAM:  It’s not like you were voting Republican or anything.


JESSICA:  She’s a teenager. She can’t vote. Being a teenager is hard.

AMY:  Yeah, I think it’s really fascinating to see how much the pressures that you experienced at that age can really affect how you choose to see the world as an adult and what choices you make about what is important as you make your way to, hopefully being a really good influence on society in making a difference.

CORALINE:  I’m in a position to have experienced two puberties. One coerced and one voluntary. I can tell you that going through puberty at 40 is just as awkward as going through puberty at 13. But it has the same ability or potential to change your world view for the better. Exactly has been my experience.

AMY:  Yeah, definitely. I think the effect of having so many changes around you feels incredibly destabilizing but it’s also was, I think a really big and important change for how I valued what I wanted to learn and what I wanted to do.

CORALINE:  Did you end up going to college?

AMY:  I did. I started at a college in Los Angeles called Occidental. That was a great first year but did not end up having some of the academic rigor I was looking for so I transferred to University of Chicago, which has a very strong core curriculum. It’s one of those programs where if you get out not having read Hegel, you are in the minority and it really aligned with what I was looking for.

It had a very strong set of humanities departments and I felt really at home in the history department. It was really an amazing experience to work with people who were through their research, helping to form the stories that we tell ourselves that amount to our shared history, our shared culture. To a certain degree, how we see ourselves as community, as towns, as country is through stories that we tell ourselves that we tell our youths, that we tell our adults. To see the process of those stories being created was a fascinating thing. It was my first exposure to seeing how important it is to choose the records that we, as a society want to preserve our primary sources so that would be whether newspapers showing George Washington’s first election or they know that a maid writes to her mistress saying that she’s running off.

The choice of what to preserve and what to spend our society’s resources, in order to keep around for generations really informs what kinds of stories we can tell ourselves about who we are, 50 years later or 100 years later. At the history department, they really brought me to a passionate love of archives and how we record and preserve information about ourselves.

SAM:  That’s interesting. It seems like some of what goes into that is our societal choices about who has, just plain old access to literacy, right?

AMY:  Absolutely and it ties into, not only who has access to literacy and who can write those records but also who can write which records, right?

SAM:  Yeah.

AMY:  It’s easier to make the argument that you should preserve newspapers and that puts an increased value on the people who not only can write but choose that as a career, who have the knowledge to write into — the editor — and the power within that community to have the editor think, “Oh, gosh, Mr Sam Westinghouse. Yes, I will publish his editorial,” or letter to the editor but it’s far less likely that we are going to preserve the letters of Maid Joan. No one’s going to think to do that, at least certainly nobody thought to do that in the 1800s so you end up in this really interesting situation that the letter of the maid who was writing to her mistress saying that she was running away is one of the few examples that you have to study the lives of the working class and why was it preserved? Well, because this mistress was married to a famous senator. Therefore, it ended up in the official papers. It’s not just who can write but it’s who writes what and who has which connections.

REIN:  Yeah, I was listening to a lecture on medieval history and the author made the point pretty early on that almost all of the people of that time were peasants and almost none of their histories were recorded and preserved in any way so the view that we have of that is almost entirely of the merchant class and above.

AMY:  Yeah, exactly and the view you get is purely of counts of the number of serfs on X person’s field. Occasionally, someone might have to resolve a dispute of two peasants but it’s really limited. It’s really recording the lives of these people with a narrowness of focus to their economic value and then when they cause problems for the elite.

CORALINE:  How is that different now where everyone has public platforms for sharing intimate details of their lives but probably there’s so much of it that it may as well be ephemeral?

AMY:  That’s a really interesting question. Many people doesn’t know actually has a corollary to people archives. University archives and other formal archives that have a mission to preserve things, have decades worth of a backlog of inventorying things so the papers of a famous poet who may have died 20 years ago are still sitting in boxes, not important enough to catalog so are essentially unusable by researchers.

I think what we’re seeing is that problem compounded because as we move into an age in which anyone can publish on the internet, first of all archives are struggling to adapt some of their collection policies to collect that kind of material because it’s incredibly hard to understand how to preserve Facebook. Do you do screen capture? Do you download the HTML and CSS and then make sure that you have preserved a version of IE5 and you have a computer to run it? Do you, instead create a collection policy for it that says, “Some archivist is going to copy and paste,” or far better, you’re going to write a crawler that is going to transform that into a text file but lose some of the detail there. I don’t think anyone is advocating for copying it into a text file but that would be the option that would be most stable to preserve. We’re almost always going to have a way to read a .txt file.

Then in addition to the question of what do we begin to collect is how do we categorize it and preserve it in a way that is accessible? I think there are a lot of corollaries to the problems with paper archives. There’s just a backlog. There are constantly higher priority things coming in so there’s a real challenge there. I would add on top of that, there is a question of privacy. There are some interesting case of libraries that may not have as much of a connection to some of the archival training or archival scholarship that have made some interesting discussions about how to preserve records for their community.

One example I’ve heard recently is a library that really wanted to build on their mission to being engaged with the community and preserve that community history and started to preserve the posts on the neighborhood Facebook page. No, the content there isn’t particularly valuable. A lot of people with lost pets, with free plants but there are the occasional rant. Does that person who is really pissed off at their neighbor expect that to be available for eternity? I don’t know. It’s hard to say.

One argument is it’s a public post on Facebook but it’s not exactly the same as the professor on his retirement day, walking 10 boxes of papers down to the university archives so you end up with a lot of really difficult, challenging questions that because society does not yet quite have the answers to that, archives are really struggling to figure out what to do there. Of course, there’s not enough money even to handle the paper archives. There is a real reticence to really dump in there. There are a lot of organizations doing really great work and I should, of course tell our listeners that I am very far removed from the field so I may be less able to celebrate the successes that I know are out there.

CORALINE:  Isn’t Google the de facto archive of online life now?

AMY:  Well, there’s some really interesting explanations about even the Internet Archive and how that might fit into thoughts in scholarship and archives themselves. They do not necessarily have the same level of collection policy. Instead of having a formal collection policy, they outsource it to you, the maintainer of the website and your [inaudible] .txt file. There are some really interesting parts about how that affects, whether we’re collecting the right stuff and preserving it.

But yeah, I think reliance on Google as the means of preservation is taking a question of who we are as community, as a country, out of our hands and putting it into the hands of a company that exists to make a profit and exist within a system where they may delete results because that’s what’s going to make the money.

JESSICA:  So we’re back to people stories being reduced to their economic value?

AMY:  Yeah. I think if you treat Google as your way of figuring out what’s important, then absolutely.

REIN:  Amy, like you were saying before, it’s not just about what is stored. It’s also about how it’s retrieved and how it’s presented. We’ve seen, for instance Google presenting holocaust nihilism above legitimate results for World War II queries and things like that.

AMY:  Yeah, exactly. There’s a really interesting question, I think for our communities and for our country is about what that line is, because in the past we’ve made some of those decisions by essentially saying that libraries and archives will be our path into these resources. They will be our path to access and we will train our librarians and archivists rigorously and with a relatively consistent ethos of what it means to serve society. I think what we’re seeing is that is changing and yet, we don’t have an answer for how, as a society we want to manage that kind of access? You would never see a librarian if asked about World War II, putting you to a holocaust denial book. But that’s what Google’s doing.

SAM:  I think it really captures an interesting point that I was thinking about with regard to the difference between paper records and digital records, which is that you can feasibly do full texts search on digital records, where you don’t necessarily have to have an index or a categorization or anything. But in order for that to work, of course you have to know what you’re searching for. You have to know the right terms. You have to know how something may have been creatively misspelled and so on. I wonder if that is a good jumping off point to talk about the difference between digital records and human curation.

AMY:  Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting point and it’s one that I think is converging a little bit more than we may think. ETSI posted a job for a librarian and there are a lot of companies out there that — very digital companies that are relying on learning algorithms to recommend things for you and to certain degree to sort things for you — actually hire librarians to do that first set of categorization to handle some of those questions of, “Did you really mean that? Maybe that’s a misspelling. Come on.”

I think there’s this interesting question for a lot of companies that have vast amounts of raw data text that they’re trying to make accessible, how do you get that first pass that a recommendation engine can then build upon? I do see there a decent amount of possibility for coalescing where we use some of the skills that librarians have built up to categorize things in order to help train and have our algorithms build upon that knowledge.

CORALINE:  Without having the ethos of the librarian being part of the algorithm, how do we prevent those sorting algorithms from drifting into the realm of politicized content or popular content that is inaccurate or even propaganda?

AMY:  I think that is an incredibly difficult problem for a lot of AI-based tools that we’re seeing. Some popular examples are obviously the Twitterbot that was trained to interact with people and within a few hours, became compromised essentially.

SAM:  The Microsoft’s Tay, was it?

AMY:  Yes.

JESSICA:  I’m ideologically compromised.


AMY:  Yeah. That’s an interesting point to frame it as ideologically compromised. I was thinking more along the security lines. It’s essentially a hack but it is a lot more about how do we make sure that these bots have a certain degree of integrity, whether that is Microsoft’s Tay or whether that’s Google’s image recognition algorithm that can’t tell the difference between apes and black people, whatever we use learning algorithms on, I think we need to understand how much we have invested in the education of humans over time and how hard that is and how much commitment we’ve had to make to that now.

You know, obviously I think we could probably be investing a little bit more than that. We have 12 years of education available for our children in this country without explicitly saying, “Thou shalt not ever do this,” helps to explain why it’s important for a shared community values to act in a certain way. I think it’s an interesting point to try to, in this environment when there is a lot of doubt about who we are as a country and there’s not necessarily the same muscles but existed many, many decades back for us to speak positively about what it means to be a part of a community, part of a country to say that this is what we believe in and this is what we want our access to information to reflect.

REIN:  What do you think a librarian or library science can offer a company like ETSI? Is it just constructing an anthology for them, for their listings or does it go beyond that?

AMY:  Well, I think I’m probably the wrong person to answer that. You could get a very interesting panel here of people who work as librarians in the private sector. My knowledge there is relatively limited but yes, the primary job of… I’m not sure if they use the word anthologist but it’s pretty much exactly that. You are developing what categories, items should be sorting in and then helping to sort items into that, develop rules for what goes in to what category.

There are also some interesting jobs in the private sector such as a corporate archivist that also walk this interesting line of profit versus preservation versus [inaudible]. But I went to programming path pretty early on in my library career so I would hate to step on the toes of the librarians doing really good work there.

REIN:  Maybe we can relate this to something that some of our listeners might have more familiar within web development, which is information architecture. How do you classify and organize and present and navigate through the information that your website has?

AMY:  Yeah, definitely. Information architecture is on the curriculum of almost every library science degree. It’s interesting to see the approach there. I think to a certain degree, the structured presentation of categories doesn’t always map to where websites currently are. If you think about those splash page, the hero page or hero image at the top and then this single page intro for most startups that are… I don’t know. What is the word? Hidden? Pre-alpha… stealth, there you go.

Those sites don’t exactly map, as well to structured information so I think, when it comes to information architecture, there is maybe some room for balancing of approaches where we recognize that highly structured information is not the best for access to information for a lot of things. The way a library school course for information architecture would like you to design a website is actually, probably pretty darn terrible.

JESSICA:  We would like to take a quick time out to do a commercial for our own podcast. That is so meta. We’re advertising our podcast on our podcast. Actually, Greater Than Code is looking for sponsors. We’re looking for the right corporate sponsor because right now, we’re totally Patreon-supported which is fantastic. We have awesome Patreons and if you become a Patreon at any level, you get to participate in our Slack communication which is actually really nice. Remember, as anyone who has been in any of our recordings knows that this is not a well-oiled machine. This is a well-edited machine and that editing doesn’t come cheap so thank you everyone who supports that great Greater Than Code Podcast.

Now in other news, Amy I’d really like to get back to this question about Tay. You mentioned that she was hacked and I find that really interesting because she wasn’t hacked like a break-in to your servers and mess with your data sense. She was hacked like right through her front door interface of, “Oh, you want to learn something? I’ll tell you something,” of a bunch of people just started spewing garbage at her and this gets back to the part where, if we don’t have librarians curating the information that we have access to, what we have is algorithms.

When Google and Facebook are the stewards of our cultural story, then we’re subject to whoever can manipulate those algorithms and whoever is economically or ideologically motivated to put in the effort to manipulate those algorithms. That’s dangerous.

AMY:  Yeah. I definitely think it is. It’s a big time of change and you don’t know where it’s going. I think that is why I use the term ‘security hack’ when I talk about Tay because I do think that we need to start thinking about altering AI output to give answers that it shouldn’t be giving the information that it shouldn’t be giving, as a security issue. I think someone correctly mentioned that this is kind of more a social engineering issue than Tay was not being DDoS. It’s not the code side of hacking but it is still something that endangers the security of the performance of AI-based applications.

CORALINE:  A social engineering is a security vector and it’s actually the hardest security vector to deal with and I think, as our algorithms become more sophisticated, it become social creatures, they become susceptible to social engineering and that’s something the engineers behind Tay obviously never even consider.

JESSICA:  And that has been [inaudible] social engineering on us.

REIN:  I think there are at least two ways in which it is definitely a hack. The first is in a very literal way, which is that it was a compromise of its integrity as a system design, presumably not to be racist. To the extent that the designers didn’t want to design a racist Twitterbot. Its integrity was compromised and it was changed into something it wasn’t intended to be. The second is that a very simplistic form of meme hacking, where the system clearly is designed to retain some phrases and things over others and they were able to get it to retain those phrases — the racist ones — rather than other less racist phrases.

AMY:  Yeah and I think there’s an information security side of this, whereas algorithms become a bigger part of how things are suggested to us and how information is categorized and access is determined that you could end up altering these algorithms to provide information that they really shouldn’t be giving out. If you are calling in to a help system that is going to help get you information about how to cancel your order, it should not allow you to cancel someone else’s order.

In the same way that something if you ask it like, “I’d really like to research the Facebook posts of this kind of group of people,” it shouldn’t be trained to share things that are really not related to what you’re asking about and drown out the other information so that it can never be found.

CORALINE:  I feel like we should mention the Facebook algorithm for determining what trending news is and the role of that —

JESSICA:  — news.

CORALINE:  Yeah and the role that that most definitely played on our most recent election.

SAM:  You know, I was thinking of another example as well of perhaps an expert system that’s used for medical diagnoses. The equivalent attack on that from what happened to Tay would be that maybe you have something that’s designed to provide reproductive advice and you call into this thing expecting fair and unbiased results and it tells you to sterilize yourself or something like that, right? Particularly, sinister.

REIN:  The integrity of a system is one of the three pillars of information security. We’ve got light bulbs that are de-dozing people. It’s not dissimilar from that. It’s a system that was designed to do one thing that was modified against to what the intention of its creators to do something else.

CORALINE:  I want to go back to something you said earlier, Amy about whose stories get recorded. I think it was you who mentioned that in medieval times with the records of the merchant class and above, whose stories are we collecting and whose stories are we archiving now, based on these algorithmic selections? I think if Google and Google’s relevance algorithms depend on essentially social networks, how many people are linking to your content is a huge part of determining how relevant your content is and what content gets surfaced through a search result. Whose stories are we making available to the public?

AMY:  I think that’s a really good thing to be thinking about. I think there are two aspects to that. The first is what is accessible today and I think that might be closer to the corollary of the public library. I think with that, we’re seeing things like the Kardashians being promoted. There are clear studies that your implied socio-economic power does impact how popular you are on social media platforms and how much your content gets surfaced.

I think there is another interesting way to look at this from what we preserved. On the archives side, I think we may be overly optimistic that we’re preserving what we need to. I don’t think algorithms really even come into it and the anecdote from the last year is that a lot of minority students post their experiences with racism at the university using a particular Twitter hashtag. These were stories that got a lot of publicity within the community because the community wasn’t that familiar with micro-aggressions and some of the more overt and explicit racist actions were just ones that people thought, “Oh, that can’t happen here. We’re a liberal community,” and it was a really revealing moment to have these minority students to use Twitter to publicize what their experiences were at the university, which is not this beautiful, rosy post-racial experience.

You would think that that would be incredibly important to preserve. Yet, the way that those Twitter posts were preserved was an archival student. This is a person who’s still getting their MOS degree, decided to pull those down. She taught herself how to program to pull those down and store them. The university didn’t know what to do with them so they didn’t accept the data. I know that story continues on to what I think is a slightly happier end but that might be just me hoping for that and not actually confirming that.

I think that gets back to the fact that it’s really hard to preserve some of this content and there’s no existing societal statement of value at them. I think we know that they’re important but have we put that in words? Yes, we can talk about what the future of library is and archives are and how that is changing to use a certain degree of AI and learning algorithms. But when you talk about asking those institutions to figure it out themselves, it comes down to a question of what do we value. We, right now don’t really value preserving this stuff and we value it only so much as Google is willing to expose it to us.

JESSICA:  There’s a couple of interesting bits in that story. One was that someone asked for people to tell their stories. One way or another, someone said, “Do this with this hashtag,” and we can consciously ask for the stories of people whose stories aren’t traditionally preserved and publicized. But then with the new data medium, we also have to find completely different ways of preserving them and we don’t know what those are yet and more significantly, I think providing access to information and this being done by algorithms. It like the story crafting has been taken from the historians and now belongs to the meme hackers.

AMY:  Yeah and I think that’s a really great way to speak about it. It’s a great place to find optimism because I think there are more and more efforts to try to find a happy medium, where individuals can, to a certain degree reclaim things. A good example of this is some of the personal archiving efforts that are being done at libraries across the country to help people preserve their own things. At a larger level, StoryCorps is really interesting as something that doesn’t necessarily give guarantees that admission of an item to a university archives would but does allow for stories to be promoted, to have a signal boost and to have archival efforts put to preserving them for a longer period than a converse salvation, a podcast might.

I personally have a great degree of optimism that we can find a balance between allowing access and preservation to be determined by companies whose motivation is profit. Even though they provide incredible resources in the present moment, they’re still making choices that may not be the same ones we would make as a society. I see a lot of optimism in individuals taking the time to get more involved and to create those stories of their own and to be part of movements and communities that will start to repeat those stories, to make them more important and to value them as a community. Therefore, give more power to them because ultimately, it’s the powerful stories that are the ones that influence us right now and are the ones that we preserve.

CORALINE:  I think a lot about the tragedy of the commons. For those who don’t know, the basic idea is there’s a Village Green and all of the local farmers are allowed to graze their animals on the Village Green. Any individual acting solely in their own best interest is incentivized to grow their herd as large as possible to take advantage of the public space for feeding their herds, which of course works against the community at large.

I feel like in our current society, it’s a digital commons and access to the commons is not what is subjective to gatekeeping but its attention that is a scarce resource. People whose stories are powerful and are transformative may not have the social standing to have their voices amplified and preserved and recorded and transmitted and that’s a real tragedy that refacing now. It is celebrity worship. It’s people with a higher socio-economic status, it’s people who have connections who are given greater voice and that’s to the detriment of people who maybe have different perspectives or different stories to tell.

AMY:  Yeah, it’s really interesting to be looking at our media currently for communication, in comparison to different ways that we have communicated at a society over time and to see us go through these cycles of how much information we publish, in what mediums and how much we expect people to be able to consume. I think there’s a really interesting challenge today because the volume is so much greater than it has been at any one point for people to consume and no one can come close.

But that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been similar times when the rate of increase of information available has exploded. I think it’s an incredible challenge to find a balance where the voices of the minority are heard. At the same time that there is a cohesive center and that the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are, have some degree of cohesion.

REIN:  I want to make a point that sort of ties together what we were talking about at the beginning of the podcast in terms of who has history written about with. What we’ve been talking about recently, which is meme hacking and this idea that some ideas get to live while others don’t. Mostly, what I want to do is use this as a pretext to make a joke so I will do that now.

Winston Churchill famously said that history is written by the victors and that’s not exactly correct, is it? It’s not the victors, necessarily. I mean, today it’s apparently still a part of the political discourse, whether or not the civil war was motivated by slavery so they didn’t win but they still get to drive the discourse. I think it’s more accurate to say that history is written by the people with the power to control the survival of memes that they prefer. If we want more working class representation and the ideas that are available to people in schools and in history books, then what we really need to do is rise up and see as the ‘memes’ of production.

SAM:  I see what you did there.

JESSICA:  Did you just say the ‘memes of production?’

REIN:  I absolutely did.

AMY:  I think that really gets back to some of the optimism about people getting involved. There’s no better time than now for people to be able to produce their own stories. On the other hand, obviously there is the horror of how do you sort through what should get attention, right?

REIN:  I think we could have a whole other podcast about how social media has impacted information availability and dispersal.

AMY:  I know. Definitely.

JESSICA:  Amy, the value in your background in history is the appreciation of how important those stories are because sometimes you want to say, “Oh, it’s all about the code. Oh, no. We’re only evaluating the code.” It’s never just about the code because the stories, the narratives and human life are greater than code.

CORALINE:  I want to mention to how little control we have in the world that we live in now over our own narratives even. You give an example of people sharing their experiences of racism and racially motivated micro-aggressions but I think I need to name search myself from time to time to find out if 4chan is organizing harassment campaign against me, for example. My own Google results tell a story about points in my life that I have no control over. In my related searches, when you search for name on Google, it brings up OpalGate. It brings up my dead name from prior to transition. It brings up a lot of pieces that I don’t think are relevant to the overarching arc of my personal life and there is no way for me to influence that. All I can try to do is do more visible things and get more attention but I can’t really manipulate those results to own my own story.

AMY:  Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting side effect of the current vast amount of information that is being spewed out right now, which is that previously there was sort of a pact in society that you would only lose the control of your own story if you were in public life and you are important enough for a newspaper to spend time writing about you. Obviously, some of that breaks down when we talk about smaller communities and about the economically disadvantaged who can’t fight back in those situations. But it was a far smaller part of society that was affected and I think over history, you see these vast points of change when pacts breakdown because the scope of things changes.

It’s no longer valid that if someone’s writing about you, they should be able to say whatever they want and that should be the first Google hit when someone searches for you, as opposed to 100 years ago where if someone went out and chop down a tree and that tree was brought 200 miles to a paper mill, it was chopped up, made into paper and someone printed about you. Then there’s a whole other story for creating the ink, that is a vast investment by society in writing three or four words about you even. But now there is such a lower cost to writing.

The social pact about who gets to say what about whom is no longer really valid because it’s no longer limited. You have no control over your story no matter who you are and it’s a really relatively scary thing for the vast majority of us who have a lot of different personas that we present on a day-to-day and it’s something that can destroy someone’s life, if one of those stories doesn’t conform the way people wanted it to.

REIN:  There’s a really interesting dynamic where on the one hand, Twitter and Facebook have democratized the availability of information but on the other, they have served to concentrate the power of the corporate media into fewer, larger, more powerful groups. The Boston Globe used to have offices all across the world and used to be a pretty important newspaper and now it’s essentially dead so the New York Times has consolidated a lot of that power. It’s interesting to me that seems to have both effects, both democratizing the availability of information for me and you to publish our information but also sort of concentrating the power that the New York Times has to form a narrative.

AMY:  Yeah and it’s also divorced a lot of that power from the smaller scale where it’s no longer true that I know the journalist who is picking the AP stories that are going to be in the town newspaper. While that in many ways has incredible benefits, it has a lot of problems when those stories end up not meaning something to you and you lose a sense of community about the stories you’re telling to each other. I think that’s one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in public libraries as an increased involvement in wanting to build community in creating spaces and to help people build that community for themselves while telling stories about the place that they live.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that that is really going to build the power that we would want behind those stories and the feeling of involvement that you want people to feel like they have in telling the story of who they are and who their community is and what we value together.

REIN:  Cool. It’s time for reflections. Let’s reflection it. I guess I’ll go first. For me, this really makes me think about the access we have to information through the media, through Twitter, how that access is controlled and shaped. You can’t really talk about that without bringing up Noam Chomsky and his work, especially manufacturing consent. He was also, by the way the reason that we call regular expressions, regular expressions.

SAM:  One thing that’s really struck me throughout this podcast and this discussion is just how economics and politics rear their ugly heads in so many of the things that we’ve talked about, things like who has their records preserved and who has access to literacy? Who can afford to hire librarians like a tech company versus a public library? Who’s motivated to put in the time to flood the corpus of a chat bot so they can get to promote their own agenda and who gets to control public stories about any given person? To me, code is part of some of those things but the politics and the economics of those situations are simply inescapable. I feel it’s appropriate that we talk very little about code and mostly about these other things because those are the real intractable problems and I want us to focus more on grappling with those things.

CORALINE:  A lot of my thoughts centered around curated history and Amy, what you said in the early days about who at the university is responsible for the archives and how the archival process works and knowing that someone with an ethos is curating that history versus the algorithmically generated histories that we’re being subject to today and the long term impact on how that’s going to affect if you are [inaudible] as a society and how future historians are going to use that information to try and put together a picture of who we are as a society.

Also, the haring notion that thanks to the corporate players who control the means by which we get our voices out into the public are motivated, like Sam said by economics and only your own narrative is, if not already impossible, at least in peril.

JESSICA:  I was thinking about the vast amounts of data that there are and how huge that is and then we choose some subset of that to preserve and some small piece of that actually gets stored. Then an even smaller piece of data is accessible and searchable. We can find it and use it to research. It’s like we have this tiny little keyhole we’re looking through at this big landscape and everybody looks through different keyhole but certain people control a lot of the keyhole and behind that keyhole is a lot of stuff that’s there but also some of that stuff is just drawings that people made up and stuck in front of your keyhole and you think that’s the world because this is the only piece of it that you can see.

I think it would be important to give people internet access as a public right, just so they have some chance of contributing their story from their own perspective, to the depth of human history.

AMY:  I like to end with a call to our listeners to consider the possibility of working in the public sector. This isn’t something that we’ve discussed on this podcast but I think if what Jessie just said to you pulls a little on your heartstrings and makes you want to be part of making those decisions on a day-to-day basis, then I’d like you to consider this. I’ve worked at some really great companies — for-profit companies — that are doing really fascinating things, really important things. But I have never worked outside the public sector in a place where everybody had a common mission.

We disagreed about it but you came in to work and you knew that today you were going to help people and literally, everyone in that organization was there to do that and it’s a thing of incredible power to feel like you are a part of helping your community, your society, answer some of the toughest and most challenging problems and you can do that as a programmer. You’re still writing code but your code works on the edges of coming together to solve these issues.

Sure, sometimes the problems you’re solving in code are not the most cutting edge of technical problems but the social problems are absolutely far more impactful than any complex algorithm, monitoring solution or whatever the heck you’re dealing with on that particular day. If any of those conversations made you think like, “Hey, that’s really interesting,” there’s a great need for people to continue doing this work and they can say, “It is the most meaningful work I’ve ever done.”

CORALINE:  Thank you for doing that work, Amy. That’s greatly appreciated. This has been a wonderful conversation. We’ve touched on a lot of really important ideas. I really look forward to the conversation continuing in the Greater Than Code Slack community which of course, you can join by pledging on Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode at any level. Thank you to all of my fellow panelist today. Amy, Thank you so much for time and your insight. It’s been wonderful having you here. Thank you so much.

AMY:  Thank you everyone.

JESSICA:  Thank you.

REIN:  Can I just close by saying that I own a trademark on the memes of production which means that I own the memes of production of the memes of production?


SAM:  Good night, everybody.

This episode was brought to you by the panelists and Patrons of >Code. To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit patreon.com/greaterthancode. Managed and produced by @therubyrep of DevReps, LLC.


One thought on “Episode 032: Curation vs Algorithms: Who Is Writing Our History? with Amy Unger”

  1. What a super interesting show! I really enjoyed the discussion around how our society is adaptaing (or not) to the new digital world. I’ve thought about this a lot recently.

    When I think about all the *things* that people would generate through the course of their lives – letters, photos and the like, and now we’re generating pretty much exactly *none* of it.

    I think this has even broader implications than libraries and archives – how will families even trace their ancestry beyond public records? Will we all take the kind of care needed to preserve all our photos, emails, blog posts and the like after we’re gone?

    It’s like we’re creating a future for the human race with no ability to look backwards. I’m not predicting doom here, but I think it falls to us as denizens of this new world and way of life to think about these things and work towards finding solutions to some of these problems.

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