Categories
Analysis Tech

The overlay bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Culture Op-eds

The usefulness of good grammar

Why is good grammar important?

In the Indian mainstream media at least, it appears that readers won’t penalise reporters and editors for imperfect use of grammar and punctuation. To be clear, they will notice – and many will avoid – bad writing; at the same time, readers are unlikely to credit articles that got their grammar and punctuation pitch-perfect. In short, good grammar doesn’t seem to improve return-on-investment but bad grammar reduces it.

This isn’t surprising: English has always been much of India’s second language, especially among its middle class. The premium placed on perfect grammar is much lower than that placed on simply being fluent with the language at the intermediary level. In most instances, in fact, the value of better grammar is and remains an unknown-unknown.

However, what I like most about perfecting the use of grammar and punctuation is that doing so provides a sort of polish to the text that greatly improves its readability. This is somewhat like the attention Apple pays to the UX of its iPhones: it isn’t just that the hardware-software synergy is excellent or that the designs make the UI look exquisite; it is that, like good grammar, Apple ensures the tiniest details are in line with the overarching experiential philosophy, so that the user moves with equal ease through different parts of the phone. In the same way, without good grammar, the text becomes a bit of a bumpy ride.

It’s the cost of this bumpiness that seems to determine whether or not better grammar is linked to the publisher’s stature.

Within the iPhone metaphor, design perfection is closely associated with the iPhone’s reputation as a premium item, the same way the appropriate use of language is associated with publications like The Baffler and The New York Review of Books (but not The New Yorker, for reasons described here), which bank on literary as well as narrative correctness to appear, and read, classy.

However, this aesthetic is seemingly confined to mainstream publications in the West and, in India, to magazines that are okay with presenting the sort of English that is as classy to the discerning reader as it seems elitist to the one who hasn’t spent a lifetime among books. To the latter, text laden with the uneven use of grammar isn’t bumpy reading at all as much as something that reads just fine. So the publisher that publishes such writing isn’t penalised for it.

Then again, is it fair to judge grammar’s value according to its financial implications? It makes sense with iPhone and design: a flawed UX is quite likely to precipitate a decline in sales, and sales is what Apple – like any corporation – lives for. It also makes sense if you have a publisher like Times of India in mind. But how do things work at The Wire?

As with any nonprofit news publication that runs on donations from readers, good grammar and punctuation offer The Wire a way to render our articles more gratifying as long as the exercise remains cost-effective. But when it comes in the way of a more valuable target, such as higher volume, it becomes secondary if only because our resources are painfully finite. To prevent this from happening in the longer run, we must couple the quality of writing with the notion of public interest itself. So we come to the more important question: could good grammar be in the public interest?

At first, good grammar seems almost unnecessary, indulgent even, until you consider the connections between good writing and thinking. Being able to compose complex sentences anticipates room to compose complex thoughts and allows us to assimilate complex ideas. We may not need language itself to think, but insofar as we wish to instrumentalise the communication of complex ideas as a weapon against anti-intellectualism, we must become and remain fluent with how grammar and punctuation allow us to nearly exactly communicate semantic formations constructed by the mind.

In fact, it would be safe to dispense with the “nearly” as well: we cannot communicate ideas more complicated than what our language affords us. Therefore, the more versatile our language is and the better we are able to use it, the more opportunities we give ourselves to accommodate new ideas and fight against bad ones.

There are limitations, of course, such as with a lot of academic writing these days that is dense for density’s sake. But short of that, not making efforts to improve the way we use the rules of grammar and the opportunities of punctuation could mire us deeper and deeper, in a world becoming more vast by the day, in knowledge that is only becoming more stale and – as many scholars have recognised – in attitudes more anti-intellectual. Of course, not everything there is to learn has to be so complicated and most of us will almost certainly expend our lives still exploring the simpler realms, but in the overarching scheme, exposing ourselves to the more challenging aspects of language will equip us to go wherever we may as a society.

This is also an admittedly circuitous justification for the continued use of good grammar – given humankind’s now-famously short attention span – and one that we may not always remember on the level of the day-to-day. But just as with good grammar, the usefulness of good grammar only shows itself with prolonged use, and this should be easier to remember.