Distortions and Contortions

Building a neo-colonialist "crypto utopia" in Puerto Rico; big tech's efforts to suppress FOIA requests; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Say hello to the Center for Humane Technology, a group of ex-Facebook and Google employees who have been ramping up their critique of the addictive tools they helped build, starting with a $7 million campaign called “The Truth About Tech” done in tandem with Common Sense Media.
  • New (and related): Civicist contributing editor An Xioa Mina takes a hard look at the “digital dissensus” world that today’s tech has given us, discussing how branding geniuses like Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey have learned to dominate this media environment, and what we can do about it.
  • David Owen reports for The New Yorker on what a simple feedback loop can do. HappyOrNot has collected more than 600,000,000 responses—more than the number of online customer ratings ever posted on Amazon, Yelp or TripAdvisor—and its quick and easy user interface has led to changed behavior by many companies, medical facilities and government agencies.
  • Tech and politics: If you think that Russia’s efforts to influence American politics ended with the 2016 election, you aren’t paying attention. As Molly McKew details for Politico, computational propaganda tied to Russian-linked Twitter accounts drove the #ReleasetheMemo hashtag campaign forward these last two weeks, and ultimately propelled the Nunes memo into the political mainstream.
  • YouTube’s recommendation algorithm “is not optimizing for what is trustful, or balanced, or healthy for democracy,” a former engineer tells Paul Lewis of The Guardian. It is “something that looks like reality, but it is distorted to make you spend more time online.” And in general, during the run-up to the 2016 election, it tended to recommend videos that were helpful to Donald Trump and hurtful to Hillary Clinton.
  • Big tech firms like Facebook and Amazon are not only demanding huge tax breaks and other incentives from states as they go about making decisions about where to locate their data centers, they are imposing unusual legal requirements on these deals that stifle Freedom of Information Act requests about them, Mya Frazier reports for Columbia Journalism Review.
  • The age of fake videos that can’t be distinguished from the real thing is upon us, and scholars Henry Farrell and Rick Perlstein warn on The New York Times oped page that democracy can’t work when citizens don’t share the same reality.
  • The investigative journalists at MuckRock have gotten ahold of two year’s worth of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s meeting calendar, and they are asking for readers’ help sifting through it.
  • Joining with other local skeptics, Harvard Law School’s Susan Crawford writes for Wired that the city of Toronto appears to be getting a raw deal from Sidewalk Labs’ (the Google subsidiary) and its plans to develop the Quayside waterfront. She says, “it is not clear whether Toronto will gain any useful insights from its partnership with Google. Meanwhile, Google will be gaining insights about urban life—including energy use, transit effectiveness, climate mitigation strategies, and social service delivery patterns—that it will then be able to resell to cities around the world. Including, perhaps, Toronto itself.”
  • Don’t believe the hype: Can an algorithm predict which bills will be enacted into law? That’s the question FiscalNote is working to answer with $30 million in funding from people like Mark Cuban and the Winklevoss twins, as Michael Gaynor reports for the Washington Post. The company also runs “sentiment analysis” on public comments on rule-making to help clients understand which way “the winds are blowing.” Ahh, nothing like charging big bucks for sentiment analysis.
  • Fully autonomous driverless cars are further away than their boosters claim, Paris Marx writes for Medium.
  • A bunch of wealthy blockchain bros are headed to Puerto Rico hoping to build a “crypto utopia, “a new city where the money is virtual and the contracts are all public,” Nellie Bowles reports for The New York Times. And yes, until someone told them, they had been calling it Puertopia, which means “eternal boy playground” in Latin. What’s attracting them, in part, is the island’s unparalleled tax advantages—no federal personal income taxes, no capital gains tax, and favorable business taxes.
  • Here’s a bit more of what these boys say they’re up to, from a blog post written by Joshua Boles, one of the members of the Puertopia group, two months ago in Steemit: “By decentralizing basically everything and working with government, utilizing this initial coin offering world that we now live in, with 24 seven energy that is not stupid expensive pretty much anything is possible. There are so many people that have a closed mind and think that things can only be done one or two different ways. This is the power of the block chain and tokenizing the foundation itself in order to take these quantum leaps that we so desperately want to impose.” Can I have some of whatever he’s smoking?
  • Attend: Saturday, March 3rd, is BetaNYC’s ninth annual NYC School of Data 2018. Early bird tickets are available thru the end of the day this Tuesday. This year’s conference asks participants to envision better community resources to improve our neighborhoods. Sessions will focus on digital literacy, privacy, smart cities, open government, and civic technology.
  • Your moment of zen: Panoramic video of Mars’ Gale Crater, courtesy of NASA’s Curiosity rover.