Search Results for: tech

Technology Is as Biased as Its Makers

"Patty Ramge appears dejected as she looks at her Ford Pinto." Bettmann / Getty

Lizzie O’Shea | an excerpt adapted from Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Teach Us about Digital Technology | Verso | May 2019 | 30 minutes (8,211 words)

In the late spring of 1972, Lily Gray was driving her new Ford Pinto on a freeway in Los Angeles, and her thirteen-year-old neighbor, Richard Grimshaw, was in the passenger seat. The car stalled and was struck from behind at around 30 mph. The Pinto burst into flames, killing Gray and seriously injuring Grimshaw. He suffered permanent and disfiguring burns to his face and body, lost several fingers and required multiple surgeries.

Six years later, in Indiana, three teenaged girls died in a Ford Pinto that had been rammed from behind by a van. The body of the car reportedly collapsed “like an accordion,” trapping them inside. The fuel tank ruptured and ignited into a fireball.

Both incidents were the subject of legal proceedings, which now bookend the history of one of the greatest scandals in American consumer history. The claim, made in these cases and most famously in an exposé in Mother Jones by Mike Dowie in 1977, was that Ford had shown a callous recklessness for the lives of its customers. The weakness in the design of the Pinto — which made it susceptible to fuel leaks and hence fires — was known to the company. So too were the potential solutions to the problem. This included a number of possible design alterations, one of which was the insertion of a plastic buffer between the bumper and the fuel tank that would have cost around a dollar. For a variety of reasons, related to costs and the absence of rigorous safety regulations, Ford mass-produced the Pinto without the buffer.

Most galling, Dowie documented through internal memos how at one point the company prepared a cost-benefit analysis of the design process. Burn injuries and burn deaths were assigned a price ($67,000 and $200,000 respectively), and these prices were measured against the costs of implementing various options that could have improved the safety of the Pinto. It turned out to be a monumental miscalculation, but, that aside, the morality of this approach was what captured the public’s attention. “Ford knows the Pinto is a firetrap,” Dowie wrote, “yet it has paid out millions to settle damage suits out of court, and it is prepared to spend millions more lobbying against safety standards.” Read more…

‘Stanford Is the Valley’: On Grooming Tech’s Next Generation

For years, Stanford University has been ground zero for Silicon Valley talent, and employers like Facebook and Google have been considered dream companies to work for. But given the major scandals and constant stream of negative news in the industry, there’s a “growing skepticism of the inherent goodness of technology,” writes Victor Luckerson, and a push at the university to revamp its computer science courses to address the ethical challenges that companies, especially the corporate giants, currently face.

At The Ringer, Luckerson explores Stanford’s ties to Silicon Valley’s biggest employers, the evolution of its computer science curriculum, and its students’ changing views on what it means to work in tech.

As tech comes to dominate an ever-expanding portion of our daily lives, Stanford’s role as an educator of the industry’s engineers and a financier of its startups grows increasingly important. The school may not be responsible for creating our digital world, but it trains the architects. And right now, students are weighing tough decisions about how they plan to make a living in a world that was clearly constructed the wrong way. “To me it seemed super empowering that a line of code that I wrote could be used by millions of people the next day,” says Matthew Sun, a junior majoring in computer science and public policy, who helped organize the Theranos event. “Now we’re realizing that’s maybe not always a good thing.”

Landing a job at a major tech firm is often as much about prestige as passion, which is one reason the CS major has expanded so dramatically. But a company’s tarnished reputation can transfer to its employees. Students debate whether fewer of their peers are actually taking gigs at Facebook, or whether they’re just less vocal in bragging about it. At lunch at a Burmese restaurant on campus, Hall and Sun summed up the transition succinctly. “No one’s like, ‘I got an internship at Uber!’” Sun says. Hall follows up: “They’re like, ‘I got an internship … at Uber …’”

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Longreads Best of 2018: Science and Technology

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in science and tech.

Deborah Blum
Director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT and author of The Poison Squad.

They Know Seas Are Rising, but They’re Not Abandoning Their Beloved Cape Cod (Meera Subramanian, InsideClimate News)

For more than a year, Meera Subramanian has been traversing the country for InsideClimate News, creating a series of vivid and wonderfully balanced portraits of small communities wrestling with the havoc of climate change (whether they admit it or not). This one from October, focused on an increasingly flood-washed area called Blish Point, stands out for me. It’s a tapestry-like picture woven of relentlessly rising seas, threatened homes and businesses, the politics of climate change science, and pure, stubborn human reluctance to give up on a beloved way of coastal living.

Subramanian never raises her voice or treats any viewpoint with less than respect — although she occasionally deftly slides in the scientific arguments that counter climate denialism. She has an elegant way of making both people and place live on the page. The result is a compelling and compassionate narrative in which this one small, beautiful, vanishing strip of Massachusetts, perched on the edge of an encroaching ocean, becomes a microcosm for the much bigger story of change — and its reckoning — now being realized around the world.

Aleszu Bajak
Freelance science journalist, former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and lecturer at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

God Is in the Machine (Carl Miller, The Times Literary Supplement)

Whether it’s your social media feed, prison sentence, or driverless car, our world is increasingly governed by algorithms. The terrifying thing is that we’re quickly approaching a horizon after which no one will be able to explain the code used or decisions made to build these things. This sobering excerpt from Carl Miller’s book, The Death of the Gods: The new global power grab, makes startlingly clear our ignorance of the machines we’ve hacked together. “Truth is dead,” as one programmer tells him. “There is only output.”

Ashley Carman
Tech reporter at The Verge and co-host of Why’d You Push That Button?

How Forlini’s Survives the Instagram Horde (Alex Vadukul, The New York Times)

Instagram has fundamentally changed where and why we visit the places we do. Alex Vadukul’s piece on New York Italian restaurant Forlini’s taps into this idea. He perfectly captures how one establishment’s demographics can change over time. One group of patrons goes for the food and convenience — Forlini’s is next to the courthouse — while another prefers it as a backdrop for Instagram photos. Vadukul includes incredible quotes, too, especially the one in which a Forlini’s owner marvels at how influencers manage to drink alcohol and stay thin. I wonder that, too.

Meehan Crist
Writer-in-residence in biological sciences at Columbia University, previously editor at Nautilus and The Believer.

Survival of the Richest (Douglas Rushcoff, Medium)

There’s a lot of bad science writing about transhumanism − rich people wanting to live forever by uploading their minds to computers, etc. But Rushcoff explores the very human drive for a post-human future by elegantly tracing links between the failures of global capitalism, the growing divide between rich and poor, the ongoing climate catastrophe, and what transhumanism is really all about: escape. It’s the best thinking I’ve read on the subject, and the piece stands out as a clear articulation of how some imagine − or fail to imagine − our digital future. I’m still haunted by the moment when a super-wealthy CEO who has paid to pick Rushcoff’s brain about “the future of technology” asks, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

Surya Mattu
Investigative data journalist at The Markup, research scientist at the Center for Civic Media at MIT.

See No Evil (Miriam Posner, Logic)

Posner’s piece on using software to make supply chains more transparent contains some powerful observations. It elegantly highlights how some characteristic features of modernity have harmed rather than helped this endeavor. Large scale, distributed networks like the internet and global supply chains might be more resilient and efficient than their predecessors, but they are almost impossible to regulate. Similarly, modular information design and the ‘black box architecture’ of software helps scale businesses, but they can also obfuscate the decision making process of those in charge, leading to a lack of accountability.

As we grapple with the challenge of how to hold algorithmic decision-making accountable for the harm it can cause, this piece reminds us that the harm is often a feature of these systems, not a bug.

Neel V. Patel
Science and tech journalist, contributor to The Daily Beast, The Verge, Slate, Wired, Popular Science, Foreign Policy, and New York Magazine.

How Duterte Used Facebook To Fuel the Philippine Drug War (Davey Alba, BuzzFeed News)

Facebook had a bad year, culminating most damningly in a New York Times’ report in November that showed the company’s inability to safeguard the platform from nefarious parties trying to influence the 2016 election, as well as its unwillingness to take responsibility and make fixes. But the insidiousness of Facebook in the U.S. dwarfs what’s happening overseas. Davey Alba, writing for BuzzFeed News, illustrates how Rodrigo Duterte and his autocratic regime in the Philippines leveraged the platform to disseminate false news and propaganda, exacerbating the carnage inflicted by his war on drugs and dismantling many of the country’s democratic structures. It’s a terrifying example of what happens when our biggest fears of the unregulated sprawl of Facebook are realized.

Catherine Cusick
Audience editor, Longreads

Can Dirt Save the Earth? (Moises Velasquez-Manoff, The New York Times Magazine)

Readers may be more familiar with Nathaniel Rich’s historic New York Times Magazine story from this summer, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, than with this epic piece on dirt that came out back in April, but Moises Velasquez-Manoff literally redefined on-the-ground reporting — on soil itself. This story helped me dust off all of my murky grade school memories of nutrient cycles while teaching me anew why these basic, natural processes are so relevant to every sustainable challenge we face. Maybe I’m just a fan of solarpunk, but I love reading about known, practical mitigation methods that are worth doing anyway, even past all of our many missed opportunities and catastrophic points of no return. Carbon farming may not be enough, but what it can do might still be miraculous. Stories that neither sugarcoat real options nor deny that any exist at least give us some time back — if not enough for a full second chance, then enough to do something more meaningful, ultimately, than wait.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2018 year-end collection.

Not Quite Democracy: Lucie Greene on the Civic Aspirations of Tech Giants

Bettmann / Getty

Bradley Babendir | Longreads | September 2018 | 12 minutes (3,248 words)


At this point it seems self-evident that as the major technology companies like Facebook, Uber and Google continue to grow, they are gaining more influence over public life, while the ability of regular consumers or even governments to push back is diminishing. In Silicon States: The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future, a new book by Lucie Greene, the past and future consequences of this rapid change are laid out, and there’s plenty of bad news, from the decline of journalism to the rise of gender inequality, from endangered democracy at home to the new “tech imperialism” abroad.

Greene is a futurist for the in-house think tank at J. Walter Thompson, a historic advertising agency that is now a marketing communications company and a subsidiary of a multinational conglomerate, which has large and likewise historic accounts such as Unilever, Kraft, Nestlé and Kellog’s. Her professional focus is, as she put it, “connecting emerging cultural change in consumer sentiment to brand strategy” — that is, concerned more with stock futures than science fiction ones, and not typically the vantage point of someone you would expect to become a Cassandra warning against the deleterious effects of an entire industry on our civic life. Indeed, one could argue that throughout the 20th century and up to the present day, some of her company’s clients, or similar large multinantionals, have engaged in a great deal of political manipulation. But her argument — that the tenor of the tech companies’ rhetoric and goals are different, somehow more all-encompassing — is a compelling one. The book is a bracing read, and arguably her expertise makes her well-suited to write insightfully about the biggest brands with the most consumers.

Silicon States is a book fundamentally about the danger of concentrating so much power in so few hands. We spoke by phone about the people who have amassed huge amounts of wealth, the companies they run, what they’re doing with their money, and why they’re doing it. Read more…

Can This Tech Company’s Digital Border Wall Secure it More Government Defense Contracts?

AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File

Building a physical wall along the U.S.-Mexican border threatens human beings and entire ecosystems, and it signals America’s increasing nationalistic isolationism. To head Trump’s call to “build a wall,” new tech company Anduril Industries is testing a digital border wall that mixes virtual reality with radar and cameras to monitor human movement. So far the Lattice system works. If the Department of Homeland Security approves it, Anduril hopes to use this project to do what few companies in Silicon Valley do: become a major player in the defense industry. So who are the people behind the company?

For Wired, Steven Levy explains how Lattice works and spends time with Anduril’s controversial co-founder Palmer Luckey and others inside the company’s California headquarters to see what they’re about. Lattice isn’t the first attempt to secure the U.S. border electronically, but its cost and relative simplicity make it one of the most promising. Backed by the pro-Trump venture capitalist Peter Thiel ─ the billionaire who bought land in New Zealand to survive the end times ─ Anduril’s political leanings bring its ambitions and projects into question.

Meanwhile, Luckey’s political activities had made him the object of tech-press scorn. News reports claimed that Luckey was involved in an alt-right group called Nimble America, paying for billboards ripping Hillary Clinton as “Too Big to Jail” and allegedly penning vicious Reddit posts for the group. On his public Facebook page, he denied many of the allegations but confirmed that he donated $10,000 to Nimble America because he “thought the organization had fresh ideas on how to communicate with young voters.” He apologized for “negatively impacting the perception of Oculus and its partners.” When asked about this now, the normally buoyant Luckey drops his smile and chooses his words carefully, claiming that his politics are misunderstood. “The alt-right, as it exists, as it’s defined, I do not support, never have,” he says. He describes himself as “fiscally conservative, pro-freedom, little-L libertarian, and big-R Republican.”

On the last day of March 2017, Luckey was ousted from Facebook. Neither party is sharing the details of his exit. (The issue even came up at Zuckerberg’s April 2018 Senate hearing, when Republican senator Ted Cruz, who has received $5,400 in political donations from Luckey, demanded, “Why was Palmer Luckey fired?” Zuckerberg said only that it wasn’t because of his politics.) And what did Luckey learn from his experience at Facebook and Oculus? “Be careful who you trust,” he says. “Be careful who has control.”

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A Tech Pioneer’s Final, Unexpected Act

Longreads Pick

When virtuoso violinist and tech worker Eric Sun got diagnosed with brain cancer, he turned his attention from making money for Facebook to making music for himself.

Source: The New Yorker
Published: Jan 1, 2018
Length: 22 minutes (5,578 words)

Longreads Best of 2017: Science, Technology, and Business Writing

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in science, tech, and business writing.

Deborah Blum
Director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT and author of The Poisoner’s Handbook

The Touch of Madness (David Dobbs, Pacific Standard)

A beautifully rendered exploration of the slow, relentless creep of schizophrenia into the life of a brilliant graduate student, her slow recognition of the fact, and the failure of her academic community to recognize the issue or to support her. Dobbs’ piece functions both as an inquiry into our faltering understanding of mental illness and our cultural failure to respond to it with integrity. It’s the kind of compassionate and morally-centered journalism we should all aspire to.

Elmo Keep
Australian writer and journalist living in Mexico, runner-up for the 2017 Bragg Prize for Science Writing

How Eclipse Chasers Are Putting a Small Kentucky Town on the Map (Lucas Reilly, Mental Floss)

Anyone willing to write about syzygy in the shadow of Annie Dillard’s classic 1982 essay “Total Eclipse” has balls for miles. Reilly’s decision to focus on the logistics faced by tiny towns preparing to be inundated by thousands of eclipse watchers was inspired. It brilliantly conveyed the shared enthusiasms that celestial events animate in us. Between these two essays, I’m convinced a total eclipse would be a psychic event so overwhelming I might not survive it. I’ve got 2037 in Antarctica on my bucket list — if it’s still there in twenty years.    Read more…

The Tech Industry’s Gender-Discrimination Problem

Longreads Pick

Kolhatkar walks us through several egregious allegations of abuse and discrimination suffered by women at tech companies like Tesla, SoFi, and Google. The problems are pervasive and are surfacing as more women come forward; class-action gender-discrimination suits are pending against companies such as Twitter, Microsoft, and Uber.

Source: The New Yorker
Published: Nov 13, 2017
Length: 34 minutes (8,519 words)

Can Detroit’s Legendary Techno Scene Survive Gentrification?

Stacey Pullen performs at the 2016 Movement Electronic Music Festival in Downtown Detroit's Hart Plaza. (Tanya Moutzalias/The Ann Arbor News via AP)

Techno emerged in Detroit’s minority and queer communities as the city descended into decay in the late 1980s. A couple of decades later, after having reshaped electronic music and club culture around the world, the scene is alive — but changing. At Roads and Kingdoms, Akhil Kalepu writes a history of techno that goes all the way back to Motown. But he devotes special attention to a contemporary tension between the genre’s diverse, underground origins and an increasingly white, affluent scene in Detroit and beyond.

In Detroit, much of the electronic music world rejoiced when techno veteran Dimitri Hegemann of Berlin’s famed Tresor nightclub announced plans to open a branch in Packard Automotive Plant, a former DIY venue for the local rave scene. For many locals, though, it was yet another example of a white European taking something made by their predominantly black city: the gentrification of a genre seeping back into physical space.

Despite its genuine Detroit roots, Movement [Electronic Music Festival], too, has had its part to play in the gentrification of electronic music and, by extension, Detroit. The inaugural festival, held in 2000, was the brainchild of Carl Craig — a second-generation techno star in his own right — and Carol Marvin of the event production team Pop Culture Media. They saw Hart Plaza, dead in the center of Detroit’s beleaguered downtown, as the perfect place to host a techno festival, even if most of the city’s residents were unfamiliar with the scene.

Since those first years, Movement has gone from a free event to a paid one, passing through the hands of several directors along the way. Despite changes in leadership, Movement still plays an important role in the narrative of Detroit Rising, which is also the story of Detroit Gentrifying. Hart Plaza itself is now the centerpiece of one of Detroit’s many “revitalized” neighborhoods. As in similar urban zones across the U.S., rising rents have driven out a predominantly middle-class economy, replacing local businesses with high-end establishments and luxury apartments—the early stages of the trend that turned former underground capitals like New York, London, and Tokyo into velvet-rope and bottle-service cities. Growing electronic music scenes in Asia, Africa, and South America show promise, though most investment in those regions goes to venues that cater to the developing world’s growing elite.

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‘Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia

Longreads Pick

After having epiphanies about the downsides of persuasive design, several young creators of addictive smartphone technology abandon their posts at Google, Twitter, and Facebook to try to become part of the solution.

Author: Paul Lewis
Source: The Guardian
Published: Oct 6, 2017
Length: 18 minutes (4,500 words)