Five Things: June 6, 2024

This is my bi-weekly “newsletter,” delivered straight to subscribers‘ inbox (with at least one guaranteed typo I’ll catch after hitting send!), as requested at some point in the past. If it’s not your thing, don’t hesitate to unsubscribe; no hard feelings! If you’re enjoying it, though, drop a comment on the blog, on the socials, or reply to the email.

NOTE: I spent the day in Manhattan on Tuesday catching up with several friends (separately) over coffee, lunch, drinks, and dinner. I caught the 745am train in and the 1045pm train home — something I haven’t done since 2019 — and my Garmin counted 24,008 steps, including a pleasant afternoon walk up The High Line. I was exhausted by the time I finally got home shortly before midnight, exhausted when I woke up, and am still exhausted as I put this newsletter together… As a result, it’s lighter than usual on commentary, but each linked article is an insightful must-read, so please do click through and read them!


Should I Feel Guilty For Checking Out A Book Instead Of Buying It? | Brittany Wong

As a bookseller, Morgan knows how expensive books are (a new hardback can set you back $30) and considers books a luxury. Given how cost-prohibitive collecting books can be, she’s thankful libraries exist. Plus, she said, given how long the wait lists can be for both digital and hard copies of books, even dedicated library readers buy books every so often rather than wait 10 weeks for a popular book.

I definitely scanned this article quickly on my first read to see if any authors would go on the record complaining about libraries and was actually surprised they didn’t find one because they’re definitely out there, along with their agents, and they periodically reveal themselves on social media. (They do inexplicably link to a 2013 story about a UK author who publicly declared libraries were no longer relevant because we have public schools…??!?)

The article’s mostly a familiar rehash for anyone who’s paid attention to the topic since Macmillan’s infamous pre-pandemic stumble, and while it’s generally positive, there’s a weird suggestion that library borrowers should recommend and review books to offset the lack of a direct sale, which is pretty obnoxious. When a multi-billion-dollar industry’s core marketing strategy is effectively, “Like and subscribe! It helps the algorithm.” — it’s no wonder “AI” is gaining traction!

tldr: Libraries pay for books and routinely market them for free. Library patrons pay taxes (directly and indirectly) that support the libraries in their communities. Stop treating libraries like pirates, and let readers be readers!


AI’s Trust Problem | Bhaskar Chakravorti

While much of the attention has been on the impressive gains in AI performance, Americans are also increasingly pessimistic about AI’s impact. Worldwide, trust in AI companies has fallen, and in the U.S., the drop has been even more dramatic. Granted, many tech companies and commentators suggest you can build AI trust quickly and easily, but let’s not kid ourselves; a stubborn AI trust gap persists. And it’s here to stay.

I just wrote my own hot take on “AI” and the inevitability myth, specifically in marketing, and Chakravorti’s long and insightful essay identifies and clarifies 12 notable risks that anyone engaging (or grappling) with it should consider.

The three most compelling for me are: “The black box problem” (full transparency is probably impossible in many cases); “Bias concerns” (arguably the most downplayed risk because it doesn’t affect the predominantly white male true believers); and “State overreach” (combine the other two with pre-existing conditions of surveillance capitalism and you have a recipe for predictable misuse).

Even if you truly believe the train has left the station, that doesn’t mean it will inevitably reach its pre-ordained destination. Trains can be rerouted, stopped, or if necessary, derailed.


What’s in a byline? For Hoodline’s AI-generated local news, everything — and nothing | Neel Dhanesha

The front page of Hoodline San Francisco is filled with articles by “Leticia Ruiz,” “Nina Singh-Hudson,” “Eileen Vargas,” “Eric Tanaka,” and “Tony Ng.” A diverse-sounding bunch, much like the population of San Francisco itself! A shame, then, that they’re not real.

Of course, since we live in the stupidest timeline, early examples of “AI” in action are going to be less SkyNet, more pizza glue. And because online journalism doesn’t have enough problems with credibility and trust as we hit the home stretch of another polarizing election cycle, websites creating fake (but diverse!) bylines for poorly edited (if at all!) AI-generated news articles are just another reason to vote for Team Asteroid in November.



The Latest Digital Divide: Systems Thinking vs. Misinformation and Malfeasance | Jessamyn West

You like to think that a company wouldn’t make something intentionally complicated just so it could sell you a solution, but in this business environment, it might. And stuck in the middle of it are the users, the ones who aren’t sure which of their photos are going into the cloud, what is taking up the space in their email or on their phone, or which tech tools are private enough for their own personal comfort level.

West is one my favorite librarians, frequently sharing insightful vignettes about the various ways people in her community rely on libraries, offering a perspective of rural life that I’d never get to experience myself. This essay on the digital divide includes a few similar insights, while zooming out to examine why some of those gaps persist, and who benefits from it.

When you start looking at systems rather than symptoms, the picture gets a lot clearer.


Systems: The Purpose of a System is What It Does | Anil Dash

A potential negative aspect of understanding that the purpose of a system is what it does, is that we are then burdened with the horrible but hopefully galvanizing knowledge of this reality. For example, when our carceral system causes innocent people to be held in torturous or even deadly conditions because they could not afford bail, we must understand that this is the system working correctly. It is doing the thing it is designed to do.

Dash isn’t explicitly talking about “AI” here, but everything we’re seeing with how it’s aggressively being force-fed into everything, everywhere, all at once, combined with the disingenuous myth of inevitability — is a perfect example of his thesis: the system is doing what it’s designed to do.

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