A few years ago, right when I moved to Chicago, I was working for a small tech consulting company. The founders were decent guys, well-meaning, progressive. I didn't love the work — "the customer is always right" is not a mindset I easily adopt — but it seemed generally harmless. So one day I was surprised to hear, in an all-staff meeting, that a coworker's web performance audit for Philip Morris had been a rousing success, and might lead to follow-up work.
Listen, I said in my regular check-in with the COO, I know we've got to pay the bills. I'm not trying to be a drama magnet. But this is Philip Morris, one of the most amoral corporate predators in the world. My grandfather died of cancer after smoking his whole life. It's a complex world, but I believe you can draw a few bright lines even under capitalism, and the two easiest examples are Literal Nazis and Big Tobacco.
Ever since I left that company, when I apply somewhere, I try to mention this scenario and ask "What are the clients you wouldn't take? Do you have a process for making that decision?" You may or may not be surprised to find that most people do not have a particularly good response. I interviewed for one well-known agency, and after a pause, the manager said "...that's a very 'journalist' question." I assume that was not meant to be flattering. They'd done work for Facebook, he said, after thinking about it, and for a lot of people that might be the same thing.
This week, there are a lot of comparisons between Facebook and Big Tobacco as whistleblower testimony from Frances Haugen confirms that the company is not only leaning on addiction as a business strategy, but has also been sitting on internal research about how awful its product is (Big Oil is probably a closer parallel). These discoveries aren't new. But Haugen's testimony and leaks are doing a good job of cutting through the usual dynamic around regulating Facebook, where Republicans insist that the company is biased against them (it's emphatically not), and Democrats wring their hands ineffectually.
Let's be clear: Philip Morris made $8 billion last year in profit. It's still a member of the Fortune 500. Apparently, for a lot of people, it's just another client. If this is the comparison for Facebook, they're going to be fine.
But at the same time, regardless of the bottom line, you can see the perception changing. Remember the interview where I was told that it was a "journalist" question to ask about client choice? This week, that agency's founders spent their podcast extending the tobacco and oil comparisons, arguing that Facebook should be regulated if it can't be eradicated. Now, maybe the right hand and left hand aren't talking to each other here (I wasn't interviewing with either of the speakers on the podcast), but that feels like a shift to me.
In the web community, it's time to start collectively questioning the norms around collaborating with Menlo Park. We have the ability to change the perception and access of Facebook — just look at Oracle or Intellectual Ventures! Like the tobacco companies, they're still profitable, of course. The market's gonna market. But it's harder for them to hire. Their influence and mindshare in shaping the conversation are substantially diminished. Nobody's excited about their output.
It was weird to me, when I questioned the Philip Morris contract, that nobody else seemed to have raised an issue. It hadn't even really occurred to them. But it definitely stuck with management: even when I left to go to NPR, it came up in the exit interview. There was a little unease that hadn't been there before. Sometimes that's all it takes.
Facebook, and by extension working with Facebook, or using code that comes from Facebook, should be considered embarrassing, or shameful. You can argue against using React or GraphQL on valid technical terms, in addition to the obvious moral hazard. Integrations with Facebook code should be isolated, treated as untrustworthy, and built in such a way that they can be replaced. When you meet Facebook employees at conferences or gatherings, let them know that it's nothing personal, but you just don't feel clean building on top of that legacy, and you hope they find a better place to work soon.
Imagine an airport smoking lounge: a dingy, nicotine-stained room where participants have to stand and face each other, away from everyone else. Now make that for Facebook. Regulation takes time and lobbying, but low-key shame is free and easily renewable.
Since it is election season, when I ran out of library books last week I decided to re-read Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, as I do every four years or so. Surprisingly, I don't appear to have written about it here, even though it's one of my favorite books, and the reason I got into journalism in the first place.
On the Campaign Trail is always a relevant text, but it feels particularly so apt this year. In the middle of the Trump presidential run, the book's passage on the original populist rabble-rouser, George Wallace, could have been written yesterday if you just swap some names — not to mention the whirlwind chaos of the primaries and a convention battle. On the other hand, with writing this good, there's really no wrong time to bring it up.
Even before his death in 2005, when most people thought about Thompson, what usually came to mind was wild indulgence: drugs, guns, and "bat country." Ironically, On the Campaign Trail makes the strong case that his best writing was powerfully controlled and focused, not loose and hedonistic: the first two-thirds of the book (or even the first third) contain his finest work. After the Democratic national convention, and the resulting breakdowns in Thompson's health, the analysis remains sharp but the writing never reaches those heights again.
That's not to say that the book is without moments of depravity — his account of accidentally unleashing a drunken yahoo on the Muskie whistlestop tour is still a classic, not to mention the extended threat to chop the big toes off the McGovern political director — but it's never random or undirected. For Thompson, wild fabrication is the only way to bring readers into the surreal world of a political race. His genius is that it actually works.
Despite all that, if On the Campaign Trail has a legacy, it's not the craziness, the drugs, or even the politics. The core of the book is two warring impulses that drive Thompson at every turn: sympathy for the voters who pull the levers of democracy, and simultaneously a deep distrust of the kind of people that they reliably elect. The union of the two is the fuel behind his best writing. Or, as he puts it:
The highways are full of good mottos. But T.S. Eliot put them all in a sack when he coughed up that line about... what was it? Have these Dangerous Drugs fucked my memory? Maybe so. But I think it went something like this:
"Between the Idea and the Reality... Falls the Shadow."
The Shadow? I could almost smell the bastard behind me when I made the last turn into Manchester. It was late Tuesday night, and tomorrow's schedule was calm. All the candidates had zipped off to Florida — except for Sam Yorty, and I didn't feel ready for that.
The next day, around noon, I drove down to Boston. The only hitchhiker I saw was an eighteen-year-old kid with long black hair who was going to Reading — or "Redding," as he said it &mdsash; but when I asked him who he planned to vote for in the election he looked at me like I'd said something crazy.
"What election?" he asked.
"Never mind," I said. "I was only kidding."
John: Hey, Bush is now at 37% approval. I feel much less like Kevin McCarthy screaming in traffic. But I wonder what his base is --
John: ... you said that immmediately, and with some authority.
Tyrone: Obama vs. Alan Keyes. Keyes was from out of state, so you can eliminate any established political base; both candidates were black, so you can factor out racism; and Keyes was plainly, obviously, completely crazy. Batshit crazy. Head-trauma crazy. But 27% of the population of Illinois voted for him. They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgement. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That's crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.
John: Objectively crazy or crazy vis-a-vis my own inertial reference frame for rational behaviour? I mean, are you creating the Theory of Special Crazification or General Crazification?
Tyrone: Hadn't thought about it. Let's split the difference. Half just have worldviews which lead them to disagree with what you consider rationality even though they arrive at their positions through rational means, and the other half are the core of the Crazification -- either genuinely crazy; or so woefully misinformed about how the world works, the bases for their decision making is so flawed they may as well be crazy.
John: You realize this leads to there being over 30 million crazy people in the US?
Tyrone: Does that seem wrong?
John: ... a bit low, actually.
I saw a CBS poll this morning stating that 25% of the public favors the shutdown of the federal government. 80 representatives (that's 18.3%, one third of the Republican caucus in the House and representing roughly 18% of the total population) signed the original manifesto leading to the shutdown. Even if the numbers are a little low, is there any remaining doubt that John Rogers' Crazification Factor remains more accurate and revealing than most of Politico on any given day?
This is what you get when you elect people who don't believe in government to political office. You cannot deal with the Suicide Caucus, because they don't recognize the legitimacy of the rules that the Congress is supposed to operate under (thus the endless parade of funding delays and filibusters over the last seven years). Besides, they don't want to negotiate. They've gotten what they wanted: the government is basically closed for business, and they couldn't be more thrilled about it.
This week, Internet law commentary site Groklaw shut down, citing the lack of privacy in a world where the government is (maybe, possibly) reading all your e-mail. On the one hand, you can argue that this is evidence of dangerous chilling effects from surveillance on the fourth estate. On the other hand, shutting down a public blog (one that's focused on publicly-available legal filings) because the NSA can read your correspondence seems... ill-considered, but sadly not atypical.
In the initial wake of the NSA wiretapping stories, David Simon, author of The Wire, wrote a series of essays saying, effectively, "Welcome to the security state, white people."
Those arguing about scope are saying, in a backhanded way, that thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, can have their data collected for weeks or months on end because they happened to use a string of North Avenue payphones, because they have the geographic misfortune to live where they do. And it’s the same thing when it’s tens of thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, using a westside cell tower and having their phone data captured. That’s cool, too. That’s law and order, and constitutionally sound law and order, at that. But wait: Now, for the sake of another common societal goal — in this case, counter-terror operations — when it’s time for all Americans to ante in with the same, exact legal intrusion, the white folks, the middle-class, the affluent go righteously, batshit, Patrick-Henry quoting crazy? Really?
Whether you find these situations comparable will probably indicate how credible you find Simon's argument in general. It's important to note that he's not trying to say we should just roll over for the NSA. The question he raises is one of social justice: when we talk about fixing these problems, are we worried about strengthening protections for everyone? Or just in ways that will preserve privacy for people who can afford it? What Simon doesn't say is that technological solutions are mutually exclusive with social justice — without fail, they always fall into the latter category.
By this point, there's been a lot of ink spilled on how to "protect yourself" from the NSA. People write long how-to guides on setting up a secure mail server (like hilariously long "two hour" guide) or using PGP encryption. None of this is manageable by normal human beings: speaking as someone who has actually set up a private, unencrypted mail server, it's completely out of reach for all but the most devoted shut-ins. You could not pay me enough to edit my Postfix config again, much less try to add encryption to it.
Okay, so the open-source situation is rough at best. That scratching sound you hear is a million start-ups raiding their trust funds to create the new Shiny, User-Friendly Crypto Solution. None of them will answer the following questions:
I am increasingly uncomfortable with all of this technocratic rhetoric — "the solution to our political problem is more software" — because it sounds an awful lot like "the solution to a dangerous government is more guns (and particularly more guns for white people)" from the NRA. Both arguments are misguided, but more importantly they both invoke a siege mentality. They assume that nothing can be done as a community, or even at all. Instead, their response is to hole up in a bunker and look out for number one.
Personally, I think the great thing about our system of government is that it is designed to be rebuilt on a regular basis. There is no law in the USA that can't be changed. Everything up to and including the Constitution is under debate, if you can convince enough people. Granted, activism requires participation and cooperation, and both of those (especially compared to buying a firearm or coding a protocol) are hard. But they are robust solutions that address the wider problem for everyone, instead of merely fulfilling someone's resistance fighter fantasy.
It's easier to look for loopholes and clever fixes. It's easier to write manifestos for (just to pick on a single random example that popped up while I was writing this) "a better web" through framework improvements or decentralized software. But neither of those actually changes anything. At best, they're workarounds. At worst, they're snake oil. Take whatever actions you want online--write new code, sign petitions, or unpublish your blog. Until that energy is matched offline, with old-fashioned, inefficient politics, you're just wasting your time.
I wish I could say I'm surprised by the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. It would have been nice to see the manslaughter charge stick--even Florida should be able to prosecute the poor man's murder--but that was probably a long shot. The fix was in from the moment that the police had to be embarrassed into even charging Zimmerman in the first place.
There were a lot of ugly parts of the American character wrapped up in the case. There was the casual, almost off-handed racism of the whole affair, but there was also the clownishness of our national fixation on firearms. That's the narrative that drove George Zimmerman, after all: a one-man neighborhood watch, following whatever "punks" were unlucky enough to find themselves the antagonists of his inner screening of Death Wish. I imagine that there are a lot of people who knew Zimmerman, who thought he was a nut and a caricature--almost a joke. After all, I have known people who were a hair's breadth from being George Zimmerman, and I've laughed at them. They're a lot less funny now.
Over the last year, since the shooting in Newtown, Josh Marshall has reposted stories to the TPM Editor's Blog whenever there's a story on the wire services of child deaths caused by guns. On average, there's probably one a week. It's a powerful, if understated, kind of journalism, like one of those Family Guy hanging gags: at first it's horrific, then it becomes routine, and then the normality of that routine becomes devastating in and of itself. There have been a lot of kids killed in the last eight months, with surprisingly little outcry.
It's as if, across the country, we've decided to raise our kids in a tank filled with deadly scorpions. Even though we lose children on a regular basis, discussing the obvious solution--getting rid of the scorpions, maybe buying a puppy instead--doesn't seem to be an option. To the contrary: more scorpions, screams the NRA! Scorpions for everyone! Only when everyone is covered in poisonous arthropods will we truly be safe!
(Of course, as various people have commented, the NRA is oddly silent on whether or not Trayvon Martin would have been safe from assault if he had been packing heat. This differs markedly from their usual argument that the solution is always more, and more powerful, weaponry. I can't imagine what's different in this case.)
With every recent shooting, there's been a sense on the left that this time, people will see how terrible our firearms fetish has become: Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown each brought a fresh sense of unreality to the whole debate. And now George Zimmerman walks, after shooting an unarmed black teenager for the simple crime of being where George Zimmerman didn't think he belonged. Maybe, finally, this will be the case when we start to think about what all these guns actually mean as a society, but I doubt it. That gives us too much credit: the deadlier our guns, the more we cling to them for comfort. Heaven help us all.
These "Academic Freedom Act" laws seem like a very good idea to me, but I wonder if we're taking them far enough. If the Discovery Institute and all manner of right-wing think tanks want to Teach the Controversy, why limit ourselves to evolution and climate change? With that in mind, I've assembled a new school curriculum that (finally!) acknowledges the complicated world beyond "facts" and "truth."
Social Studies: Students will learn about the checks and balances built into our democratic way of life, of course. But we shouldn't leave them ignorant of competing theories, such as David Icke's "lizard oligarchy," in case the queen of England really does turn out to be a giant space reptile bent on world domination. As high school seniors, students will also spend the semester learning about Ayn Rand's theory of radical selfishness, in the hopes that it will keep them from reading Atlas Shrugged in college and becoming insufferably tedious for about a year and a half.
History: Move over, eurocentric history! Take cover, afrocentric and multicultural history! Under new management, history class will approach the hard questions of the past with an open mind toward alternate theories. For example: did the holocaust really happen, or is it just the invention of a shadowy cabal working behind the scenes of our financial and entertainment industries? You know who I'm talking about.
Physical Education: Gym class doesn't change, but students who get sick will now be told that their humours are out of balance, and will be bled by on-site leeches. Coaches also have the option of blaming vaccines when the football team loses.
English: Given the predominance of "literacy" in the early grades, students will spend the second half of their primary education learning how to communicate pre-verbally, mostly by pointing and grunting. For many teenagers, this won't be much of a change. The curriculum will culminate with a trip to a local quarry, where the students will attempt to recreate the Lascaux cave paintings, thus teaching them the valuable life lesson that art is hard so why try anyway?
Math: I tried to think of something funny about math, and then I remembered that we still teach kids about "imaginary" numbers, and to add insult to injury we do so very badly. Math is weird, y'all.
Foreign Languages: One word: Esperanto. Ironically, in Esperanto, this is actually twelve words. It's the language of the future, people. William Shatner did a whole movie in Esperanto once. I've got a good feeling about this one.
One of my pet peeves are those big, intricately-designed infographic "posters," partly because I think they tend toward smugness, but also because they're very good at setting up a simplistic narrative from a series of loosely-related statistics. They lead the reader from one isolate number to another, often without establishing a clear connection between them--and because they're just giant JPG images, they don't lend themselves to easy fact-checking via links to source data. If there's one thing I've learned at CQ, it's that the policy situation is rarely that simple.
It was probably inevitable that politicians would jump on the visualization bandwagon at some point, and given Congress's penchant for signs that would look underdesigned at a Lyndon LaRouche campaign table, it had to come from the executive branch. It isn't surprising that this administration--with its affection for social media as a political tool--would be the one to take action. But somehow I didn't expect it so soon, or to look so polished--several of these wouldn't be out of place in the New York Times.
I am not so much concerned that the government is creating slicker graphics--in these troubled economic times, I'm happy to see any jobs being created, even for designers!--as much as I think this is a good chance to consider "ethical" information design. What the White House is doing is different from data that comes from the CBO or the GAO, because it's rhetoric, not research. And while I don't necessarily think that the administration is lying to us with each graphic, even my hackles are raised by the matter-of-fact presentation of political data through flat, opaque graphics. Here are some measures I'd like to see the White House, and other political actors considering data visualization, take in the future:
I admit, these suggestions aren't necessarily good for the White House from a political perspective. But then, as a citizen I'm not really interested in what's good for the White House from a political perspective. I'm interested in national policy and a more informed debate--which shouldn't be mutually exclusive with political influence. You can still make shiny graphics for a rhetorical goal without sacrificing transparency and honesty. The question is whether politicians will do so, or if they'll use the public's general cluelessness about data visualization to their own advantage.
With a post on Boing Boing this morning and a decent amount of chatter on Twitter, BitCoin appears to have hit the Internet mainstream. CNN will probably run a story in a week, although they'll be hard-pressed to make it seem any sillier than it already is, because BitCoin is the seasteading of economics: a bizarre scheme created by technolibertarians to address a problem nobody needed solving with a solution that nobody will ever find practical.
The site went down when the first flurry of links hit (a tremendously comforting state of affairs for an entirely-digital currency, I have to say), but here's the gist of BitCoin: it's a monetary system where you earn money by letting your computer "solve" large, complicated mathematical problems. The exact difficulty of these problems is adjusted by a peer-to-peer network to keep the rate of money generation at a planned level. Once created, each "coin" is a cryptographically-signed hash that can be passed from one person to another using a form of public key encryption. The theoretical advantages of this whole scheme are that:
If these seem like they hit the all the standard talking points for crazy people who read Cryptonomicon and thought it was non-fiction, you're not far off. Avery Pennarun's explanation of its flaws has caught a lot of attention (as well as a lot of derision from the pro-BitCoin crowd, although I have yet to see anyone rebut it with anything more convincing than "nuh-uh!").
I'm not an economist, but I play one on the Internet. And from my point of view, the biggest strike against this, or any other alternative currency, is simply that it'll never get more of an audience than conspiracy theorists and utopians. Normal people won't use BitCoin because you can't buy lunch with it. Businesses won't use it because normal people don't use it. And banks won't use it because they already have a perfectly usable system of moving money around electronically, and because they have no incentives to switch unless businesses and normal people demand it, which they won't. Much of the argument for BitCoin seems to be "well, good, we didn't want banks or banking to exist anyway." At that point, the only reasonable response is to back away slowly toward the nearest exit.
Despite the fact that it's completely bonkers, I feel like it's a bit of a shame that BitCoin's so obviously useless. Not because we need a global, untraceable currency that eliminates useful governmental controls on the market, but because our current options for spending money online are so limited. If you pay for something over the Internet, chances are that your transaction went through one of the big credit card companies--they've become the de facto standard platform for remote purchases. That's a huge cash cow, built on a framework with little transparency or real competition. As we move more and more of our economy online, their dominance is basically a license for a small number of corporations to print money.
But mostly BitCoin just leaves me melancholy. It's a dream by and for people who have missed the real lesson of Internet commerce, which is that it succeeded not because it was independent of the real world economy, but precisely because the two could be linked. Sites like eBay and Amazon were revolutionary because they were built on the same basic mechanisms as regular commercial networks: reputation, reviews, consumer feedback... and of course, plain old dollars. BitCoin (much like seasteading) tries to reduce the messy, human parts of economics to a set of sterile game mechanics. That's not even really libertarianism--it's nihilism, masquerading as a political philosophy.
I'm no great fan of money for its own sake, and I think we could stand to tweak our economic systems a bit, but the concept isn't broken in and of itself. If I thought BitCoin had a chance, I'd probably be worried. But despite its extreme principles, it still has to compete in the same marketplace of ideas as everything else--and I'm pretty sure nobody's buying what they're selling.