Leonard Cortana on why France’s entry for the Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards, Les Misérables, should be inscribed in the history of French cinema:
“The media described the film with the otherwise common expression "film coup-de-poing" (punch film) both allegories for the violence and the ephemeral. How can we transform these films often used as "booster shots" into a long-lasting dialogue where the civil society, whistleblowers and activists like Sihame Assbague and Assa Traoré take a significant part in the debate to highlight the process of criminalization of the victims in order to eliminate this systematic violence, made banal in our contemporary society? ”
evelyn douek reviews a recent white paper from Facebook on online content moderation.
“Regulation is coming, and almost everyone—including Facebook—now seems to accept this is a good thing,” says douek. “But two wrongs do not make a right, and regulators themselves should not move fast and break things. The questions and concerns that Facebook raises in this white paper are real and difficult, and regulators should take them seriously.”
Elizabeth Renieris weighed in on why we should not celebrate Google's move to remove third-party cookies from Chrome.
“They’re not really changing underlying tactics [of how they track us], they’re just channeling it all through Google,” Renieris said. “How privacy-preserving is this, actually? What’s Google’s motivation for doing this? Is it to preserve privacy? Potentially, but probably not.”
On Monday, the manager of Facebook’s Global Affairs and Governance team joined BKC's Jonathan Zittrain, Evelyn Douek, and Julie Owono to answer questions about its new Oversight Board.
BKC faculty associate Jennifer Jenkins on the differences between European and US copyright law when it comes to the rights of musicians:
“[In the US,] after 35 years, eligible authors can serve notice and get their rights back. At the end of the day, they give the artist a second bite of the apple.”
How can putting marginalized people at the very center of design and technology change the world for the better? Sasha Costanza-Chock discusses their book, Design Justice.
Alex Stamos discusses his experience at Facebook handling 2016 election interference, as well as his work on cybersecurity, disinformation, and end-to-end encryption with evelyn douek and Kate Klonick.
Julie Owono was recently quoted in leading French Magazine L'Express about a social media tax, proposed by a French MP, to fight against hate speech online.
Like in Uganda, the measure wouldn't be efficient, and would reinforce censorship : “in the face of such a restrictive measure, the use of VPNs would increase considerably.”
Early on in my career as a software developer I thought my primary contribution was writing code. After all, software engineers are paid to ship software and writing code is a key component of that. It took several years for me to realize that there are numerous other contributions that go into shipping software (if not, why are there managers, designers, product managers, salespeople, etc.?). I slowly came to see myself less as a coder and more as a problem solver. Sometimes the problem could be solved by writing code while other times the solution didn’t involve code at all.
Once I realized my value as a problem solver, I set out to determine the most efficient way to address problems as they occurred. Moving into a tech lead position immediately thrust me into the middle of numerous ongoing daily problems. I had to figure out some way to act decisively, prioritize effectively, and solve as many problems as possible.
Eventually, I settled on a list of questions I would ask myself for each problem as it arose. I found that asking these questions, in order, helped me make the best decision possible:
- Is this really a problem?
- Does the problem need to be solved?
- Does the problem need to be solved now?
- Does the problem need to be solved by me?
- Is there a simpler problem I can solve instead?
Each question is designed to reveal something about the problem that allows you to go to the next step, or if you’re lucky, just avoid the problem altogether. There is some nuance to each question, so it’s helpful to describe each in more detail.Is this really a problem?
The first step to addressing any problem is to determine if it actually is a problem, and that requires a definition. For the purposes of this article, I’ll define a problem as anything that leads to an objectively undesirable outcome if not addressed. That means leaving your window open over night when it’s raining is a problem because the inside will get wet and that could potentially ruin your floor, furniture, or other possessions. A solution to the problem prevents the undesirable outcome, so closing the window before you go to bed will prevent your belongings from being ruined.
When in a leadership role, it’s common to receive complaints that sound like problems but are just opinions. For example, I’ve spoken with many software engineers who immediately upon starting a new job or joining a new team feel like the team is doing many things wrong: the framework they are using is wrong; the code style is wrong; the way files are organized is wrong. How will they ever get around to fixing all of these problems? It’s a monumental task.
I ask these software engineers this question: is it a problem or is it just different? In many cases “wrong” just means “not what I’m used to or prefer.” If you can identify that a reported problem is not, in fact, a problem, then you no longer need to spend resources on a solution. A team member being unhappy with the way things are done is not an objectively undesirable outcome. There is nothing inherently problematic with disagreements on a team. If you’re able to determine that a problem is not a problem, then you can move on to other tasks.Does the problem need to be solved?
After you’ve determined that there is a problem, then next step is to determine if the problem needs to be solved. A problem doesn’t need to be solved if the undesirable outcome is tolerable and either constant or slow growing. For example, if a section of a web application is used by only admins (typically five or fewer people) and is slower to load than the rest of the application, you could determine that’s something you’re okay with. The problem is narrowly contained and affects a small number of people on the rare occasion that they use it. While it would be nice to solve the problem, it’s not required and the downside is small enough that not addressing it is unlikely to lead to bigger problems down the road. Another way to ask this question is, “what happens if the problem is never solved?” If the answer is, “not much,” then it might be okay to not solve the problem.Does the problem need to be solved now?
If you have a problem that needs to be solved, then the next question is to determine whether it needs to be solved now or if it can wait until later. Some problems are obviously urgent and need to be addressed immediately: the site is down, the application crashes whenever someone uses it, and so on. These problems need to be addressed because the undesirable outcome is immediate, ongoing, and likely to grow: the longer the site is down, the more money the company loses; the more times the application crashes, the more likely a customer will use a competitor.
Equally important is to determine if solving the problem can be deferred. There are a surprising number of non-urgent problems that bubble up to leadership. These are problems that need to be solved eventually but not immediately. The most common problem in software that fits this description is technical debt. Technical debt is any part of your application (or related infrastructure) that is not performing as well as it should. It’s something that will not cause a significant problem today or tomorrow, but it will eventually. In my experience, tech debt is rarely addressed until it becomes an emergency (which is too late). However, tech debt isn’t something that everything else should be dropped to address. It falls into that middle area where it shouldn’t be done today but definitely needs to get done.
If a problem doesn’t have to be addressed now, it’s usually a good idea to defer it. By defer it, I mean plan to address it in the future, not avoid doing anything about it. If now is not the right time to solve the problem then decide when is: in a week, a month, six months? Put it on your calendar or task management system so you won’t lose track of it. Another way to ask this question is, “is the problem urgent?”Does the problem need to be solved by me?
This question is most applicable to anyone in a leadership position but could also apply to anyone who already has too many tasks to complete. Is this problem something that requires special skills only you possess, or is it possible someone else could complete the task?
This is a question I adapted from advice one mentor gave me. I was complaining about how I just seemed to be collecting tasks and couldn’t keep up. He said I should ask myself, “is this a Nicholas problem?” There were certain things only I knew how to do and those were the things I should be focusing. Anything else should be delegated to someone else. Another important tip he gave me: just because you can do something faster than someone else doesn’t mean you should do it yourself. For most non-urgent tasks, it doesn’t matter if it is completed in one day or two.
So if the problem can be solved by someone else, and you’re either a leader or already have too much work, then delegate.Is there an easier problem I can solve instead?
The final step in the process once you’ve determined that there’s an urgent problem that you need to solve personally is to determine if there’s an easier problem to solve. The key is that the easier problem must give you the same or a similar outcome to the original problem while saving time (or other resources).
I asked for the raw data from the customer feedback sessions to see if I could figure out what the problem was that resizable columns would solve. In turned out no customers had asked for resizable columns (the product manager had inferred this request from the complaints). Instead, they were complaining that they couldn’t get the new My Yahoo! page to look like their old My Yahoo! page. We had created completely new layouts that didn’t match the old layouts, but it turned out people really liked the old layouts. This allowed us to focus on an easier problem: recreating the old layouts.
So, we spent a little time recreating the old layouts in the new page and re-ran the customer sessions. People were delighted that the new page now looked very similar to the old page. By solving the easier problem, we saved a lot of development time and the customers ended up just as happy.
There isn’t always an easier problem to solve, but it’s worth taking a moment to check whenever a problem seems particularly large or difficult.Conclusion
These five questions have become the basis for my problem-solving approach not just in my work, but in my life in general. Going through these questions whenever presented with a problem has made me a more efficient problem solver and, in general, happier with the outcomes. Can’t calculate a 15% tip for my waiter? I calculate 20% instead (or 10% if I’m displeased with the service). My high school alumni office keeps sending me notices that I’m not a verified alumnus? That’s not a problem I need to solve. I need to get a new driver’s license if I want to travel within the United States? That’s a problem I need to address this year, but not right now.
There are many ways to approach problem solving, and I’m not sure my approach will work for everyone. What I do know is that having an approach to solving problems is better than not having any approach. Life is filled with problems, small and large, that you’ll face every day. Having a clearly defined, repeatable strategy is the easiest way to make problem solving more tolerable.
Learning from our past and reevaluating our present, a recent World Affairs Council event opened discussion for what’s next in the world of information access.
Judith Donath, a BKC advisor, urged those in attendance to identify “cause vs. blame” when talking about the internet. Beyond external evaluation, she said a deeper question for everyone to consider is why the truth is important to their own self interest. She highlighted the contradiction of people using the internet not to search for scientific truth, but to seek validation of what they believe, or want to believe.
An overview of smart cities and whether they can be forces for good.
“Smart cities and their protagonists are strong, and their incentives are high; the cards are stacked in their favor, including the self-logic of technological development. Nevertheless, creative resistance is not futile, as there are strong tail-winds blowing with people and earth, of dignity and inclusion.”
Jessica Fjeld, lead author of the recent BKC publication Principled Artificial Intelligence, answered questions about the report and its main takeaways.
“That there was such a convergence around general themes. When we started, there were principles documents coming out hot and heavy from the private sector, governments, and advocacy groups”
As Amazon expands its reign over e-commerce and gets more aggressive about rooting out counterfeiting, it’s taking a more active role in judging intellectual property disputes.
“Amazon, with its size, now substitutes for government in a lot of what it does,” said BKC director Rebecca Tushnet. “It is being asked to run a judicial system, without the commitments to transparency and precedent of a real judicial system.”
Dariusz Jemielniak on a Chinese app that tracks the spread of the coronavirus.
“There’s a very high possibility that people will panic,” Jemielniak said. “I don’t think this is a good thing. This is a bad thing. They are fearmongering through the app.”
evelyn douek urges transparency and accountability in industry-wide content removal decisions:
“Content cartel creep is at least in part an implicit acknowledgment that the relationship between economic competition in the platform market and a healthy public sphere is complicated.”
Ifeoma Ajunwa testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor on February 5, emphasizing the need to regulate automated hiring systems.
Technology has created “the quantified worker,” Ajunwa said. “Yet there are no federal laws to protect workers from excessive surveillance.”
J. Nathan Matias blogs about Ethan Zuckerman’s talk at Cornell.
“Right now, Ethan says, we have a massive failure of imagination. We wrongly assume that the internet will be Facebook and Google forever,” Matias writes. “Instead, Ethan tells us that we’re in the early stages of a long drama. If we want the internet to be good for society, we still have the chance to imagine something better.”
Danielle Citron devised an eight-point plan for political campaigns to protect against fabricated video and audio. Citron spoke to BU Today about her plan, her work with Facebook and Twitter, and the current presidential election.
“[There’s] a distinct possibility that hostile state actors are going to disrupt the 2020 election, manufacturing deepfakes to sow discord,” Citron says.
Taylor Lorenz shares her views on “Ok Boomer,” the “flattening” of politics by social media and the internet, and the causes of the United States’ internet regulation vacuum.
Ifeoma Ajunwa testified in Congress on automated hiring, workplace surveillance, and genetic testing as part of workplace wellness programs.