Archive for the ‘current events’ Category
This is not a post about Ello. Because Ello is so last Friday. But the rapid rise of and backlash against upstart social media network Ello (if you haven’t been paying attention, see here, here, here) reminded me of something I was wondering a while back.
Lots of people are dissatisfied with Facebook — ad-heavy, curated in a way the user has little control over, privacy-poor. And it looks like Twitter, which really needs bring in more revenue, is taking steps to move in the same direction: algorithmic display of tweets, with the ultimate goal of making users more valuable to advertisers.
The question is, what’s the alternative? There have been a lot of social network flavors of the month, built on a variety of business models. Some of them, like Google Plus, are owned by already-large companies that would be subject to similar business pressures as Facebook and Twitter. Others, like Diaspora (remember Diaspora?), were startups with an anti-Facebook mission (privacy, decentralization), but collapsed under the weight of their own hype.
I can’t imagine that a public utility model would work for a social network — I just don’t see “government-owned” and “fast-moving technological change” going together successfully. But I keep wondering why a Wikipedia model couldn’t work. Make it a 501(c)3. Attract some foundation funding — it’s a pro-democracy project. Solicit gifts from pro-privacy people in the tech industry — there are lots of those. Then once it’s off the ground, ask users for donations.
Sure, there is the huge, huge hurdle of getting enough of a network base to attract new users. But it seems like the costs should not be insane. If it only takes 200 employees to run Wikipedia, as large as it is, how many would it take to get a big social network off the ground? Facebook employs 7000, but a lot of them have to be in the business of figuring out how to sell Facebook.
Maybe there have been (failed) efforts like this and I just haven’t noticed. Or maybe the getting-the-user-base issue is really insurmountable. But it seems like if a real Facebook alternative is to emerge, it can’t just be from a corporate competitor (e.g. Google), and the startup/VC model (e.g. Ello) is going to be susceptible to all the same problems as it grows. Why not a different model?
I’m in the Poconos this week with old college friends and only intermittently paying attention to the larger world. And I’m hesitant to opine about the latest in the world of online experimentation (see here, here, or here) because honestly, it’s not my issue. I don’t study social media. I don’t have deep answers to questions about the ethics of algorithms, or how we should live with, limit, or reshape digital practices. And plenty of virtual ink has already been spilled by people more knowledgeable about the details of these particular cases.
But I do want to make the case that it’s important to have this conversation at this particular moment. Here is why:
If there’s one thing the history of technology teaches us, it’s that technology is path-dependent, and as a particular technology becomes dominant, the social and material world develop along with it in ways that have a lasting impact.
The QWERTY story, in which an inefficient keyboard layout was created to slow down the users of jam-prone typewriters but long outlasted those machines, may be apocryphal. Perhaps a better example is streetcars.
Historian Kenneth Jackson, in the classic Crabgrass Frontier, showed how U.S. cities were first reshaped by streetcars. Streetcars made it possible to commute some distance from home to work, and helped give dense, well-bounded cities a hub-and-spokes shape, with the spokes made up of rail lines. This was made possible by new technology.
Early in the 20th century, another new technology became widely available: the automobile. The car made suburbanization, in the American sense involving sprawl and highways and a turn away from center cities, possible.
But the car alone was not enough to suburbanize the United States. Jackson’s real contribution was to show how technological developments intersected with 1) cultural responses to the crowded, dirty realities of urban life, and 2) government policies that encouraged both white homeownership and white flight, to create the diffuse, car-dependent American suburbs we know and love. The two evolve together: technological possibilities and social decisions about how to use the technologies. As they lock in, both become harder to change — until the next disruptive technology (((ducking))) comes along.
So what does all this have to do with OKCupid?
The lesson here is that technologies and their uses can evolve in multiple ways. European cities developed very differently from American cities, even though both had access to the same transportation technologies. But there are particular moments, periods of transition, when we start to lock in a set of institutions — normative, legal, organizational — around a developing new technology.
We’re never going to be able to predict all the effects that a particular social decision will have on how we use some technology. Government support of racist red-lining practices is one reason for the white flight that encouraged suburbanization. But even if the 1930s U.S. mortgage policy hadn’t been racist, other aspects of it — for example, making the globally uncommon fixed-rate mortgage the U.S. norm — still would have promoted decentralization and encouraged the car-based suburbs. Some of that was probably unforeseeable.*
But some of it wasn’t. And I can’t help but think that more loud and timely conversation about the decisions and nondecisions the U.S. was making in the early decades of the 20th century might have led the country down a less car-dependent path. Once the decisions are made, though, they become very difficult to change.
Right now, it is 1910. We have the technology to know more about individuals than it has ever been possible to know, and maybe to change their behavior. We don’t know how we’re going to govern that technology. We don’t really know what its effects will be. But this is the time to talk about the possibilities, loudly and repeatedly if necessary. Maybe the effects on online experimentation will turn out to be to be harmless. Maybe just trusting that Facebook and OKCupid aren’t setting us on the wrong path will work out. But I’d hate to think that we unintentionally create a new set of freedom-restricting, inequality-reproducing institutions that look pretty lousy in a few decades just because we didn’t talk enough about what might — or might not — be at stake.
* There is a story that GM drove the streetcars out of business by buying up streetcar companies and then dismantling the streetcars. There are a number of accounts purporting to debunk this story. This version, which splits the difference (GM tried, but it wasn’t a conspiracy, and it was only one of several causes) seems knowledgeable, but I’d love a pointer to an authoritative source on GM’s role.
This clip is full of rationality, sanity, and basic human decency. Reagan even proposes an essentially open US/Mexico border at the end. When Reagan is to the left of Obama, it shows our policies are in need of serious overhaul.
Last week, Indiana Ph.D. student Karlijn Keijzer was killed on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The university news web site reports that she was an athlete, gifted science student, and an accomplished teacher. Her passing is a tragedy that has deeply touched the IU community.
History will likely pin this senseless death, and the deaths of hundreds of others, on the separatists and their cruel patron in Moscow. Yet, we should reflect on a broader point. This type of violence, where governments hand out such sophisticated weapons of war to masked men, is made possible by nationalist sentiments. Putin only thrives because of a deep spring of nationalist pride that legitimizes war, a sentiment that exists in many nations. Before we egg on our leaders and demand that they bring war to other nations, let us remember the innocent people who will suffer.
The Koch brothers are, of course, a favorite liberal bugaboo. And while they bankroll a wide range of right-wing institutions, more recently they’ve shifted their focus to the world of higher education. Most recently, the Koches made the news when UNCF (formerly the United Negro College Fund) accepted a $25 million grant to provide scholarships to students interested in entrepreneurship, economics and innovation—a decision that was followed by the union AFSCME cutting its own ties to UNCF.
Now, UNCF is a nonprofit, not a university. But the Koches support universities as well. George Mason is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest recipient of Koch largesse. Overall, in 2012, Koch foundations gave $12.1 million to 163 U.S. universities and colleges.
On the one hand, this is small potatoes. A single hedge fund manager gave Harvard $150 million this year. On the other, it raises important questions about when colleges should say no to money.
“Radical chic” is an old term from the 70s indicating that a politically liberal person is trying to look cool by promoting radical causes. I think we are now seeing a similar phenomenon among conservatives. Many call themselves libertarian to sound cool, but they don’t actually endorse many libertarian positions except for free trade.
Case in point: The person who defeated Eric Cantor is David Brat, a professor of economics who uses the term libertarian to describe himself. But on a range of issues beside economic deregulation, he appears to be a standard issue social conservative. Immigration? Against it. Abortion? Against it. Foreign policy? Vague. Cutting the military? Nope. Gay rights? Silent. And like many conservatives, cutting government means just cutting the programs that conservatives are upset about, like Obamacare, rather than across the board cuts. If you think that libertarians are socially liberal but economic conservatives, he seems to be very close to a social conservative.
My theory? Social conservatives don’t have a very positive image outside of their movement. Social conservatives have been tarnished by anti-immigration hysteria, anti-Black attitudes, and a strong emphasis on abortion. In contrast, libertarianism is a small movement but has some high status adherents (e.g., many well known economists are libertarians, a number of Silicon Valley billionaires, even a Harvard philosopher). It might also be a political term that is less familiar, so there is less risk in using it.
One of the biggest news stories from last week is that a militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has quickly captured key cities in Iraq. CNN asked if ISIS is the first terrorist group to build an Islamic state? Well, the answer is no, as long as you define “terrorist” as “armed political group that targets civilians.”
The have been states founded by organizations that, at one time or another, targeted unarmed civilians. For example, Irgun, a militant Zionist group, included people who would become important in Israeli politics. The nation of East Timor was partially founded by an armed revolutionary group, FreTiLin, which morphed into one of the ruling parties. In terms of Islamic states, one could make the argument that the Taliban was a terrorist group that conquered the secular Afghan state and made it Islamic. There are also various Islamic groups in Africa and Southeast Asia that have conquered territory and have acted like states.
Perhaps what is shocking is that ISIS is doing something uncommon – literally ripping territory from two existing states. Normally, armed revolutionary groups or terrorist groups topple existing elites but otherwise leave boundaries unchanged, or maybe lead a secession. But otherwise, armed, civilian targeting groups are fairly normal aspects of state formation. The relative peace of post-WWII Europe is an anomaly in world history.