Algorithms and the Filter Bubble, Take 3

[Update 5 April 2015: There is a more recent version of this lecture, presented in September 2014, but it has not been posted yet.]

Title card for "Algorithms and the Filter Bubble"On Monday 7 April, I delivered an updated version of my guest lecture to media students at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), “Algorithms and the Filter Bubble”. And here it is.

What’s it about? It’s about what we now call — this year at least — “big data” and how that’s changing how the media works, just like it’s changing every other part of society.

I cruise through what all this data is, where it’s coming from, who’s collecting it and where it’s going; what advertisers and media companies and others can do with this data; and some speculation about how this might unfold in the future.

There’s links to all the references over the fold, and you can follow along with the slides (PDF). The recording picks up immediately after I was introduced by the course coordinator, Dr Belinda Middleweek. A transcript may or may not follow at some point in the future.

Some people mentioned that last time it was difficult to follow some of the slides, as the PDF file didn’t show how the builds happened, so I may add a video slideshow version at some point too.

The audience was primarily first and second year students at the beginning of their media studies degrees.


[If a transcript ever becomes available, this is where it will appear.]

What was left out at the end

I didn’t keep a close enough eye on the time, which is most unprofessional of me, so I had to drop a couple of things at the end of the lecture. So what did we miss?

My planned closing was to speculate a little more about the implications of all this technology — essentially the material covered in references 26 through 30 below.

When advertisers and newsmakers know all about you, including where you are and what you’re interested in, and when robots become so good that they’re able to tailor news and advertising precisely for your interests and current state of mind — what does that mean for political persuasion, and other kinds of persuasion?

Watch the videos of the robots from the US Naval Research Laboratory responding to everyday human speech. Consider Apple founder Steve Job’s comment that the iTunes Store gives you “freedom from pornography”. Consider than in a world of filter bubbles, some news outlets with a political agenda might want to give you “freedom from confusing thoughts”. After all, Apple has already blocked from their App Store an app that provided information on US military drone strikes.

Just where might this go? As I told the media students at the start of the lecture, they are the ones who will be creating this future for themselves and their descendants, not those of us in the second half of our lives.

Licensing and Re-Use

This work is made available under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. This presentation may be re-used for non-commercial purposes within the terms of the Creative Commons license. The non-commercial and share-alike conditions are required to adhere to the licensing of the imagery used. Please contact me if you require an alternative version. As a minimum, attribution should read: “Source: Stilgherrian.” Online versions must link the word Stilgherrian to the website at

Continue reading “Algorithms and the Filter Bubble, Take 3”

Weekly Wrap 176: Largely largesse, then looming bushfires

Bushfires near me, 1350 AEDT: click to embiggenI’m finding it difficult to switch into that mode where I can concentrate on my writing today. The map above explains why.

I’m at the red marker near Wentworth Falls, and the only two escape routes are the road or railway east towards Sydney or west then north-west towards Lithgow.

The smaller Mt Victoria fire on the left has, remarkably, been contained to much the same boundaries as yesterday, thanks to the hard work and backburning activities of the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS). So far.

The enormous State Mine Fire to the north, however, is growing. The winds, while currently forecast to be relatively mild, are nevertheless pushing the fire in this direction. And while it might look a long way away, given adverse weather conditions a bushfire can travel that distance in mere hours.

Both fires have the potential to reach Wentworth Falls, and earlier this afternoon the RFS chief said that the entire Blue Mountains could end up at risk in the coming days.

While I’m not particularly worried, I do need to stay alert in case the RFS escalates their warnings. I’m already as step ahead: I’ve packed my bug-out bag and have an evacuation plan. But that still makes it difficult to switch off that little stay-alert part of my brain and get down to writing.

So for now, here’s the quick summary of my week Monday 14 to Sunday 20 October 2013, plus the week ahead.

Continue reading “Weekly Wrap 176: Largely largesse, then looming bushfires”

Talking future politics on ABC RN Sunday Extra

ABC logoEarlier this morning I took part in a conversation on ABC Radio National’s Sunday Extra about the future of politics and political campaigning, given new media technologies and suchlike.

Also participating was John McTernan, the British Labour Party political adviser, political strategist and commentator, and latterly the director of communications for Prime Minister Julia Gillard here in Australia. Oddly enough, we seemed to be in furious agreement on many of the issues.

The piece was actually recorded on Friday afternoon. Host Jonathan Green had told us beforehand that he was after a 15-minute chat, but we ended up recording nearly 30 minutes of material. Much editing was done.

Here’s that edited version, as it was broadcast, taken from the full program audio on the item’s web page at the ABC.


This audio is of course ©2013 Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“Corrupted Nerds” podcast goes cloud and big data

Cover art for "Corrupted Nerds: Conversations" episode 3: click for podcast web pageI’ve finally posted a new episode of my Corrupted Nerds podcast, a wide-ranging conversation with Peter Coffee, vice-president and head of platform research at

Cloud computing is inevitable, says Coffee. “Processing power has grown at about 25% per year, and compounded over a period of 30-some years that’s a lot. But bandwidth has grown at about 45% per year over that same period of time.”

So whatever the application, no matter how complex, eventually it’ll be cheaper to process the data somewhere else, and your device — desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone — only has to manage presentation and interaction.

I’d been wanting to catch up with Coffee for two or three years, and we finally managed to arrange being in the same room at the same time. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation, and I think you’ll enjoy it too.

Talking Vote Compass on ABC 666 Canberra

ABC logo“It’s not every day that I find myself agreeing with Senator Eric Abetz,” began my column at ZDNet Australia yesterday. But as the remainder of my 89-word opening sentence reveals, we’re in agreement over just one word: Orwellian.

My concerns were about the data being collected by the ABC’s Vote Compass project, and what it might end up being used for somewhere down the track.

You should probably read the full article for the nuances of what I’m on about, but here’s a taste.

Vote Compass may remove personally identifiable information (PII) from its data before sharing it, but it’d be an easy task for a third-party researcher to re-identify users by cross-matching Vote Compass’ data with their existing databases.

“Scientists have demonstrated they can often ‘re-identify’ or ‘de-anonymise’ individuals hidden in anonymised data with astonishing ease,” wrote law professor Paul Ohm of the University of Colorado in 2009. It’s become easier since, for everyone from Google, Twitter, and Facebook to all the less well-known data mining companies on the planet…

The Orwellian scenario implicit in all this is that secretive data mining companies could match your political beliefs with the psychology of how you make decisions (gleaned from that “What breed of dog are you?” questionnaire you filled out five years ago) and use that to generate (through your favourite news site) a selection of persuasive news stories, opinion pieces, and advertising designed just for you — and you’d never know.

Well this piqued the interest of ABC 666 Canberra, and earlier this morning I was interviewed by presenter Genevieve Jacobs along with the creator of Vote Compass, Cliff van der Linden.

Here’s the audio — and my apologies for it being cut abruptly at the end. Finger trouble on my part. Ms Jacobs was saying that the ABC is satisfied with the precautions being taken by Vote Compass, and I must stress that I have no direct issue with their work either.


The audio is of course ©2013 Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The article I mention is How Companies Learn Your Secrets by Charles Duhigg of The New York Times.

Weekly Wrap 132: Schoolgirls and technological failures

Occluded House: click to embiggenI’d expected things to start winding down before Christmas, which is the traditional thing, but the week of Monday 10 to Sunday 16 December 2012 was actually pretty busy.

I visited North Sydney Girls High School twice. On Monday, to help assess the projects the Year 10 students had done on the smartphone. And on Friday, to record some material for the Patch Monday podcast and to provide some feedback to the students who are making a documentary on the whole thing.

More about all that coming soon — particularly the podcast to be posted on 24 December. [Update 29 December: Here’s that podcast.]

In between, the writing and… oh fuck it, just look at the list.


  • Patch Monday episode 167, “2012 in review: IT vendors prepare for cloudy big-data future”. The first of our year-end conversations is with broadcaster, columnist, and author Paul Wallbank; Kate Carruthers; strategy consultant and founder of Social Innovation; and Jeff Waugh, open-source developer, strategist, and advocate.


Media Appearances

Corporate Largesse

The Week Ahead

So, I mentioned that things are refusing to quieten down before Christmas? Yeah well this is what the week is going to look like unless I force the chloroform-soaked handkerchief into its face…

Monday includes finishing this week’s episode of Patch Monday and recording material for the next.

The remainder of the week is as yet unplanned, because certain things need to be confirmed. But it includes writing two articles for CSO Online and two or three for Crikey, plus more of the client website work that’s been taking up much more time than expected recently. Stay tuned.

[Photo: Occluded House, a view of the Sydney Opera House from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, made all the more special thanks to the advertising laid over the bus window.]