ChinAI #157: Resistance in an Algorithmic Society

The roundabout tactics of the young

Greetings from a world where…

a wily hare has three burrows (狡兔三窟)

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Feature Translation: The Young People Resisting Against Algorithms

Context: In the second quarter of 2021, average daily app usage time among Chinese netizens reached 5.1 hours, an increase of 24 minutes from the same period in 2019. As algorithms invade daily life — from suspected eavesdropping to addiction via endless recommendation spirals — a group of ordinary people are determined to contend with the invisible system. This week’s article (link to original Mandarin text) comes from Truman Story (真实故事计划), a platform for creating and sharing nonfiction stories.

Key Takeaways:

The article delves into the stories of people in a Douban group for “Anti-Technology Dependence [反技术依赖]”. Started in May of this year, the group has grown to nearly 16,000 members. Douban probably ranks the highest among Chinese tech platforms in the ratio of influence to English-language coverage. That definitely applies to ChinAI coverage as well. After reading this article and doing background research, I think I’ve mistakenly neglected discussions on this essential platform.

  • Douban is a sophisticated hybrid of goodreads, IMDB.com, and SoundCloud wrapped up into one platform. On the site, people review books, discuss and rate movies, and share and promote music. They also join groups like the anti-technology dependence group.

  • Douban groups can also be a space for contestation. China Digital Times comments that it “has long been a popular venue for discussion of social issues,” summarizing reporting about a recent crackdown against feminist Douban groups for support of the “6B4T” lifestyle (a pledge not to marry or procreate), which has sparked mass support for the movement from women online, as social media users create new Douban channels.

One of the group members is Xia Xi, someone who has previously done big data analysis and now works with autonomous cars. Every day, she drives about 100km per day in Shanghai to test and fine-tune solutions to “corner cases” (e.g., a deer darts onto the road).

  • She’s very worried about apps eavesdropping on her conversations. Each time her phone updates, she goes back and checks the permissions for all her apps one by one. The article states that, according to a Huxiu video published in May, monitoring conversations is actually not very valuable for digital push marketing but very useful for research on AI voice engines.

  • Xia Xi uses other roundabout tactics (迂回战术) to combat algorithms, including: using a shared account (w/ partner and mother-in-law) for online shopping so that it is difficult for the platform to see the true face of the account owner

Chen Zi is also trying to get away from social platforms and endless waterfalls of personalized content. “A huge amount of information flooded into her life, but she gradually realized that her world had not become bigger because of it.”

  • Instead, she uses RSS feeds to curate her news consumption. She also spends some time to take notes on news and topics she cares about. Her process: “For media platforms such as Weibo, WeChat public accounts, and Douban, she uses them as search tools to collect recent events: first, she goes to Weibo to scan hot searches, find content that explains the ins and outs of the topic; next, she goes to Douban to see everyone's point of view; then, she goes to see if there are any articles in WeChat public accounts that explain the incident clearly.”

  • Article includes a Notion form (image below) where Chen Zi collects notes about current events. You can see that the second row has a check on the last column, which flags the event as something she wants to continue tracking. That particular news event is about boycotts of Chinese female stand-up comedian Yang Li for mocking men.

A’ Bi is the third-year graduate student of Central South University (in Changsha, China) who founded the Douban group on anti-tech dependence. She was inspired to start the group after reading a paper about the work conditions for food delivery workers under algorithmic constraints.

  • She tells about how one group member who uninstalled social media apps “fell into another kind of anxiety” over not being able to keep up-to-date with the hot topics of the time. The author writes, “A’ Bi believes that, for most people, keeping up with current events is not actually necessary in life. What they fear may be being left behind by people around them.”

  • At first, when trying to limit engagement with the virtual world, A’ Bi had to hide her phone to concentrate on reading, studying, and doing crafts. Now, as the author writes, “When she got used to all this, she suddenly felt that time was very long, “slow enough to clearly feel her own existence.”

  • Stan is another Douban group member who only uses the web version of Weibo and Douban. The slower interface — entering the mobile version of Weibo is like pressing a .5x speed button — creates a barrier to use that prevents him from slipping into endless scrolling.

What about you, dear reader? Any roundabout tactics of your own? I deleted Instagram last year and don’t plan on re-installing. Sure, I missed out on some life updates, but I eventually got the details via proper catch-ups in person or on the phone. Next goal is to only check Twitter on a web browser like Stan.

For more stories, see FULL TRANSLATION: The Young People Resisting Against Algorithms

ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)

Should-read: Experts Examine China's Pioneering Draft Algorithm Regulations

Helen Toner, Rogier Creemers, and Paul Triolo provide insightful commentary on the significance of China’s new draft regulations on algorithmic recommendation systems, which were released last month. DigiChina has also translated these draft "Internet Information Service Algorithmic Recommendation Management Provisions" in full.

Should-read: The US is unfairly targeting Chinese scientists over industrial spying, says report

In our continuing series on the botched China Initiative, a new report confirms a lot of what we know already, including higher acquittal and dismissal rates among defendants with Asian names charged by Economic Espionage Act prosecutions than those with Western names. Mike German, fellow at the Brennan Center, sees this as “strong evidence that the Justice Department is levying charges with less evidence, perhaps counting on the bias they’re fomenting with their anti-China rhetoric to get judges and juries to convict anyway.” What stuck out to me though was that this new report also finds that the Justice Department was “more likely to publicize EEA cases that involved defendants with Asian names than EEA cases brought against defendants with Western names: 51% of Western defendants have DOJ press releases, compared with 80% of all Asian defendants and 83% of defendants with Chinese heritage.” Coverage by Eileen Guo for MIT Tech Review.

Should-read: Quasilinguistic neural representations — toward language for intelligent machines

The latest FHI technical report by Eric Drexler.

human intelligence : natural language :: machine intelligence : ___? ____

This fascinating report tries to figure out that blank space.

Should-read: Paper Republic — Chinese Literature in Translation

Paper Republic is a charity dedicated to the promotion of Chinese literature in English translation. Issue 5 of their newsletter provides a great roundup of interviews, reviews, news, extracts, stories, and poems on the topic of Chinese literature in translation.

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 researcher at the Center for the Governance of AI at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

Check out the archive of all past issues here & please subscribe here to support ChinAI under a Guardian/Wikipedia-style tipping model (everyone gets the same content but those who can pay for a subscription will support access for all).

Any suggestions or feedback? Let me know at chinainewsletter@gmail.com or on Twitter at @jjding99