In the week since white supremacists descended on Charlottesville with tiki torches blazing, tech companies have begun to eliminate website hosting or accounts run by neo-Nazis. The decision to kick people off the internet—a world many of us occupy in equal measure, if not more than we do the physical one around us—is not one taken lightly, and these companies have remained cautious until proven complicit.
The CEO of Cloudflare, Matthew Prince, explained in a public blog post why he chose to drop the Daily Stormer, a hate-mongering website that published openly racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist screeds, including a post about Heather Heyer. “Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion,” writes Prince. “The tipping point for us making this decision was that the team behind Daily Stormer made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology.” (ProPublica skewered Cloudfare earlier this year for providing the Daily Stormer with information about people who criticized or complained about the website’s explicitly offensive content.)
Cloudflare is not alone in abandoning Nazi clients. As Adrienne Jeffries reported at The Outline, in the last few days Squarespace has dropped an array of so-called “alt-right” sites, including the think tank of neo-Nazi poster boy Richard Spencer. On Tuesday, Sean Captain at Fast Company noticed that publishing platform WordPress.com (the parent company of Longreads) is no longer hosting the website for the ultra-nationalist organization Vanguard America. (The man who drove the car that killed Heyer and injured 19 other people was allegedly a Vanguard America member, though the organization has tried to disown him.) Read more…
Every weekday, semi trucks full of books would pull up at designated Google scanning centers. The one ingesting Stanford’s library was on Google’s Mountain View campus, in a converted office building. The books were unloaded from the trucks onto the kind of carts you find in libraries and wheeled up to human operators sitting at one of a few dozen brightly lit scanning stations, arranged in rows about six to eight feet apart.
The stations—which didn’t so much scan as photograph books—had been custom-built by Google from the sheet metal up. Each one could digitize books at a rate of 1,000 pages per hour. The book would lie in a specially designed motorized cradle that would adjust to the spine, locking it in place. Above, there was an array of lights and at least $1,000 worth of optics, including four cameras, two pointed at each half of the book, and a range-finding LIDAR that overlaid a three-dimensional laser grid on the book’s surface to capture the curvature of the paper. The human operator would turn pages by hand—no machine could be as quick and gentle—and fire the cameras by pressing a foot pedal, as though playing at a strange piano.
Failure stories come in two distinct flavors: “We almost had it all!” and schadenfreude. At VentureBeat, Harrison Weber’s tale of Google’s suspended project to build a modular smartphone is distinctly of the first type. It channels the excitement of the people who tried to make it happen — and the wistfulness of those who find it hard to let go. More than anything else, though, it shows how hard it to translate a cool, lightbulb-moment idea into a viable product.
“I had an old camera that I broke and I couldn’t really fix it. So I took it apart and I noticed all the components were still pretty good, except for one thing.”
“I thought: Isn’t that weird that we throw everything away just because one part is broken?” said Hakkens.
“At first, I wanted to make a phone that lasts 100 years. But then I realized, I kind of like technology — that it evolves, that it gets better. The only downside is that after it gets better, we throw everything away. I started looking into it, and it generates a lot of e-waste… I mean now we have some devices, but in the future it’s thermostats, fridges, microwaves — everything will be connected. So what if a chip breaks in your fridge? Do you just throw the entire thing away?”
The Phonebloks story spread like wildfire. Gadget blogs covered it en masse, hordes of supporters signed up to support, tweet, and share the idea with a viral marketing tool called Thunderclap, and developers fired back, saying it couldn’t be done — that it was impossible to build. Perhaps they had a point.
I have a dear friend who’s working at the library in Chattanooga, which is one of the rare states where the budget is increasing, and she’s doing all of this neat stuff with technology: bringing in 3-D printers, teaching web-use skills, all of these public services that are really necessary beyond making books available for people. I’m bullish on the need for libraries. I’m pessimistic about our ability as a society to come together and pay for their small sanctuary if our public services are under attack.
The library’s one of the few civic spaces we have left. People are feeling like there’s no other ways for these online platforms and services to be run, it’s our destiny to have them be privately run, and yet we invoke the analogy of the library or archive all the time. To me it says that we find it realistic that Google will be our archive when it’s an advertising company. We’ve seen them get rid of services that are not profitable (Google Reader), and we’ve seen them demote things like Google Scholar. That’s realism, where it’s unrealistic to think we’d build on the success of the library with a national repository for knowledge, arts, and culture?
Libraries exist and they’re open. Libraries exist with all these values we invoke in the digital sphere, but there are very few people thinking about how we might build upon them.
Science fiction writer Eileen Gunn recently wrote in Smithsonian magazine about how the science fiction genre informs the way we think about the real world. Here, Gunn writes that big tech companies like Microsoft have hired science fiction writers to do “design fiction”—coming up with new technology ideas through imaginative works:
Microsoft, Google, Apple and other firms have sponsored lecture series in which science fiction writers give talks to employees and then meet privately with developers and research departments. Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the close tie between science fiction and technology today than what is called “design fiction”—imaginative works commissioned by tech companies to model new ideas. Some corporations hire authors to create what-if stories about potentially marketable products.
“I really like design fiction or prototyping fiction,” says novelist Cory Doctorow, whose clients have included Disney and Tesco. “There is nothing weird about a company doing this—commissioning a story about people using a technology to decide if the technology is worth following through on. It’s like an architect creating a virtual fly-through of a building.” Doctorow, who worked in the software industry, has seen both sides of the development process. “I’ve been in engineering discussions in which the argument turned on what it would be like to use the product, and fiction can be a way of getting at that experience.”
Even in Google’s earliest days, Page had always wanted the company to do more than just basic Web search. Since he was a kid, he’d been dreaming up world-changing schemes. As an undergrad at the University of Michigan, he’d proposed that the school replace its bus system with something he called a PRT, or personal rapid transit system — essentially a driverless monorail with separate cars for every rider. Later, at Stanford, he’d peppered his adviser, Terry Winograd, with thesis ideas that sounded as far out there as some of Tesla’s later schemes. One idea involved building a superlong rope that would run from the Earth’s surface all the way into orbit, making it cheaper to put objects in space. Another proposal called for solar kites that would draw energy from space.
With Google now essentially minting money from advertising and Schmidt managing its steady growth, Page began to realize that he was finally in a position to bring his visions to life.
“Google is visually impressive, but this frenzy of energy and hipness hasn’t generated large numbers of jobs, much less what we think of as middle-class jobs, the kinds of unglamorous but solid employment that generates annual household incomes between $44,000 and $155,000. The state of California (according to a 2011 study by the Public Policy Institute of California) could boast in 1980 that some 60 percent of its families were middle-income as measured in today’s dollars, but by 2010 only 48 percent of California families fell into that category, and the income gap between the state’s highest and lowest earners had doubled. In Silicon Valley there has actually been a net job loss in tech-related industries over the past decade. According to figures collected by Joel Kotkin, the dotcom crash wiped out 70,000 jobs in the valley in a little over a single year, and since then the tech industry has added only 30,000 new ones, leaving the bay region with a net 40,000 fewer jobs than existed in 2001.”
Tim is Director of Social Media at Marquette University and writes about beer and running for DRAFT Magazine.
“Whenever I hear people talking about how technology is ruining our attention spans and turning our collective brains to mush, I like to tell them about #longreads. This article is a perfect example. I saw a link on Twitter to an excerpt of Clive Thompson’s book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. I immediately saved it to Pocket to read later. In this chapter, Thompson provides background on how we’ve always used outside resources to boost our ‘transactive memory,’ or ability to recall specific facts. The most powerful aid, it turns out, is pooling our brain power with other people. Today, technology is simply multiplying that ability. Now go share with someone else.”
Inside Google’s secretive Ground Truth program—and why it suddenly makes sense that they are working on a self-driving car:
Let’s step back a tiny bit to recall with wonderment the idea that a single company decided to drive cars with custom cameras over every road they could access. Google is up to five million miles driven now. Each drive generates two kinds of really useful data for mapping. One is the actual tracks the cars have taken; these are proof-positive that certain routes can be taken. The other are all the photos. And what’s significant about the photographs in Street View is that Google can run algorithms that extract the traffic signs and can even paste them onto the deep map within their Atlas tool.