Back to the Stone Age

Cell phones and your stress level; data and the poor; and much, much more.

  • This is civic tech: Bianca Wylie, who more and more is becoming today’s Jane Jacobs to “smart city” cheerleaders, explains on Medium why it’s not ok for Sidewalk Labs, which is busy pushing its Toronto project forward, to subtly promote the normalization of sensors collecting untold personal data by rolling out some well-designed signage for telling passers-by what they may be walking through (something we noted in last Tuesday’s edition of First Post). She writes, “this project is a push to privatize every possible type of interaction or event in public space through data collection. To broker and mediate physical spaces through a digital layer. It may be a digital layer of open standards. It may be an interoperable layer. But as long as it’s there, it’s game on. And as Sidewalk Labs like to exclaim, hey — you can do this all too! They’re the enabler. They’ll enable local businesses. And they’ll do all of this while acting as though the company is not part of a holding company that has an ever-expanding set of subsidiaries that have products for cities. Or a massive asymmetry of power and expertise. It’s the nonsense of open as equity.”

  • Alaa Abd el Fattah, Egyptian human rights activist, revolutionary blogger and software developer, is out of prison after serving a five year sentence, and in this poignant interview with Mada Masr magazine, he notes “the internet has become a strange place, impossible to grasp….Getting out, I feel like we’ve gone back to the Stone Age. People speak in emojis and sounds — ha ha ho ho — not text. Text and the written word are so nice. So I’m bothered. I feel like there has been a regression even in two-way conversation, not just collective – in the ability to deal with complex topics….It’s very strange that the entire world knows that these tools and mediums are defective and they have no faith in them and are suspicious of them, but they just keep using them.”

  • The more you use your cell phone, the more you raise your body’s cortisol level—increasing your overall stress level and impairing your health, Catherine Price reports for The New York Times. She writes, “To make your phone less stressful, start by turning off all notifications except for the ones you actually want to receive. Next, pay attention to how individual apps make you feel when you use them. Which do you check out of anxiety? Which leave you feeling stressed? Hide these apps in a folder off your home screen. Or, better yet, delete them for a few days and see how it feels.”

  • NYC’s Automated Decision System Task Force is having a public meeting today which you can attend or watch online.

  • In advance of that meeting, four data justice nerds—Aki Younge, Deepra Yusuf, Elyse Voegeli and Jon Truong—released Automating.NYC, a brilliant interactive guide to the issues at stake.

  • A group of technology practitioners and academics organized by Fight For the Future are urging the Massachusetts state legislature to pass a moratorium on the government use of face surveillance technology and other remote biometric tracking technologies, until the legislature passes comprehensive privacy, civil rights, racial justice, and transparency protections.

  • Low-income Americans are more concerned than wealthier Americans about losing control over how their data is collected or used as well as being harassed online or having their financial information stolen, Mary Madden of the Data & Society Institute writes in a valuable New York Times oped. They are also disproportionately reliant on mobile phones for internet access, and have less confidence overall in the security of online processes, a fact that she notes will have even greater significance as much of the 2020 census will be conducted online.

  • Tech and politics: Remember when we thought that social media would make it possible for politicians to develop “authentic” relationships with voters. Ah, good times. Now, as this Politico profile by David Freedlander of Lis Smith, the media whiz behind the rise of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, makes clear, volume and speed beat truth. Smith tells him, in Freedlander’s words, that “even in the age of Twitter, that especially in the age of Twitter, people don’t really care about gaffes. They just get swallowed up by the next news cycle, and never reach the voters who matter anyway.” 

  • Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders‘ campaign unveiled a new online organizing tool called BERN which “allows everyday supporters to contribute to the campaign’s voter database by logging names and background information of anyone from a family member to a stranger met at a bus stop,” Shaquille Brewster reports for NBC News. “It matches each name to a voter record before noting their level of support, priority issue and even union membership.”

  • On Twitter, the BERN app generated a lot of criticism from people like lawyer and journalist Imani Gandy who feel that this approach invades privacy and invites abuse. Aida Chavez of The Intercept defended the app, saying it will allow Sanders supporters to help expand the electorate.

  • FBI director Christopher Wray is taking the threat of Russian meddling in the 2020 election very seriously, Julian Barnes and Adam Goldman report for The New York Times.

  • In response to an investigative report by Judd Legum, Facebook has removed hundreds of Trump campaign ads that violated its policy against targeting people by their gender in the content of the ad. In this case it was the phrase “Attention Ladies” in ads touting Melania Trump‘s birthday that crossed the line.

  • Life in Facebookistan: The New York Times’ Charlie Warzel talks to some smart tech critics, notably Anil Dash of Glitch, Matt Stoller of the Open Markets Institute and David Carroll of the New School, about the likelihood that the FTC is going to fine Facebook $5 billion for violating its 2011 privacy consent decree. Here’s Stoller’s prescription for a truly tough FTC response, starting with CEO Mark Zuckerberg being required to admit he violated the law.

  • Continuing his “personal challenge” series of public discussions on the future of the internet and society, Mark Zuckerberg shares the video and transcript of his private discussion with best-selling author Yuval Harari. It’s a frustrating read. Zuck agrees with Harari that the most meaningful social interactions are the ones that happen face to face in real communities, but then insists that he can solve for that by asking “a statistical subsample” of Facebook users if the groups he’s driving them into are producing those kinds of meaningful connection. Likewise, Harari repeatedly tries to get Zuck to consider the possibility that today’s massive tech platforms may be intrinsically more friendly to authoritarian systems of power than democratic ones and Zuck keeps falling back on his faith that actually America is more democratic now than ever, because he mistakes having voice with having power. To wit, Zuck says, “I actually think what has happened today is that increasingly more people are enfranchised and more people have a voice, more people are getting the vote, but, increasingly, people have a voice, more people have access to information and I think a lot of what people are asking is ‘Is that good?’ It’s not necessarily the question of ‘Okay, the democratic process has been the same, but now the technology is different.’ I think the technology has made it so individuals are more empowered and part of the question is ‘Is that the world that we want?’”

  • The Social Science Research Council has announced the first recipients of its Social Media and Democracy Research Grants, which will “use access to Facebook data to better explain how political news is shared in European multiparty political systems; to understand how social events or technology platform changes influence communication behaviors such as spreading disinformation; and to deepen our knowledge of how social media platforms were used in elections in Italy, Chile, and Germany and how their use may influence public opinion in Taiwan. The projects also seek to provide a richer understanding of the relationship between social media platforms like Facebook and traditional news media, and how we as a society can better distinguish legitimate news sources from unverified ones.”

  • New York’s Attorney General Leticia James announced a new investigation into Facebook’s unauthorized collection of 1.5 million of its users’ email contact databases.

  • Canada’s Privacy Commission, Daniel Therrien, is furious that Facebook is rejecting his office’s legal findings about its breach of trust in the Cambridge Analytica scandal “as mere opinions.”

  • Media matters: The break-up between Markup founders Julia Angwin and Sue Gardner continued to play out late last week, with this piece by Mathew Ingram in the Columbia Journalism Review giving more of Gardner’s side of the story. Peter Sterne posts more here from Gardner.

  • The Correspondent has lost its first US hire, Zainab Shah, who tells Laura Hazard Owen of Nieman Lab that she quit when it became clear that the Dutch site had misled its many American backers when it crowdfunded $2.5 million to expand into the US and then decided not to open a local bureau here.

  • One week after the release of the Mueller report, the most recommended analysis on YouTube is from Russia Today, ex-Googler Giullaume Chaslot, who is now with the Center for Humane Technology, reports. But don’t worry, YouTube chief Susan Wojcicki is “measured.”

  • Amazon is looking to hire a managing editor for its Internet doorbell company Ring, who will have the job of managing a team of news editors to deliver “breaking crime alerts” to local users. The comments on that tweet tell you all you need to know. Josh Benton of Nieman Lab has more.

  • Food for thought: Writing for Quartz, Maciej Kuziemski, Nina Frahm and Kasper Schioelin argue that neither Mark Zuckerberg nor Elizabeth Warren have the right approach to fixing Big Tech. The answer, they say, isn’t more technical fixes or trustbusting, but to involve the public more fully in decisions about technology policy.

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please consider joining Civic Hall as a network member and supporting our work or sign up to our newsletter to stay connected with the #CivicTech community.