Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I Don't Specifically Wanna be AnarCHI, but it sure does strike a chord...

If I am following ACM CHI 2014 on Twitter, and read a tweet with a picture of a document entitled "Never mind the Bullocks: I Wanna Be AnarCHI: A Manifesto for Punk CHI", I feel compelled to find it, read it and remark.

Except you can't really "read" this paper in the standard sense because it consists of a title, abstract, guitar chords, and lyrics.

It's not a paper, but rather a recipe that gets you to a performance. (You, yes, that's you, who consider yourself to be the "reader".) You have to interact with the thing to make it whole. To interact, you need to follow "instructions" for playing music, formulated using the standard conventions for how guitar music is written.

Which invites the following line of thought: If this paper can be an interactive set of instructions that can be carried out by people familiar with certain standard conventions, then, how far do we get if we view other papers as similar animals?

Unpacking that question: On the one hand, you can say about any paper, that you don't really get a complete entity until you interact with it: read it, interpret it, cite it, extend it. On the other hand, you can say about any paper, if you don't master the system of conventions (I don't know how to play the guitar), you are stuck and do not move beyond square one.

So it's a paper like any other paper, after all? Um, well. I continue with some additional remarks.

The lyrics in the paper refer to the "subtle kind of pressures that go unseen". If this were a film, the mention of the "unseen" would trigger us to expect that other forms of interpretation might lead to more insight. We could call it a foreshadowing or a hint that the message of this paper cannot be directly perceived, but must be witnessed through participation.

If the paper includes the participation, what does this participation tell us? Specifically, what does it tell us about ourselves, the "readers" of "papers"? My remarks regard the first Commentary on the paper.

This Commentary includes the statement, "It is not clear what the authors are trying to accomplish." My remark: This suggests the existence of an assumption among readers (i.e., readers like ourselves) that a paper should represent an attempt at a well-formulated achievement.

The Commentary also includes the statement, "...we are forced to question whether this paper should really be seen as anarchist". My remark: This suggests the existence of an assumption that a paper should not open up possibilities to discover contradictions between its literally expressed message, and its larger implications.

Then, the Commentary includes the statement, "The authors do draw important attention to the government and corporate funding of HCI research...However, we wonder how much of the authors' own research is funded by such." My remark: This suggests the existence of an assumption that the authors of a paper must not advocate actions differing from, or going beyond, those in which they are currently engaged. 

Finally, it includes the question "Would such mainstream acceptance paradoxically undermine the movement's very purpose?" The "movement" is here the purported AnarCHI "movement". My remark: This suggests the existence of an assumption that ideas should not come into being with the anticipation that they will ultimately destroy themselves, but rather, should come into being in order to establish permanence.

Yes, looking at this list, it does look like a set of conventions. And because the authors of this "paper" do not respect these conventions they do not get beyond square one with this Commentary.

However let's ask this: Don't we value exactly the opposite of these assumptions? Don't many of us believe that there needs to be flexibility in research for exploration (not all goals should be well-formulated), for writing papers in which the readers might discover contradictions (see things that the original authors don't), for papers that inspire future scientists that they can be better than us, and for papers that present ideas aimed at moving forward the field as a whole, rather than establishing their contribution as part of an immutable canon.

In the form of these assumptions, the subtle pressures that go unseen have stepped out of the darkness and into the spotlight. They are not inherently bad pressures. Conventions allow us to communicate, just like they allow a guitarist to interpret written music to reproduce the intentions of the compose.

However, they are there. And naturally, they are brightly illuminated when someone invokes punk along with a cool CHI play on words like AnarCHI.

Heck yeah, they are there. And like the gravity that keeps us glued to the surface of the planet, we need, as human beings, heroic acts of will, insight, and technological development in order to, physically, be able to fly.

The Commentary refers to this paper as "exceedingly clever". But maybe it's not clever at all. It could just be considered a standard method to transcend the unspoken assumptions of a mature community, and to realign them with the underlying values privately cherished by that same community, i.e., the values that we would like to believe that we hold and can act on.

The Commentary implies that the paper subverts the mainstream. But it doesn't subvert the mainstream. It reveals the tension that exists inside everyone of us. We struggle to keep our intuitions, investigation, and ambitions free of its destructive load of expecting science to progress in neat, self-consistent packages, self-contained packages with long lifespans in the larger community. It helps us because it encourages us with the reminder that we are not alone.

The Commentary admits the possibility "...we just don't get it". With respect to the duck video, I would be with you.

I've never attended CHI. Maybe I also need to learn how to play the guitar.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Multimedia Of the People, By the People needs multimedia technology For the People

Flick: krazydad
Yesterday, our Multimedia Computing Group had a strategy day at the Delft Arts Center. These are the days that we take time—that strictly time speaking we cannot really spare from deadlines and projects—and step back and look at the larger picture of our group and of multimedia research. The location of the Arts Center is green and the Dutch April obliged us with sun, ideal to take time to contemplate and discuss the bigger questions.

My larger picture is this: I am interested in the digital reflexes of human thought, creativity, and communication. These reflexes lead to the generation of multimedia and interaction data. The natural group with interest in this data is the people that it represents, i.e., the people whose efforts and activities caused it to come into being. I create algorithms and technology that support people in getting the most out of “their” data.

Of course their is a lot of multimedia data out there, also including satellite images, medical images,  and surveillance video. These are, of course, also forms of multimedia. However, typically, the people who generate these data (or the people who create the systems that generate these data), are not themselves represented in the data. 

In my view, multimedia “Of the People, By the People” (i.e., data arising from the creativity and activity of a large number of general-population users) should be distinguished from special purpose multimedia. This means that we need a concept of multimedia systems "For the People” and that these should be the focus of special development effort. 

There are conceptual and algorithmic reasons why multimedia systems "For the People” should be developed as a separate class. One important point is that multimedia of the people and by the people is also generated for multiple purposes, giving rise to complexity not encountered in other systems. For example, a satellite image wouldn’t be expected to be able to fulfill to radically different goals, such as “education” and “entertainment”, whereas such multi-facetedness is quite common for a video on YouTube. We tackled such complexity in a recent publication, “Using Crowdsourcing to Capture Complexity in Human Interpretations of Multimedia Content”, but I will not discuss it further here.

Here, instead, I would like to focus on the ethical aspects of why multimedia “Of the People, By the People” should be the subject of dedicated research devoted to creating multimedia systems for users. My motivation was a conversation during yesterday's lunch that came scarily close to arriving at the question, “Do we really have time for ethics in our research anyway?” Given that it required a significant amount of sacrifice to make time for the strategy day, I was really not ready to come to the conclusion that, whoops, no, after all, no time for ethics. I tried to make the point that ethics does not necessarily require time, but rather it involves making explicit choices that bear our research forward in one direction as opposed to another. The difference between the directions may be subtle, but the implications are huge.

Differentiating multimedia “Of the People, By the People” from other types of multimedia is a way at looking at what we do that opens to the door to consideration of the ethical aspects of our research. In particular, if we target multimedia systems "For the People", our research makes a contribution to supporting the dialogue on an important issue of the digital age: the right of individuals and communities to benefit from the data produced as a result of their own creativity and activity. I am not asserting that creating multimedia technologies "For the People" is in itself an act that one can consider “ethical” Rather, that choosing to do so, and making this choice explicit, we support people working in other disciplines in defining, and finding answers, to the tough ethical questions.

Social multimedia sharing on the internet has led to the creation of incredible resources. YouTube and Flickr contain an enormous amount of material that teaches, records aspects of human life, or represents the product of creative talent. In order that multimedia resources are able to reach their full potential of serving the good of individuals and society as a whole, it is important that technical tools are developed that will allow these resources to be searched and browsed. 

A somewhat trivial way of understanding (or "feeling") the way in which the people who created these resources also have a right to them is this, let's try a simple exercise. Imagine Google “turned off” YouTube. Would you feel that something had been taken away from you? Would schools, communities, social relationships between people be damaged? The answer is clearly “yes”. I am not going to far as to make the argument that YouTube videos should be considered public goods. There are complicated intellectual property issues at play there. The point here is simple: “turning off” YouTube would have larger implications than of “just” a company making a business decision for business reasons.

Let’s look at a less trivial example: Imagine that Google does not turn off YouTube, but rather starts to spend less effort on maintaining it (i.e., that there are streaming problems, or that we can’t find what we are looking for.) That’s a slippery slope going down from what YouTube is today, to the point of “turning it off”. Google's position on that slope again has consequences for ability of people to access content that they themselves have created. In other words, that position goes beyond mere business decisions.

Finally, let's turn to where we are today: Google makes certain decisions about the types of multimedia search technologies to develop and not to develop for YouTube. These decisions have consequences. One decision in which these consequences are perhaps most clearly evident is that YouTube does not provide time-code level search functionality to videos. This means that, for example, a student studying data fitting, can’t directly search for short segments of lecture videos explaining least squares, but instead, must do a significant number of video-level searches. 

Of course it would be a strange, if not bad, business decision to make the search function of YouTube capable of precisely addressing specific questions. Users that come, get their question answered with one query, and leave again, are not going to hang around and click the ads that make such a critical contribution to revenue. 

The point is that decisions whether or not to develop certain technologies (and I can assure you that time-code level search is non-trivial) have implications for the ability of the community who created and contributed the content also to be able to use it. 

In order to drive this point home, let me give one more example, based on Wikipedia. There is wide-spread agreement that Wikipedia is peer-produced resource that is important for society world wide. In the case of Wikipedia, the importance of access technology in guaranteeing people’s ability to make use of the resource is clear. Imagine that all of Wikipedia were dumped into an enormous text file without structure and without a search function. Would it be useful to the larger community? Scarcely. The “right” to use Wikipedia is guaranteed not only by the Creative Commons license under which its content is created, but also by the structure of the Wikipedia site and the search functionality that it offers. 

As systems get more complicated, and involve processing of pixels and sound samples, we cannot guarantee that appropriate search and access technologies will be developed without significant effort. The “ethical” decision to make as a multimedia researcher in academia is to focus efforts on those research topics that lead to multimedia systems “For the People” that industry is not necessarily incentivized to address.

Note that I am not asserting that companies like Google, are not working to making access to user-contributed collections of multimedia better. Quite to the contrary. Flickr, for example, just announced integration of object recognition http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/17/yahoo-acquisitions-power-flickrs-new-object-recognition-search-editing-and-video-capture/).

However, in order to remain profitable, companies must pay careful attention to their bottom line. For this reason, it is important that actors outside of industry (such as universities) remain actively engaged in developing technologies that help people get the most of multimedia data that they themselves have created. Such actors experience no conflict of interest, and care thus free to stand squarely on the side of the people who created the data when conceiving and developing new multimedia algorithms.

How much time do we need to consider ethics in our research? Not that much. We greatly benefit from a few odd moments of discussion and reflection. Yesterday, I welcomed the chance to view the big picture, and to step back and ask if I, as a multimedia researcher, am truly serving the interests of the people whose effort and action gave rise to the data that I study in the first place.