[intro music]
Vim: Hi and welcome to the Distributed Future's Podcast. I'm Vimla Appadoo.
Tim: And I'm Tim Panton.
Vim: On this podcast we talk about all things future. We think of things through a technological lens or other and understand, and try to unpack what the future might look like, and today we're going to be talking about the new cycle and the impact of different news and media outlets on our mental health, our ability to digest news and also the actions we take as a result of it. This really sparked for me this week when I had a realization that I actively look to social media more for my news coverage than traditional news outlets. And it made me wonder why that is, but also what kind of news I'm looking for. Is it impartial? Do I want to hear just what makes me happy in terms of political opinions that agree with me? What is it? What is it that I'm looking for in that kind of search for the news?
Tim: I think it is a huge change. I mean, I'm old enough to remember that the new cycle for me was getting a newspaper every morning and sitting down and finding a point in the day with a cup of tea or something and reading the paper. And that might be part of a commute or something, and that was a curated experience. I would buy a specific newspaper that I didn't agree with everything in it, but spoke to a world view that I was interested in. And I think that it's too easy to think that, “Oh, curating our bubble is new.” Because we've always done that, I've always done that.
Vim: Yeah, I guess there's a difference in... Like you say, in a newspaper, you still get different authors or writers that might give a different perspective or a different slant even if it's generally what your world view agree with. I think what really spoke to me recently as well is how in moments of crisis, social media can be a real insight into what's happening on the ground. This particularly happened for current news coverage of what's happening in Israel and Palestine and my echo chambers showing me a lot from Palestinians on the ground. There's a particular young boy who is posting YouTube videos regularly rapping about what life is like. He’s 9 years old, and it's one of the things that really-- not shocked me-- but made me realize the power of social media in giving this whole perspective of people that probably would have been ignored or silenced through media coverage before unless you kind of see them in the background of a news reporter, an anchor, on the scene during a live coverage.
Tim: Yeah, I think interesting because my social media coverage of that same issue has been strict social media in terms of Facebook contacts and friends, has been much more on the other side of people's; Israelis' underground shelters, this is where I spent the last 5 hours... and wherever. That's quite different from my Twitter. My Twitter and my Facebook are actually interestingly diverging in terms of kind of their bubbles. I don't know what that means about me, something worrying probably.
Vim: [Laughs]
Tim: But I do think, though, that the sort of story you're talking about would not turn up on the TV news, but it's the sort of thing that I would have expected in the past to be something that cropped up in an a long-form news article by-- I'm going to going to say Robert Fisk and ignoring all of the problems that his journalism had. Like, what you did get was a kind of very much a visceral sense in the same way that you now get from the sort of social media you're talking about. So, I think that that's always been there but it was probably much more curated.
Vim: Yeah. That led to your point of curation and we've always curated it, and it's interesting to think I don't know how active or conscious we are of that curation in understanding how we digest news and where it comes from, and what it says about us or our networks.
Tim: I think we're still learning. I'm quite conscious of things like not getting rid of people whose views I find challenging, until I find them either actively wrong or just too disturbing for my mental health to want to carry on. I mean, there are things that are true and I should know about and I just don't want to. There's a bunch of things you have to be quite careful with yourself particularly at the moment where our real lives are quite walled in, and so I think our social media lives are kind of more important in some ways and that's a risk I think.
Vim: Yeah, it is. There's also something interesting around how informed we are at the moment. There's loads of stuff that's come out recently where I've been like, “How are we letting this happen?” Whether it's the government getting rid of public appointees on the boards of cultural institutions or… Loads of little things have come up in the last few days where I thought, “How is this happening and I have no idea? How am I only just finding out about it now?” And my friend said to me, “Well, it's just always happened, it’s just now you actually have a revenue to know about it." There is more news out there that is covering such a breadth, that what would have been ignored or just happened under the surface now at least gets that slither of light up to the public consciousness.
Tim: Yeah, I think that your friend is mostly right that this stuff has always happened. I mean, you think about some of the historical scandals and they don't look that different from today; Profumo and all of the ones where we’re like historical record is there to read. The sorts of things one's picking up on what is likely happening here today is sort of not that different from stuff one can read about historically. So, I think your friend’s right that it did always happen. What I think is different is that it was probably discussed within circles that were affected. Like, people who were on the museum boards or knew about them would have discussed this and had the same angry conversations over dinner table or whatever, or in the pub. But now, it doesn't have to be a dinner table, it doesn't have to be a pub. And if we choose to become members of a group, a sort of loose association on Twitter or wherever we’re getting our news feeds from, then we can know that stuff. But the scary thing is we're almost completely powerless about most of it.
Vim: Yeah, that is this whole thing. And that's where the mental health bit comes in for me because if people take it lightly I get angry. [laughs] I get frustrated and I get disheartened at the world, and then it's this hate. But there's nothing you can do about it. There is very little influence you can have on all of the stuff that's happening, especially on immediate impact.
Tim: Yeah, immediate impact is difficult anyway. But again, that's not new. My dad used to say to me you have to pick your battles and you have to decide which ones really matter, and everything else you have to just let slide because you can't do it all. You can't do everything. And picking your battles is a combination of things that matter to you and things that you can actually make a difference to. They're not always the same.
Vim: Yeah.
Tim: But I think this plethora of information that we have access to maybe makes us think that we can change things we can't or- Maybe we can. Maybe if enough of us bleat about something maybe it does change. I don't know.
Vim: Yeah. Well, the free school meals in the UK was a good example of that where it did take a person in a celebrity status to lead it but it galvanized social media momentum to have political impact.
Tim: Yeah, I think that that's a really good example actually. Somebody with a sufficient following can actually move policy.
Vim: Yeah, in a really, really positive way as well. The thing is, I wouldn't ever change it. I want to know all the stuff. I'm glad I know that this is happening. It is just that what do you do with it? How do I compartmentalize day-to-day life living within the spectrum of stuff I don't necessarily agree with, and then also realizing the impact or the battles I can take on?
Tim: Yeah, I think for me the risk there is being so overwhelmed by the number of things that you want to try and change that you end up changing less than you would have done, being less successful in changing things than you would have been if you picked your battles and done the things that you could do. And I'm really aware of that, there's so much in the tech world that I would really like to change. But you can only, particularly for me, I can only make small changes here and there. And you have to celebrate the victories that you do get and keep moving, you know? There's no other way of staying sane really.
Vim: [laughs] Yeah, it's true. That is true. There’s also something you mentioned earlier, the loose connections we build on social media and all these news networks. And what I've started to see more and more of, it's been happening since the advent of social media, what you post online gets held against you in job interviews or in the future if you want to become politician, et cetera et cetera. I think it's getting worse now because it's not just about what you post, it's about who you follow, what kind of links you might have to other organizations and what they post and all of these stuff which, again, just for me goes against that kind of democracy that's rooted in social media or freedom of speech and all of that kind of stuff. It's really problematic.
Tim: Yeah, I know. I think that this whole data mining of your social graph to try and work out who you are, to an extent the conclusions it's going to come to are probably not totally incorrect. But I think I've said this on the podcast before, the people who meet me in real life tend to think that my Twitter behavior doesn't match my normal social demeanor. I think that the famous quote, as somebody said, “Well, that was surprisingly reasonable you," [Vimla laughs] when met me in real life. And I'm like, “Well, dude, you know, you have to be quite pithy on Twitter.” Because at that point it was 140 characters, so you couldn't go off on a vague both-sides argument. You just had to say one thing and say it crisply. Having a long form discussion with me, he was genuinely quite surprised, I think. It's a challenge that. I had an interesting discussion today which really bothers me, and so I did get involved in the discussion. So, there’s two stories in the news at the moment, one of which is this thing about that Irish health service having basically the whole data hacked and held up for ransom. And part of the ransom is that they're going to publish everyone's medical records. Just drop them, sell them, drop them... unless the right number of bitcoin turn up. Now there's a bit of a development in that story which is that, I'm not quite sure what's happened, but the ransomware hackers have backed down or seem to have backed down because the key to unlock it has been made public or given to the Irish health authority, and it sounds like somebody has decided that that was too high risk and they want to back down. So, there's that story which is basically an entire nation's public health records risking about to becoming the public domain to the extent that the health authority has taken out an injunction against Google and Facebook and everybody else saying, "If you publish data, we will sue you and sue you really seriously." Because they think it is going to get out and they want to make sure that at least social media companies don't touch it with a bargepole. So there's that story, and then simultaneously the NHS is building exactly that kind of database. They've just decided that they want to centralize all of GP's data into a central database for research purposes. You look at that and you think, “How can you not see that those two stories are linked?”
Vim: Yeah. But then my counter is; if we were to do it knowing that mistake has been made, would we not build it with better security in mind?
Tim: You would hope so. But we don't even really-- we don't know what better centralized security looks like. There is literally nobody who is unhackable, it's a matter of degree, and the only thing that kind of really protects you is distributing it so that it's more work to collect it.
Vim: Yeah.
Tim: I'm way biased on that, that's my kind of thing at the moment.
Vim: [laughs] Distributed data.
Tim: Well, data at the edge where near its owner basically.
Vim: Yeah. But then presumably all GP data would be completely anonymized anyway, so there'd be no way of linking it to the owner of that data.
Tim: Um, I haven't looked at what the actual data storage was going to be but I would be very surprised if it was completely anonymized. The trouble with doing completely anonymized data is you have to know what you're going to want to search for.
Vim: Yeah. I'm not against the centralized data system for the NHS because of how many data gaps there are for intersectional experiences, and the medical research we have today isn't representative of the UK population at all. So if there's a way of being able to draw out even loose conclusions of under-30 brown women [laughs] with health conditions, to me that's a bonus. That's huge, and the benefit outweighs the risk. However, I say that naively [laughs] because that's on the assumption that it can be anonymized, that it can be safe, that it's only used for good, you know?
Tim: And I think my initial instinct is, yes, I want to learn as much as we can from this rich data set that we almost uniquely as a nation have. I think that will be a good starting point. But I really worry that people don't understand the risks and don't put enough effort into managing those risks. This is where we go off onto this tangent, which is that I've spent 20 or 30 tweets in an exchange with somebody about exactly that. Drilling down to what the risk is, how you manage it, why I think there is a risk, and why he believes-- as you're hoping-- that the NHS is for good and that data won't slip into the hands of the venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and be used to drive political campaigns. I'm less comfortable with that, you know? I remember many years ago we did an anonymization study for health data and they said it's really easy to de-anonymize somebody who's got one leg and sickle cell in Bolton.
Vim: Yeah.
Tim: Because there's probably only three of them and only ones over 40.
Vim: Yeah.
Tim: I know. And that--
Vim: Yeah, and then it becomes an issue of who you exclude from datasets because they're too identifiable. In which case, is it a valuable data set if you're only working with the bell curve?
Tim: Right. I mean, exactly not. You learn interesting lessons from the edges often. From the extreme cases, they'll tell you things that you can then go and maybe apply to the rest of the population and that kind of stuff. So, yeah. I'm not saying there's an answer here, I just think we should be asking quite hard questions and I think the pandemic’s given them an excuse not to have to answer those questions.
Vim: Not to have to answer those questions, but not to listen to the public either. Cuz going back to what we started about the power dynamic in all of this, and we've spoken about informed consent and lock, this is a prime example of how a government should be able to break down those risks and benefits to the general population to have a public vote on how that central data set for the general population could be used.
Tim: Yeah. Were you sent a consultation on that?
Vim: Nope. [both laugh]
Tim: Right.
Vim: But that’s what we should be doing, right? That's how it should be working. This isn't abstract, this is me going to the GP and that data being used in ways that I have no control over. That should be something I have control over.
Tim: Well, between now and the 23rd of June you can withdraw your data from the centralization. But after that, you can't.
Vim: Surely that breached GDPR rules.
Tim: No, because it's already covered. We’re no longer in the GDPR and it's already covered in the National Health Act of 2006 or something. They are explicitly allowed to centralize data.
Vim: I remember that. I remember that happening.
Tim: Right. So.. Too late, that boat sailed.
Vim: This is what happens when you're young. You miss your opportunity to have input into these things. [laughs]
Tim: Well, yeah. I don't think anybody really... You were in 2006 but I don't think it was-- I was working on the data centralization program for the NHS at that point.
Vim: Oh, well.
Tim: I’m guilty [chuckles] you know? Although what we were interested in was the idea that GPs could remotely access hospital data about their patients. Which is actually really useful.
Vim: Yeah, definitely. And it has been through the pandemic. But, so you can do a request for information on your own? You can ask for your dataset to be given to you? Like what data do you hold on me as an individual from the NHS.
Tim: Oh, I think yeah. You can see your patient record. I don't know this, this isn't my field, but from memory you can see your own patient record. What I don't think you could see is how it's been used. Like, if your GP signed up. I mean, the way it used to work is your GP would sign up with a local university who were doing a data search on the average lifespan of people with whatever and your GP could decide to put your anonymized data into that trial or that research project. I think what's happening is that decision making is now being centralized so the NHSX can say, "Yeah, we want to do an AI project with deep mind to try and figure out what genetic markers make long COVID happen." Which, you know, is something one wants to have done.
Vim: Yeah, yeah. It's the only way of getting there, you know?
Tim: Yeah.
Vim: It's interesting. I'm working on a citizen-led security standards project and part of our methodology is to build utopia dystopia views of the future and concern. And one of the models that we've created is a future where your GP offers you a new medicine but you have no idea why. The premise is they're using your data to work with pharmaceuticals to scan your data and say this is the medicine for them. It's interesting that that's not that far out of the rounds of reality of what's happening now.
Tim: Yeah. I guess you still have the option to say no, I don't want this.
Vim: Yeah. If you don't know how it's come about, are you informed enough to be able to say no?
Tim: Are you informed enough to be able to say yes? I mean, it's either side of that, isn't it?
Vim: Yeah.
Tim: I think this stuff is complicated and I don't know if we're getting better. In theory you'd think that we're getting better at dealing with complexity, but I'm not sure we are.
Vim: [laughs] No, we just talk about it. [laughter]
Tim: Well, yeah. That's a start, isn't it?
Vim: Yeah, or maybe I just complain about it. I think the problem, for me, is these decisions can often take so long to make that by the time the decision is made... It's almost like the bureaucracy kills the conversation and by the time it's open for that conversation, the bureaucracy has already made the decisions. Because that's how that system works and so it’s really difficult to know when you can have input and influence.
Tim: I totally, totally, totally agree with that. I think understanding how these systems work and understanding where the push that you can make a difference is really interesting. This is why I spend time in the Standards bodies, because I am able in a very small way to influence those decisions at potentially quite an early stage. That means that it may take 5 years or hopefully shorter but you make a decision, you influence a decision and then a few years later that's what 2 billion people are using. The small amount of influence I had over the technology we're using now to make this recording is still there, and it's out there. That was a couple of decisions that I’ve made that I'm actually quite proud of, that I had some influence over that are in this. That's 5 years/6 years after we had those conversations, but it's finally turned out to matter. It is a long run, it's a very long run.
Vim: Yeah.
Tim: I don't know how we get better at this although I do think that the world is changing faster than it used to, so what used to take 5 years to evolve maybe only takes 1 or 2 now, I don't know.
Vim: Yeah, it happens faster. There's like two opposite ends of the spectrum. There's a technology space where things move so quickly that there's no time to sit and think about impacts concerning decision-making inclusivity, then there's the polar opposite side where the levels of bureaucracy prevent those same things from happening. And for me, there's no middle ground yet of a nice medium pace change where people are included and there's an opportunity to change the outcome and all of that kind of stuff.
Tim: Don't you think we're in that space with climate change?
Vimla Panton: No, because I think we're a little bit far too late to be able to make the change.
Tim: What I'm saying is that that's a change that's too big for government to do on its own. What we're going to do for climate change, whatever it ends up being, is going to be something that both government and the population agree to do. Because it's like neither of those two is able to do this change on its own, and it's not even as if a single government can.
Vim: No.
Tim: So, I think we are in that. Something's going to have to move and it's going to move quite fast whether we like it or not. But it is amenable to change, definitely amenable to change. Do we get a-- We need a picture of that, of an animal in this. We've missed out on the animal picture stuff.
Vim: [laughs] Yeah, the dog has left the room to go and bark.
Tim: That's a shame because otherwise we could have included it, but anyway.
Vim: Yeah.
Tim: Yeah, let me just do a screenshot. So yeah, I think that that's an interesting space to see that isn't in the middle. It isn't going to be instantaneous and it's also not going to be so slow that it doesn't happen like that.
Vim: Well, if any of the decisions over the last decade or anything to go by, it will be slow and bureaucratic. Because it's not the other player, and that is private organizations. It's community, government, and business that needs that. It’s the whole population that has to work together in order to make a change to the climate.
Tim: Far be it for me to be the optimist here but... [Vimla laughs]
Vim: Isn’t it? [unintelligible 00:31:06] had a slow roll of us, haven’t we?
Tim: [Laughs] It's weird, isn't it? But now I do think that… I mean, not enough and not quick enough and all of that, but some amazing changes have happened. Like, if you look at the-- there's a site which I'll drop in the links called something like gridwatch.templar.co.uk that shows the electricity mix, and it's astonishing! Like today, there'll be no solar but there'll be a lot of wind. 30% of the UK’s electricity generation today will be wind and 10% will be nuclear, so less than half is fossil probably today. And that is like--
Vim: That is significant.
Tim: I didn't dream that would happen. 15 years ago I would have told you were mad if you'd said that.
Vim: Yeah.
Tim: And the whole business with the light bulbs, that just happened! And electric cars. They were a dream, and now I've got one that's-- whatever it is-- 7 years old.
Vim: Yeah. Maybe it's just me being the pessimist and like you said, not celebrating the success that we have had. Because in the face of climate disaster it doesn't fill enough. Look at the weather today which is raining, and miserable, and horrible compared to this time last year where it was glorious sunshine and we were having heat wave. I don't know, the optimism does drain out with me. But yeah, the electric cars are great and so is the energy use and all of this stuff but has it changed anything?
Tim: Oh, if you're asking me whether that's quick enough, probably not. But if you're asking me whether it's quicker than I thought was even conceivably possible, I'd say yes. I'm astonished how fast that's happened. I think we can do things quite quickly. We don't always, maybe not quickly enough, but there are changes that we can make that are quite fast. So, we leave it on an optimistic note?
Vim: Yeah, let's do that. [Laughs]
Tim: Okay, cool. Let me press this button.