Tag Archives: Technology

The Internet Won’t Prioritize Quality Without an Intervention

In an interview with The New York Times, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams admits to David Streitfeld that he thinks the internet is broken — and apologizes for the role Twitter played in the ascendency of Donald Trump.

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.

Williams has been attempting to course-correct with Medium, a publishing platform conceived to intervene on this vicious cycle of misinterpreted rubbernecking with an ad-free, subscription-based business model. Medium’s successes have been tempered and debatable, while its missteps, like so many of the internet’s favorite car wrecks, have been more memorable. (Williams announced layoffs in a blog post before all the sunsetting employees were informed, shocking investors and publishing partners alike; when Williams introduced the $5 subscription model, Bryan Clark published an op-ed titled Ev Williams has lost his goddamn mind.)

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.”

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How Tiny, Yet Über-Efficient Spider Brains Can Improve Computer Technology

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?”

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We’re Living in the Golden Age of the Corporate Takedown

Miki Agrawal, co-founder and “She-EO” of menstrual underwear phenom Thinx, raised eyebrows when she stepped down from her role in the company in early March. Agrawal had long been infamous for her company’s boundary-pushing ads and her well-publicized hesitance to use the word “feminist.” Within days of Agrawal’s announcement, Racked published a gripping article examining corporate dysfunction and alleged sexism at Thinx, and Agrawal struck back with a lengthy post on Medium that detailed her “incredible ride” with the company. “I didn’t put HR practices in place because I was on the road speaking, doing press, brand partnerships, editing all of the creative and shouting from the rooftops about Thinx,” she wrote. Less than a week later, Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee.

Such is the power of the corporate hit piece: Fueled by eyewitness accounts, scorned ex-employees, and juicy tidbits about a CEO’s bad behavior, a corporate identity that took years to build can unravel in days. These piquant stories might smack of a slow-motion trainwreck, but they satisfy more than our inner gossips and gawkers. Today, the myth of a CEO is often of their own making—once minted by years of climbing the corporate ladder, now CEOs are made in weeks or months. CEO, we are told, is less a work status than a state of mind.

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‘Why Pay for Therapy When the Advice of Strangers Has Proven to Be Helpful and Free?’

At The Verge, Ben Popper takes a look at Koko, a startup with an app that helps people connect and provide emotional support to peers and, in the process, allows them to recognize and “rethink” their own problems:

The Koko app starts users off with a short tutorial on “rethinking.” The app explains that rethinking isn’t about solving problems, but offering a more optimistic take. It uses memes and cartoons to illustrate the idea: if you choose the right reframe, a cute puppy offers his paw for a high-five. The app walks new users through posts and potential reframes, indicating which rethinks are good and which aren’t. The tutorial can be completed in as little as five minutes.

Once users finish the tutorial, they can scroll through live posts on the site. Despite the minimal training, the issues they are confronted with can be quite serious: an individual who is afraid to tell her family that she’s taking anti-depressants because they might think she’s crazy; a user stressed from school who believes “no one actually likes the real me, and if they see it, they will hate me”; a user with an abusive boyfriend who has come to feel “I am a failure and worth being yelled at.” I walked a friend through the tutorial recently, and they were shocked by how quickly Koko throws you into the deep end of human despair.

Koko lets you write anything you want for a rethink, but also offers simple prompts: “This could turn out better than you think because…,” “A more balanced take on this could be…,” etc. The company screens both the posts and rethinks before they become public, attempting to direct certain users to critical care and weed trolls out of the system. Originally, this was accomplished with human moderators, but increasingly, the company is turning to AI.

Accepting and offering rethinks is meant to help users get away from bad mental habits, cycles of negative thought that can perpetuate their anxiety and depression. Over the next few months, Zelig found herself offering rethinks of other Koko users almost every day. “Having it in your pocket is really good. All of sudden it would hit me what I needed say in the reframe, so I would pull my car over, or stand in the produce aisle.”

In the process of giving advice Zelig felt, almost immediately, a sense of relief and control. She began to recognize her own dark moods as variations on the problems she was helping others with. Zelig says the peculiar power of Koko is that by helping others, users are able to help themselves.

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When a YouTube Video Almost Made the Modular Smartphone Happen

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.

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What Was Virtual Reality?

If you visited a tech blog in the past two years, you will have undoubtedly noticed: no topic has been generating more buzz than non-real-reality (virtual, mixed, augmented—pick your flavor).

One of the more fascinating aspects of this tidal wave of excitement (and venture capital) is its obliviousness to its own history — a rich tradition of gamers, tech geeks, and scientists building and hyping virtual worlds. At Backchannel, a reprint of “Being in Nothingness” by John Perry Barlow, a seminal essay from 1990, shows the uncanny similarties between our current conversations and the obsession over “cyberspace” 30 years ago. It also brings home a crucial point: that cutting-edge technology is not only about slick, robot-filled futures; it’s fueled just as much by our undepletable nostalgic longings.

The list of possibilities is literally bounded only by the imagination. Working bodies for the damaged. Teleconferencing with body language. Virtual surgery. Hey, this is a practical thing to do!

And yet I suspect that something else altogether, something not so practical, is at the root of these yearnings. Why do we really want to develop Virtual Reality? There seems to be a flavor of longing here which I associate with the desire to converse with aliens or dolphins or the never-born.

On some level, I think we can now see the potential for technology, long about the business of making the metaphorical literal, of reversing the process and re-infecting ordinary reality with luminous magic.

Or maybe this is just another expression of what may be the third oldest human urge, the desire to have visions. Maybe we want to get high.

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Your Phone Was Made By Slaves: A Primer on the Secret Economy

Kevin Bales | Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World | Spiegel & Grau | January 2016 | 34 minutes (9,162 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Blood and Earth, by Kevin Bales, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

We think of Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck as the origin of our iPhones.

It’s never a happy moment when you’re shopping for a tombstone. When death comes, it’s the loss that transcends everything else and most tombstones are purchased in a fog of grief. Death is a threshold for the relatives and friends who live on as well, changing lives in both intense and subtle ways. It’s the most dramatic and yet the most mundane event of a life, something we all do, no exceptions, no passes.

Given the predictability of death it seems strange that Germany has a tombstone shortage. It’s not because they don’t know that people are going to die; it’s more a product of the complete control the government exerts over death and funerals. Everyone who dies must be embalmed before burial, for example, and the cremated can be buried only in approved cemeteries, never scattered in gardens or the sea. Rules abound about funerals and tombstones—even the size, quality, and form of coffins and crypts are officially regulated. All this leads to a darkly humorous yet common saying: “If you feel unwell, take a vacation—you can’t afford to die in Germany.”

Granite for German tombstones used to come from the beautiful Harz Mountains, but now no one is allowed to mine there and risk spoiling this protected national park and favorite tourist destination. So, like France and many other rich countries, including the United States, Germany imports its tombstones from the developing world.

Some of the best and cheapest tombstones come from India. In 2013 India produced 35,342 million tons of granite, making it the world’s largest producer. Add to this a growing demand for granite kitchen countertops in America and Europe, and business is booming. There are more precious minerals of course, but fortunes can be made in granite. In the United States, the average cost of installing those countertops runs from $2,000 to $8,000, but the price charged by Indian exporters for polished red granite is just $5 to $15 per square meter—that comes to about $100 for all the granite your kitchen needs. The markup on tombstones is equally high. The red granite tombstones that sell for $500 to $1,000 in the United States, and more in Europe, are purchased in bulk from India for as little as $50, plus a US import duty of just 3.7 percent.

Leaving aside what this says about the high cost of dying, how can granite be so cheap? The whole point of granite, that it is hard and durable, is also the reason it is difficult to mine and process. It has to be carefully removed from quarries in large thin slabs, so you can’t just go in with dynamite and bulldozers. Careful handling means handwork, which requires people with drills and chisels, hammers and crowbars gently working the granite out of the ground. And in India, the most cost effective way to achieve that is slavery. Read more…

Using Technology to Fight the Power

In a new story for Wired, Bijan Stephen looks at how the Black Lives Matter movement uses social media to organize and fight for change. As Stephen writes, “any large social movement is shaped by the technology available to it,” tailoring their goals and tactics to the media of their time. For the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, that technology has been platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But civil rights organizers were using technology to mobilize long before the advent of social media. Here’s what that looked like in the Jim Crow South:

In the 1960s, if you were a civil rights worker stationed in the Deep South and you needed to get some urgent news out to the rest of the world—word of a beating or an activist’s arrest or some brewing state of danger—you would likely head straight for a telephone.

From an office or a phone booth in hostile territory, you would place a call to one of the major national civil rights organizations. But you wouldn’t do it by dialing a standard long-distance number. That would involve speaking first to a switchboard operator—who was bound to be white and who might block your call. Instead you’d dial the number for something called a Wide Area Telephone Service, or WATS, line.

Like an 800 line, you could dial a WATS number from anywhere in the region and the call would patch directly through to the business or organization that paid for the line—in this case, say, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

On the other end of the line, another civil rights worker would be ready to take down your report and all the others pouring in from phones scattered across the South. The terse, action-packed write-ups would then be compiled into mimeographed “WATS reports” mailed out to organization leaders, the media, the Justice Department, lawyers, and other friends of the movement across the country.

In other words, it took a lot of infrastructure to live-tweet what was going on in the streets of the Jim Crow South.

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Relearning How to Talk in the Age of Smartphone Addiction

Jessica Gross | Longreads | October 2015 | 17 minutes (4,263 words)

 

Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, has studied our relationship with technology for decades. While some of her earlier works highlighted the ways in which technology could help us construct self-identities, her more recent writing warns that we are overinvesting in our devices and underinvesting in ourselves and each other.

In Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, published in 2011, Turkle explored the implications of replacing real intimacy with digital connection. Her new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, continues that thread. Turkle uses Thoreau’s three chairs—one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society—as a framework, describing how our devices disrupt conversation and healthy development at every stage. When we turn to our phones constantly, we deny ourselves the capacity for solitude and identity development. This, in turn, blunts our ability to form healthy relationships. And vice versa: when we text instead of talk, or look at our devices instead of each other, we diminish our abilities to relate to other people as well as ourselves. Turkle ends the book with a discussion of what it means that we have begun to relate to machines as sentient beings when, in fact, they have no feelings, no experiences, no empathy, no idea what it means to be human.

Turkle—a psychoanalytically trained psychologist who founded and directs the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self—is no Luddite. But she argues for moderation, and for a deep look at how over-invested we’ve become in new technology. She is also optimistic that we are at just the right moment for this rceexamination, and for a return to conversation, reflection, and real intimacy. Turkle and I began our phone conversation by hailing that old thing, the landline.

Hi, this is Jessica Gross, calling from Longreads. Is this Sherry Turkle?

Yes, it is. I’ve been looking forward to hearing from you. But let me have you call back on a landline. I think the fidelity would be better and it’d just be easier. [Ring, ring.] Here I am. I love this old technology. I’m at a seaside cabin with this 1950 phone that works perfectly. [Laughter]

I got my own landline recently and it’s been really delightful.

I mean, there’s this thing where calls never get dropped, where you can hear in perfect fidelity! [Laughter] And it goes on even if the Wi-Fi is down! Read more…

When Your Lost Phone Ends Up in Yemen

In the summer of 2013, a New York yuppie lost her iPhone in the Hamptons. A few months later, she got an alert saying that her phone had been turned on in Yemen, and then candid pictures of a Yemeni family started filling her iCloud account. The phone was soon updated under the name of its new owner, a teenager boy named Yacoub. In this essay for The Atlantic, Will McGrath writes about the saga of his friend’s lost phone, guns, shared humanity, and how the photos provided his friend with a strange keyhole into another world:

Flipping through these pictures is like watching Yacoub muddle through adolescence in time-lapse. He is deep into the age of identity-building, trying to document and establish his place in the world. He travels through the countryside taking landscape shots: stunning mountains with verdant terraced fields, clusters of houses that stair-step down toward a valley floor. Now he is at a construction site looking supercool behind the wheel of a forklift.

Another picture has him posing before a shuttered storefront with an AK-47 (the safety is on and the gun’s stock is folded under so he can’t touch the trigger). In late August Yacoub writes the Shahada—the standard Muslim declaration of faith—in the phone’s Notes app, where Maura discovers it while making her IKEA shopping list. There is no god but God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God. He writes cheesy love poetry into the Notes app (How does the heart forget you, the taste of sugar that is lost?), he tries to visit Sex.com, he takes selfies with qat wadded in his cheek, he is every teenager in the history of teenagers.

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