Bright Dings of Pseudo-Pleasure

Oracle's unAmerican govtech; trying to build a fair and unbiased recommendation system; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Our Jessica McKenzie reports on how one socially conscious tech company, Meetup, is figuring out how to make sure its algorithmic recommendations system doesn’t reinforce sexist biases.

  • The New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity has launched the nation’s first-ever “Service Design Studio,” along with a release of a Civic Service Design Tools + Tactics guide.

  • Code for America founder Jen Pahlka calls out Oracle as one major government tech vendor for its “jawdroppingly disingenuous, misleading and … unAmerican” response to a Trump Administration request for feedback on how to improve government IT. “I’ve spent the last seven years talking with cities, counties, states, and federal agencies about their use of technology, and I have yet to meet a happy Oracle customer,” she adds.

  • FEMA has put information about Puerto Rico’s hurricane issues back up on its website, but in the meantime the Washington Post’s Philip Bump has built a tool that shows, in real time, how slowly the island is progressing back to normalcy.

  • Trump watch: The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), said on Sunday that President Trump is recklessly taking the nation “on the path to World War III.” If you read one thing about this, make it James Fallows’ careful call to action in The Atlantic.

  • Opposition watch: Kenneth Vogel reports for The New York Times on internal tensions between new “resistance” groups and older established Democratic partisan organizations, particularly over fundraising but also ideology.

  • Ezra Levin, the co-founder of Indivisible, takes to Twitter to push back on Vogel’s framing. Citing the TrumpCare battle as an example, he writes, “This was a joint fight, where all parts of the progressive ecosystem worked together. It’s hard to imagine anything else working.”

  • Life in Facebookistan: The maker of Facebook’s iconic “Like” button, Justin Rosenstein, has programmed his new iPhone to prevent him from downloading any apps. In particular, reports Paul Lewis in a tour-de-force of imaginative investigative reporting for the Guardian, Rosenstein wants to avoid the allure of likes, which he describes as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure.” Another member of the team that made the like button, Leah Pearlman, has installed a web browser plug-in to eradicate her Facebook news feed and hired someone to monitor her Facebook page so she doesn’t have to. “One reason I think it is particularly important for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before,” Rosenstein says. Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, and a defender of the tricks tech uses to addict people to its products, has a timer in his house that periodically shuts of the Internet to remind his family that “we are in control.”

  • I’m using red for this item, because it’s what design ethicist Tristan Harris (also featured in The Guardian story) calls “a trigger color.” As Lewis reports, “A friend at Facebook told Harris that designers initially decided the notification icon, which alerts people to new activity such as ‘friend requests’ or ‘likes,’ should be blue. It fit Facebook’s style and, the thinking went, would appear ‘subtle and innocuous.’ ‘But no one used it,’ Harris says. ‘Then they switched it to red and of course everyone used it.'”

  • Loren Brichter, the designer of the “pull-to-refresh” mechanism, which you shall use dozens if not hundreds of times today, agrees with Harris that it works like gambling’s slot machine. ““I agree 100%,” he says. “I have two kids now and I regret every minute that I’m not paying attention to them because my smartphone has sucked me in.” He adds, “I’ve spent many hours and weeks and months and years thinking about whether anything I’ve done has made a net positive impact on society or humanity at all.” He has blocked certain websites, turned off push notifications, restricted his use of the Telegram app to message only with his wife and two close friends, and tried to wean himself off Twitter.

  • If you would like to return to the Matrix now, take the blue pill and read this article on how to increase your Facebook page engagement.

  • Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale tells 60 Minutes that Facebook was critical to how they won the election.

  • Facebook’s travails are just beginning, says Alex Kantrowitz in BuzzFeed, after speaking to members of the House and Senate who are part of the ongoing investigation of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. He writes, “The Russian ad scandal has captured lawmakers’ attention in a way Facebook’s previous political crises — from allegations of bias in its Trending column to its role in spreading fake news — have not. It has crystallized a trio of individual fears — Facebook is too big, has too much influence, and cannot effectively monitor itself — into one big expression of all of them.”

  • Russia-linked accounts that tried to influence the election also turned up on Instagram, Alex Pasternack reports for Fast Company, and on YouTube, report Ben Collins, Gideon Resnick and Spencer Ackerman for The Daily Beast.

  • Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, took to Twitter Saturday morning to push back against critics who claim it is easy to spot fake news and bots.

  • Food for thought: Tim O’Reilly, who has a new book out called WTF (for What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us), tells veteran tech writer Steven Levy in Wired that “financial markets are the first rogue AI,” and that we can use the political process to reprogram them. Intriguing! He also says that “China has recognized that its vast population is a possible powder keg and it has to take care of its people…something we have not done.” Hmm.