ChinAI #146: Prof. Dai Jinhua on Information Cocoons

Plus, a dip into knowledge-based video content on Bilibili

Greetings from a world where…

I buy my coffee and I go

Set my sights

On only what I need to know

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***Answers to last week’s WuDao Turing Test: The top answers were WuDao-generated. Thanks to everyone who guessed!

The Bad Intentions in Personalized Recommendations?

Context: Most readers have heard about China’s incredible boom in short videos (see, e.g., Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok). Another trend, perhaps less recognized, is that platforms like Douyin and Bilibili are expanding to longer knowledge-based video content. This week’s translation, a Bilibili video (in Mandarin), features an interview with Dai Jinhua, a Peking University professor who teaches women’s studies, cultural studies, and film. She’s one of China’s “most influential academic and public intellectuals.” In this 7 min. video posted last week (now up to 225,000 views), she discusses her online shopping habits, quotes Greta Gerwig, and shares her concerns about big data and recommendation systems.

Full Translation:

Intro has some light-hearted bloopers, including Prof. Dai accidentally addressing another platform (instead of Bilibili). She also says: I've replied too seriously again, my style is not easygoing enough. Dai also introduces herself as a lifelong lover of film and expresses her excitement at sharing ideas about social and cultural issues with young friends on new media platforms like Bilibili.

Substantive interview content starts here:

QUESTION: Prof. Dai, are you shopping online?

DAI: I'm a midnight shopaholic

QUESTION: Then when you see that the products, movies, music, or books recommended to you are all your favorite types, will you read those recommendations or will you deliberately avoid them?

DAI: I will look at the recommendations but they often backfire. I would suspect that they have bad intentions (laughs at herself).

QUESTION: Do we need to fear big data?

DAI: My feeling is that we don’t have to fear big data. What I’m talking about is that we don’t have to fear big data as a new potential social method.* As a method of fetching social information, it has been meaningful and effective to date. Then this technological advancement is applied to the collection of social information and the determination of social conditions

I thought this was a very interesting development and step forward, but regarding us as individuals, this big data has to a large extent begun to control social life. Social information controls the channels through which we obtain information and establishes a connection between us and society.

Then when we allow our imaginations to unfold, the word I would probably use is vigilance (警惕). I hope everyone will be alert to all kinds of expressions that appear in the name of big data. I hope everyone will be wary of the emergence of big data as a means of forming societal surveillance. I hope everyone is wary of the limitations imposed by big data on our lives. That is, there’s that fashionable term that everyone uses called "information cocoons."

An info box pops up on screen: Information Cocoons [信息茧房] refers to the phenomenon that people are habitually guided by their own interests in the area of ​​information that people pay attention to, thus shackling their lives in a "cocoon" like a silkworm cocoon

In fact, in my understanding, the information cocoon has at least two aspects that will create our problems. In one aspect, the so-called information cocoon is that we set our own limits within its range of choices because we try to pursue a kind of knowledge that we are familiar with. Then, our pursuit of knowledge is not to gain knowledge and development. We pursue knowledge for repetition, verification, and assurances of safety. At this time, we have formed an information cocoon by ourselves because we don’t want to cut into knowledge we don’t know. We don’t want to intersect with online information that makes us unhappy.

This is one aspect. At this time, I say that no matter what big data tells you, we still have to work hard to explore, to obtain knowledge. But on the other hand, what kind of information is delivered based on big data, like personalized customization — these so-called special projects that supposedly serve you. Yet in fact, they must inevitably delineate a boundary. The inevitably mark out a limit. This inevitably make us willing to become like the Monkey King sleeping peacefully in a small position in the hands of the Buddha.

We sleep in that small position and think we possess the whole world. We think that the world is our comfortable rocking chair.

But the world does not become better because we live safely in the information cocoon, nor because we have constructed this information cocoon by ourselves. Everything in the world is happening. There are many catastrophic things happening. We need to know about and recognize them.

Besides, I have a judgment that may be a bit alarmist, but I want to share it with the young friends here. I think that human civilization has experienced this information revolution and then the whole world has undergone drastic changes, and then globalization via the Internet and Internet of Things has become the reality of our daily lives. When this becomes such a real structural existence that each of us really feels, in fact, our old knowledge is still outdated. We have no precedent to cite. We cannot use our old knowledge to explain what is happening around us.

At a time when we should be asking and pursuing questions, and exploring, this type of safe knowledge, this type of omnipotent knowledge, this type of comfortable generation of knowledge is actually a structure of self-hypnosis and self-suggestion, because no matter how much we want our safe life in a limited space, it is difficult for us to make it a reality.

In the end, we have to face a reality that is radically changing, challenging, and cruel. So in this sense I say be vigilant of the big data moniker. Be wary of the boundaries that big data defines for us. Let's ask questions together. Let's explore together. Let's meet challenges together and try to let us smash obstacles instead of allowing obstacles to smash us.

QUESTION: Do you have any anxiety about information overload [信息过载]?

DAI: As for information overload, I was anxious, but then I found out that I learn new knowledge relatively fast. For example, I understand the meaning behind the slang words my students use, and I think it’s not difficult to communicate with them in this language. That’s actually the easiest part.

What you are using information overload to describe: the critical part of that is not the information overload, the critical part is the constant rotation. The critical thing about such rapid changes is that everyone seeks to chase fashion. And every one of our questions is answered by searching for answers through search engines. So we don’t feel that there is another process in which we calm down and think about how we find answers through reading. We get the standard answer in a few seconds online, and we think that our question was answered.

So I think this is really related to our topic. The director of Lady Bird said that we must be bored to a certain extent before we can achieve something (translator note: possible reference to the fifth Greta Gerwig quote in this link).

At first, that sentence startled me.

I finally went to read a bit more before I understood that the so-called boredom she’s talking about is not the daily boredoms we’ve all experienced.* It’s the boredom in looking for an answer in our minds for an instant and thinking that we’ve arrived.

We don’t have the kind of process that lets thoughts sweep (掠过)* past our minds. Some questions are gradually formed in our hearts. I think this is the bigger problem. After we get the answer quickly, we think we have solved the problem. Actually the question is much bigger and more complicated than that answer.

*= uncertain about my translation in this area. For those interested in reading the original Chinese, here’s my attempted transcription of the video in this Google doc link.

ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)

Jeff should-read: After the Post–Cold War — The Future of Chinese History

Blurb from Duke University Press: “In After the Post–Cold War eminent Chinese cultural critic Dai Jinhua interrogates history, memory, and the future of China as a global economic power in relation to its socialist past, profoundly shaped by the Cold War. Drawing on Marxism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, and feminist theory, Dai examines recent Chinese films that erase the country’s socialist history to show how such erasure resignifies socialism’s past as failure and thus forecloses the imagining of a future beyond that of globalized capitalism. She outlines the tension between China’s embrace of the free market and a regime dependent on a socialist imprimatur. She also offers a genealogy of China’s transformation from a source of revolutionary power into a fountainhead of globalized modernity. This narrative, Dai contends, leaves little hope of moving from the capitalist degradation of the present into a radical future that might offer a more socially just world.”

Must-read: Standards Bearer? A Case Study of China’s Leadership in Autonomous Vehicle Standards

In an analysis for MacroPolo earlier this month, Matt Sheehan evaluates claims about growing Chinese influence in standard-setting organizations (SSOs) by “getting in the weeds of actual SSOs writing specific technical standards.” He drills in on a working group on test scenarios for autonomous vehicles — WG 9 in an ISO committee — which marks “the first time that China convened a WG on auto standards at the ISO.” This case study provides a nuanced take on a number of important issues, including a rejoinder to the more alarmist narratives of Chinese dominance in SSOs and a multidimensional view of the influence of the Chinese government bureaucracy in engaging with international SSOs.

Should-read: Thread filled with survey papers in machine learning and NLP field

Should-read: AI Innovation Zones in China

By Sofia Baruzzi for AmCham China: “On February 20, 2021, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) issued a circular to support the creation of five new AI innovation zones. This will raise the total to eight, as three of such zones are presently set up in Shanghai (Pudong New Area), Shenzhen, and Jinan-Qingdao. The new AI innovation zones include Beijing, Tianjin (Binhai New District), Hangzhou, Guangzhou, and Chengdu. Each of them will be built to pursue a specific purpose, as explained directly by the MIIT’s circular.”

Article contains a nifty table that summarizes the key activities in each of the new zones.

Thank you for reading and engaging.

These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Predoctoral Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, sponsored by Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

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