Essays on Technology and Culture

Om Malik on Tech’s “Empathy Vacuum”

It’s hard to think about the human consequences of technology as a founder of a startup racing to prove itself or as a chief executive who is worried about achieving the incessant growth that keeps investors happy. Against the immediate numerical pressures of increasing users and sales, and the corporate pressures of hiring the right (but not too expensive) employees to execute your vision, the displacement of people you don’t know can get lost.

However, when you are a data-driven oligarchy like Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Uber, you can’t really wash your hands of the impact of your algorithms and your ability to shape popular sentiment in our society. We are not just talking about the ability to influence voters with fake news. If you are Amazon, you have to acknowledge that you are slowly corroding the retail sector, which employs many people in this country. If you are Airbnb, no matter how well-meaning your focus on delighting travellers, you are also going to affect hotel-industry employment.

— Om Malik – “Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum”

In the political, sociological, and economic mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, we can’t ignore the role the tech industry plays in it. Facebook can’t court advertisers with one hand and act like its algorithms don’t influence behavior on the other. Tech as an industry is not, and cannot, pretend it is neutral. It can’t pretend that jobs will magically reappear for those it has unemployed. But as long as the impetus is short term growth to satisfy investors first, Valley companies can blind themselves to their impact.

Fear of Data

A while ago, I came across an interesting opinion piece on Lifelogging, and how interest is waning as people move towards more “forgetful” services like Snapchat. It’s certainly something I’ve thought a lot about, both in terms of the data I create, and who has access to it. It requires a lot of trust in the people who we share our data with. The essay’s author, Mike Elgan, has his own opinion:

I believe this apparent impulse to forget is not what it seems. In reality, people are just suffering from information overload and data anxiety. Collecting huge amounts of personal data – even large numbers of pictures – simply creates a problem without solving one. The problem it creates is: How do you manage all this data? How do you back it up? Store it? Annotate or tag it?

Following this election, I think Mike Elgan and others are asking another question: who else has access to our data? I know I am, but I was asking it before it was cool, or at least before we were all afraid of Donald Trump.

In the wake of the election, a lot more people who were pretty darn confident about their data, how safe it is, and how safe they are, started getting a lot more paranoid. Case in point, this excellent Buzzfeed article by Sheera Frenkel, which interviews a handful of—well, two—Valley entrepreneurs who run data-focused companies, along with noted tech wise-ass critic, Maciej Cegłowski of Pinboard fame. (I use “wise-ass” as a compliment, here.)

Maciej has been an outspoken critic of how the Valley treats data collection, likening it to nuclear waste in an excellent talk. Maciej also has an excellent set of six fixes to help restore privacy online. I’m grateful for his work, but rather than rehash his ideas and spend more time chiding Valley companies for treating the data of real people with as much care as you might give the wrapper for your chewing gum, let’s step back and think about how we got here.

Tech companies have two main uses for personal data. One is for improving products and the consumer experience. Google collects your every move, reads every email, and tracks cars in traffic, so that when you wake up in the morning, you can find out that traffic’s backed up on your way to the airport Then Google suggests you leave a few minutes early, and take an alternate route. Your life is measurably improved—you didn’t miss your flight—and everyone is happy.

The other use is to sell to advertisers. Google collects your every move, reads every email, and tracks cars in traffic so that it can suggest you pick up breakfast from Dunkin’ Donuts, or that it’s time to get your tires rotated at Jiffy Lube. Okay, maybe not you specifically, but recent changes there suggest that might be changing. Either way, the goal for advertisers is to leverage all of this data to know what you want or need before you do, get the right ad in your face, and make the sale.

Of course, this is all a review. We know this is the arrangement, and for every game-changing, life improving notification we get on our devices, there’s going to be a targeted ad somewhere to make sure it’s paid for. Implicit in all of this is trust that these companies will be good stewards of our data. What we haven’t fully defined is what good stewardship of data is.

We are getting a very good idea of bad stewardship, though. It’s the push notification to leave for work when you’ve already sat down at your desk, sure, but it’s also the badly targeted ad that you can’t escape no matter how hard you try. It’s the email from Have I Been Pwned? that tells you yet another company has been hacked and your email, password, credit card, and god knows what else now is for sale on the darknet to the highest bidder. It’s the service you loved and trusted going out of business, and their assets being picked up for pennies a gigabyte by some entity you never heard of in a country you can’t find on the map, and no way to get your data back.

The narrative has always been “trust us, we know what we’re doing,” followed up by “give us more data, so we can get better”—at least among those who are courteous enough to ask. Most places just change the Terms of Service, and throw up a screen that people will click through without reading so they can get their next dopamine hit. But, because so many techies want a better, smarter device, they’ll not only happily give in to what the companies ask, they’ll raise hell about those companies that take their time and try to do more with less, or protect user privacy in the process. (Yes, I’m talking about Apple.)

Which is why I’m so surprised to read about how Valley companies are freaking out over Donald Trump. Nobody can tell me they see this coming, if not from a Trump presidency, than perhaps under another in four to eight years. The fracas between the FBI and Apple should have been the latest of a whole flock of dead canaries in the data mine—it was never going to stop with one device. Whatever a company’s policies on encryption, authorized access, or what have you, men with guns can be very persuasive, whether they have a court order or not.

I’d like you to pretend for a moment that you work for Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, or Palantir—any company that collects a whole bunch of data on people’s online behavior. Imagine you work in the department that oversees data collection, and that you have access to the database. Imagine you can see, unencrypted, every scrap of data of every person in that database, should you choose so. That’s a lot of power, and in real life, it’s probably shared across a bunch of people. But imagine you’re one of them.

After work one day, a man trails you to your car. He holds a gun to your head, and hands you a list of people that he wants data on. If you give him all the data, he promises you ten million dollars. If you don’t, he will put a bullet through your head and make it look like a suicide.

What do you do?

It doesn’t matter whether the man with the gun is with the US Government, the Russian Government, or just some nutjob with a grudge and a list of ex-girlfriends. Your life is at risk, and you have access to the data he needs. Remember, you don’t need a supercomputer to crack encryption if you can beat the password out of the owner with a wrench. The only way to make sure nobody gets unauthorized access to data is not to have that data lying around in the first place.

And there’s the catch.

So much of our online lives run on data, not just to pay for it, but to make it usable. We’ve struck a Faustian bargain, and this is the result. Fear is justified, and at the risk of conspiracy-mongering, it’s no surprise that Peter Thiel was so willing to fund the Trump campaign in retrospect. Thiel is the co-founder of Palantir, one of the biggest of the big data companies, and they already have huge inroads with the New York City government. Plus, he sits on the board of Facebook. Now, Thiel has the ear of the President-Elect.

With no controls on what data is collected and how long it’s stored, these databases become increasingly tantalizing targets for malicious actors of all stripes. It’s a shame that it took this long for anyone to start waking up to the danger. Now, it might be too late. At least we’re having the discussion at last, and perhaps a few of the people who called me paranoid aren’t going to be quite so dismissive going forward. Boy is that some cold comfort.

What Was the Nerd?

Today’s American fascist youth is neither the strapping Aryan jock-patriot nor the skinheaded, jackbooted punk: The fascist millennial is a pasty nerd watching shitty meme videos on YouTube, listening to EDM, and harassing black women on Twitter. Self-styled “nerds” are the core youth vanguard of crypto-populist fascist movements. And they are the ones most likely to seize the opportunities presented by the Trump presidency.

What Was the Nerd? — Real Life

This hurts to read, but it rings true. I was a bullied nerd—fat, unathletic, and into sci-fi and computers—but that was before the Internet, social media, and 4chan. I had no one to blame but myself for my torment, but took solace in some of the same nerd oppression narratives Osterweil discusses. God knows what would have come of me if I had access to 4chan as a teenager. Nothing good, I expect.

Dismayed Democrats, Don’t Switch Parties, Fix the One You Have. Here’s Why

It sucks to be a Democrat right now. Make no mistake, this past Presidential election was ours to lose, and lose it we did. Under the circumstances, any left-leaning person who wants to jump ship and join a third party, well, I feel you. I’ve been a Democrat my entire life, and I feel the same way. I’m not a Democrat because my parents were, I’m a Democrat because of the two major political parties, they’re the ones who align most with my interests. Except, most notably, where those interests are keeping racist demagogues out of the highest office in the land, it seems.

But before you change your voter registration to the Green Party, Socialist Party, Working Families Party, or Monster Raving Loony Party, think about three things.

1. The Democratic Party Has the Infrastructure We Need to Win

Political parties aren’t just about picking who runs for office, they provide crucial infrastructure in terms of finance and manpower. Winning an election, especially on the national level, requires a lot of resources, and the Democratic Party has them. From ad buys to messaging, from transportation to catering, and, most importantly, fundraising, fundraising, fundraising, the Democratic Party has this all built out and humming pretty darn well.

If all us fed-up Democrats jumped ship for the same third party, we’d be able to take a lot of that infrastructure with us. But you know as well as I do, that ain’t gonna happen. A bunch of folks will sign on to the Green Party, a bunch will sign on to the Socialists, or Working Families, or Natural Law. Even more will just go unaffiliated. This means we’ll go from a large party with significant infrastructure, to a whole bunch of tiny, fractured parties that will be way easier to defeat.

“Well, we’ll just form a coalition!” Sure, you will. Look, I’m a Lefty, and if I know my fellow Lefties, I know we’re absolutely terrible at this coalition thing. It’s gonna turn into a People’s Front of Judea situation, which helps nobody. Even if we’re all squabbling under one big tent, it’s going to be more effective and harder to beat than a bunch of us squabbling from between ten different tents. But there’s more to be concerned about.

2. Numbers and Geography make a National Third Party win Almost Impossible

It’s easy to point at European countries, or Canada (which may as well be European) and the robustness of their multiple-party political systems. And they’re right. One key difference, though, is that there’s a lot more country here than there is over there.

To put it another way, in the UK, there’s roughly 45 million registered electors. In the US, there’s 146 million, more than three times as many. This means, for a third party candidate to get a significant proportion of the national vote, they need way, way more people to vote for them. Libertarian Gary Johnson pulled 4.1 million votes in this election, for 3.2% of the popular vote. If Gary Johnson pulled the same number of votes in the UK, he’d have had 9.1% of the popular vote. That’s a hell of a difference.

This is why third party candidates, when they do get elected to office, succeed more on the state and local level. It’s a hell of a lot easier to win a majority of a small state or district than it is to win a majority of the entire United States. By way of example, Vermont has roughly 450,000 registered voters. To win his Senate seat, Bernie Sanders only had to win over 225,001 of them. (Depending, of course, on turnout.) Way easier than getting elected president, huh?

3. We Can Change the Democratic Party

Remember the Tea Party? Not the one in Boston that helped set off the American Revolution, the one that started around the time of Obama’s first term. They weren’t happy with the Democrats, but they also weren’t happy with the Republicans. So, what they did was take the initiative and moved the Republican party further right. How? They showed up. They voted in off-year election, primaries, local elections, and state elections. They ran for office, starting local, and moving up the chain until they could take the House and make a damn good attempt at the Senate.

In many ways, it’s the Tea Party who we can thank for the Republican Party we have today, and our President-Elect.

(Gee, thanks.)

But the Tea Party serves as a valuable example of what involvement in party politics can do. If the Tea Partiers said, “Screw this, we’re gonna start our own political party… with Blackjack… and Hookers!” we’d be having a very different conversation today. It was a process, but it paid off in Republicans taking control of 31 state legislatures and governorships, as well as a majority in the House of Representatives. This means they get to control redistricting, thumb their noses at demands from the Democrat-led federal government (until Jan. 20th, 2017), and generally fuck shit up with impunity. I mean, look at North Carolina for chrissake.

But it only happened, ’cause they got involved and did the dirty work of party politics.

We have eighteen months. Let’s start now.

In November 2018, a huge chunk of the Senate, and the entire House of Representatives are up for re-election, along with 36 governorships.

Roughly six months before then is the 2018 primary season, where we vote for who we get to vote for in November.

A lot is made in presidential election years about getting out the vote, phone banking, donating, and supporting your candidates up and down the ballot. Off-year and mid-term elections don’t get the publicity, or the horse-race coverage from national news networks. You might have to pick up your local newspaper to find out what’s going on, assuming it still exists. It’s easy to forget, and easy not to care.

And I’ve seen this first hand. I worked for seven years as an election worker in Philadelphia—specifically as a Machine Inspector. Turnout always varied by election: Presidential elections were huge, mayoral elections were decent. Mid-term and off-year elections got some people, but mid-term and off-year primaries? Let’s just say those were the elections where you drank lots of free church coffee, and caught up on your reading.

Which is a shame, because those elections are as important, if not moreso, than Presidential elections. Today’s candidate for state legislature could be tomorrow’s presidential candidate. If you don’t show up to make sure the right one gets voted in now, what are you going to do a few more elections down the line when you have another set of unexciting Presidential candidates to pick from? If history is any indication, most people will stay home and catch the results in the morning.

Think Nationally, Vote Locally

Quick! Who are your representatives in your state’s legislature?

Mine are Leroy Comre in the NY State Senate, and David I. Weprin in the NY State Assembly.

And yes, I had to look that up. I’m not gonna pretend otherwise. Don’t feel bad if you have to look yours up too.

Your local and state politicians have a huge impact on your life, and they will be the foundation of the deep bench for the Democratic Party moving forward. Without that bench, we’re going to be in deep shit come 2018, let alone 2020.

That’s why we need to start now, get involved in the less glamorous elections, and start building the new Democratic Party from the bottom up. We’ve tried it the other way around, and look where that got us. Theres more that can be done: donating, attending party meetings, writing and calling our representatives, and lobbying—yes, lobbying. But all of these are useless if we also don’t get our butts out to the polling place and shape the party from there as well.

So put your change of registration form away, and let’s make it happen.

RIP My Menchies

At 9:25 PM on 11/9, I posted a tweet that proceeded to Go Viral. Here it is below, with a running total under it. It’s got about 7K each retweets and favs as I write this…

Over the last ~72 hours, my entire Twitter experience has been turned upside down because a bunch of people decided I had revealed something profound and decided to include me in their opinion of it.

— RIP My Menchies: Thoughts on Going Viral – Medium

A somewhat cautionary tale for ordinary Twitter using schmoes who could have this happen to them with the right—or wrong—tweet. It’s also a scathing indictment about Twitter’s incredible lack of tools to manage the response when an ordinary user goes viral. Virality comes with risks, particularly after this recent election, but even before. Ask any vaguely prominent woman on Twitter what her mentions look like.