Hawa Allan| Longreads | September 2017 | 3580 words (15 minutes)
“Big Brother” has become shorthand for the inescapable gaze of governmental authority, first defined by George Orwell in his novel 1984. Everywhere yet nowhere, Big Brother is all-seeing and all-knowing, surveilling not just every person’s movement, but every thought. Where Orwell referred to illicit states of mind as “thoughtcrimes,” Philip K. Dick called them “precrimes” in his 1956 short story “The Minority Report,” in which a futuristic police force arrests subjects for crimes long before they are committed. While Big Brother has become common parlance, the precrime unit illustrated by Dick is a more apt portrayal of the tools authorities have at hand to enforce the law, and commercial entities use to market their goods, in our digital age.
I reached out to Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project for a sober assessment of how the current state of governmental surveillance compares to the dystopian futures imagined by Orwell and Dick. When Target can determine if teenager is pregnant before her parents know, does the end of our anonymity as consumers mean the end of our rights to privacy as citizens?
On July 2, 1972, Angela Davis was sitting in the Plateau Seven restaurant in Santa Clara County, California, a few blocks from the courthouse where she’d spent the previous 13 weeks on trial for criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. The jury had just started deliberating, and Davis was eating with Rodney Barnette, a friend and former Black Panther. While the two talked, a local reporter emerged from the courthouse pressroom with news for Davis’s family and the activists gathered there: Four black men had hijacked a Western Airlines 727 jetliner carrying 98 passengers and were en route from Seattle to San Francisco. (Later it was confirmed there were only two hijackers, one man and one woman.) Not only were the hijackers demanding $500,000 and four parachutes, but they also wanted these items delivered by Davis, who was to stand on the runway of San Francisco International Airport in a white dress.
When the news reached the restaurant, several patrons around Davis and Barnette suddenly surrounded the pair’s table; these were in fact FBI agents dressed in civilian clothes. Almost a year earlier, Davis had been charged in California with aiding and abetting a murder. Though she hadn’t been at the scene, authorities alleged that guns she’d purchased were used to kill a superior-court judge. The Black Panthers relied on sympathetic Vietnam veterans, like Rodney Barnette, to acquire arms and train new members to use them. Barnette, however, had left the Panthers four years earlier following a suspicious interaction. At a meeting, a stranger claiming to be part of the “Panther Underground” had called Barnette into a back office and told him to beat members who arrived late. Barnette objected. (“We can’t do that to our own people,” he said an interview later. “How could we differentiate the police beating people, and us beating people?”) The man suggested he leave the group.
“I always thought he was some FBI agent,” Barnette would tell an interviewer in 2017. “Some agent provocateur or informant that all of a sudden appeared to try to split the party up.” This unnerving feeling of suspicion persisted even after Barnette left the Panthers. The FBI continued to interview his family members in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles, where Barnette had moved and gotten a job as a letter carrier. Despite stellar evaluations from his superiors, in 1969 Barnette was fired from the Postal Service, after less than a year on the job, for living with a woman he wasn’t married to, which qualified at the time as “conduct unbecoming a government employee.”
Silicon Valley loves to disrupt industries by inventing things that already exist. Remember when Lyft invented buses? Good times. And just recently, the exec in charge of Apple retail announced that instead of “stores” their… stores… are now referred to as “town squares.”
Well, two tech bros are here with a new disruption to… the bodega industry. (I know, hold on, we’ll come back to this.) It’s so innovative, so fresh, so new, they named it…
They literally named it after the thing they’re aiming to “make obsolete.”
Bodega sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card.
It’s not even a bodega. It’s a vending machine.
These jabronis even have the audacity to make their logo a cat, a tribute to the omnipresent bodega cats they’re seeking to make homeless.
And of course because 90 percent of Twitter users are journalists and 90 percent of journalists live in New York City (these are not real statistics, don’t @ me), Twitter was not having Bodega™. Read more…
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…
For the New York Times Magazine, Kim Tingley profiles the nine flight-team engineers of the 1977 Voyager mission, who have been putting off retirement to see through one of NASA’s most successful missions all the way to the end. They estimate Voyager will run out of energy by 2030 at the latest, marking the end of an era when deepest space was seen by the government, and the public at large, as a mystery worth exploring.
The two Voyager spacecraft famously carried a “golden record” to the deepest reaches of the universe, which contain sounds and images of Earth, selected by a committee helmed by Carl Sagan, should Voyager encounter any intelligent life. The mission was one of optimism and wonder. But with the end of the shuttle program in 2011, and NASA under threat of severe cuts from the Trump Administration, the wonder of space is under attack from those who would commodify it. What is the purpose of space if you can’t make money from it?
The mission quite possibly represents the end of an era of space exploration in which the main goal is observation rather than commercialization. In internal memos, Trump-administration advisers have referred to NASA’s traditional contractors as ‘‘Old Space’’ and proposed refocusing its budget on supporting the growth of the private ‘‘New Space’’ industry, Politico reported in February. ‘‘Economic development of space’’ will begin in near-Earth orbit and on the moon, according to the president’s transition team, with ‘‘private lunar landers staking out de facto ‘property rights’ for Americans on the moon, by 2020.’’
All explorations demand sacrifices in exchange for uncertain outcomes. Some of those sacrifices are social: how many resources we collectively devote to a given pursuit of knowledge. But another portion is borne by the explorer alone, who used to be rewarded with adventure and fame if not fortune. For the foreseeable future, Voyager seems destined to remain in the running for the title of Mankind’s Greatest Journey, which might just make its nine flight-team engineers — most of whom have been with the mission since the Reagan administration — our greatest living explorers. They also may be the last people left on the planet who can operate the spacecraft’s onboard computers, which have 235,000 times less memory and 175,000 times less speed than a 16-gigabyte smartphone. And while it’s true that these pioneers haven’t gone anywhere themselves, they are arguably every bit as dauntless as more celebrated predecessors. Magellan never had to steer a vessel from the confines of a dun-colored rental office, let alone stay at the helm long enough to qualify for a senior discount at the McDonald’s next door.
At a recent conference in Detroit, billionaire Jack Ma, founder of the online marketplace Alibaba, told CNBC that, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, people will soon work less.
“I think in the next 30 years, people only work four hours a day and maybe four days a week,” Ma said. “My grandfather worked 16 hours a day in the farmland and [thought he was] very busy. We work eight hours, five days a week and think we are very busy.”
People have been making this prediction for generations. Economist John Maynard Keynes posited, in an essay published a year after the 1929 Wall Street crash, that his grandchildren would work 15-hour weeks, with five-day weekends. In 2015, NPR caught up with some of his descendants and discovered Keynes — who, according to his grand-nephew died “from working too hard” — was wrong. His grand-nephew reported working over 100 hours a week as a professor, and his grand-niece, a self-employed psychotherapist, said she has to write in her agenda “not working” to remind herself to take breaks. Read more…
Ride-sharing app Lyft has a new service available in Chicago and San Francisco that they’re calling a “shuttle.” According to Lifehacker, it works like this:
Lyfts can add up fast and Lyft Line, while less expensive, can take you out of your way and make your travel time much longer.
Lyft Shuttle addresses both those issues by having you walk to a nearby pick up spot, get in a shared car that follows a pre-designated route, and drops you (and everyone else) off at the same stop. So, basically, you share a ride with other people (most of the time) so your ride price is lower, but you know exactly how long the ride will take because you’re on a pre-designated route.
They are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking.
The smartphone is the signature artifact of our age. Less than a decade old, this protean object has become the universal, all-but-indispensable mediator of everyday life. Very few manufactured objects have ever been as ubiquitous as these glowing slabs of polycarbonate.
For many of us, they are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking. We use them to meet people, to communicate, to entertain ourselves, and to find our way around. We buy and sell things with them. We rely on them to document the places we go, the things we do and the company we keep; we count on them to fill the dead spaces, the still moments and silences that used to occupy so much of our lives.
They have altered the texture of everyday life just about everywhere, digesting many longstanding spaces and rituals in their entirety, and transforming others beyond recognition. At this juncture in history, it simply isn’t possible to understand the ways in which we know and use the world around us without having some sense for the way the smartphone works, and the various infrastructures it depends on.
For all its ubiquity, though, the smartphone is not a simple thing. We use it so often that we don’t see it clearly; it appeared in our lives so suddenly and totally that the scale and force of the changes it has occasioned have largely receded from conscious awareness. In order to truly take the measure of these changes, we need to take a step or two back, to the very last historical moment in which we negotiated the world without smartphone in hand. Read more…
President Trump has said he believes Twitter put him in the White House. Recently, Mr. Williams heard the claim for the first time. He mulled it over for a bit, sitting in his Medium office, which is noteworthy only for not having a desk.
“It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in that,” he said finally. “If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.”
Trump’s campaign slogan may as well have been Extremity First, a strategy his supporters considered the conscious technique of a mastermind playing 4D chess with the media. What the internet is missing, Williams argues, is an ethical framework, a new business model that will introduce a market correction to what the internet perceives as user demand for extremism:
The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.
His goal is to break this pattern. “If I learn that every time I drive down this road I’m going to see more and more car crashes,” he says, “I’m going to take a different road.”
But a new road may have other problems. It may, for instance, be a dead end.
Mr. Williams isn’t the only one trying to fix this mess, of course. If he and others can’t find a path forward, if they can’t solve what he calls “the architecture of content creation, distribution and monetization on the internet,” there are unsettling implications for the future of news and ideas. Maybe it will be all car crashes, all the time. Twitter already feels like that.
While the need for an intervention is readily apparent, the question of how to make publishing sustainable — in spite of, or by somehow newly leveraging, the internet’s existing mosaic of incentives — continues to pose considerable challenges to the viability of new approaches to funding. As fellow Twitter cofounder Biz Stone has said in response to Williams’ statement that he wants to make publishing profitable: “Yeah, so does everyone else.”
In Scientific American, Erik Vance reports on how the orb weaver spider — a creature that weighs between .005 milligrams and three grams — has a brain that is just as adept at complex tasks as exponentially larger spiders. This “brain miniaturization” “may hold clues to innovative design strategies that engineers might incorporate in future generations of computers.”
The world’s smallest arachnid, the Samoan moss spider, is at a third of a millimeter nearly invisible to the human eye. The largest spider in the world is the goliath birdeater tarantula, which weighs 5 ounces and is about the size of a dinner plate. For reference, that is about the same difference in scale between that same tarantula and a bottlenose dolphin.
And yet the bigger spider does not act in more complex ways than its tiny counterpart. “Insects and spiders and the like—in terms of absolute size—have among the tiniest brains we’ve come across,” says William Wcislo, a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. “But their behavior, as far as we can see, is as sophisticated as things that have relatively large brains. So then there’s the question: How do they do that?”