Earnest Attempts

Rethinking Metcalf's Law; a chatbot for volunteering; and more.


  • This is civic tech: The LowDown’s Ed Litvak and Curbed.com’s Tanay Warerkar both report on the decision last week by two subcommittees of NYC Community Board 3 to support the “tech hub” on 14th Street, aka “Civic Hall @ Union Square.” The full board will be holding a hearing on the plan on February 27.

  • vTaiwan, the interactive participatory deliberation process we covered here on Civicist, just won the “Future Voice” award at this years Interaction Design Association conference.

  • The good folks at Verified Voting are applauding the decision by Pennsylvania officials to stop buying paperless direct recording electronic (DRE) voting systems and to instead require that new machines include a voter-verifiable paper ballot or record. Now, says Verified Voting, the state needs to decertify all of its existing DRE-based machines, which 83 percent of state votes are currently cast on.

  • The good folks at Idealist have launched a Facebook Messenger chatbot called “Ida” (created by BBDO New York) that works to connect users with organizations to volunteer with or support, Zoe Beery reports for CampaignLive.

  • “How to break up with your phone” is the title of a new book by freelance writer Catherine Price, who explains more in an interview with Hope Reese in Vox.

  • Internet of Shit: The darker a person’s skin, the less accurate facial recognition tech becomes, according to new research by Joy Buolamwini at the MIT Media Lab. She’s founded the Algorithmic Justice League to raise more awareness of the issue, as Steve Lohr reports for The New York Times.

  • Is text dead? Farhad Manjoo, tech columnist for the New York Times, says that we’ve entered the post-text age, thanks to the internet.

  • Joshua Benton, the head of Harvard’s Nieman Lab, begs to differ. New forms of media are often additive, and to the extent they are subtractive, they are replacing their own forms (to wit, podcasts are replacing traditional radio; Netflix and YouTube are replacing traditional TV).

  • Tech and politics: Andrew Yang, New York tech exec who started Venture for America, is running for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 with a message focused on how automation is threatening millions of jobs, Kevin Roose reports for The New York Times.

  • Life inside Facebookistan: Wired’s Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein spoke with 51 current or former Facebook employees to report out their cover story on “a company, and a CEO, whose techno-optimism has been crushed as they’ve learned the myriad ways their platform can be used for ill.” And also, “external threats, defensive internal calculations, and false starts that delayed Facebook’s reckoning with its impact on global affairs and its users’ minds.” And, befitting a story that not only cites many of the company’s critics but clearly has the markings of spin from a very savvy Facebook communications team, the “story of the company’s earnest attempt to redeem itself.”

  • Also revealed in Wired’s story: How Rupert Murdoch pressured Mark Zuckerberg in the summer of 2016 to stabilize how the giant platform treated news, since its frequent tweaks to the News Feed algorithm was wreaking havoc with publishers’ traffic. And how it wasn’t until six months after the 2016 election that the company woke up to the fact that it wasn’t just a haven for fake news, it had become the platform for foreign intelligence operations against democracies.

  • Unilever, one of the world’s biggest advertisers, is threatening to reduce its spending on platforms like Facebook and YouTube unless they do more to combat the spread of fake news, hate speech and divisive content, Suzanne Veronica reports for the Wall Street Journal. Before you get too excited about this, note that a year ago Procter & Gamble, the world’s top advertiser, made similar demands and the company ‘s chief marketing officer now says that “the progress has been impressive.”

  • “Truth is, the web gave birth to Google, though Google acts as if it were the other way,” writes Dave Winer. “BTW, the best gave birth to Facebook too. There would be no FB if it weren’t for the web, and Zuck would probably be a program manager at Microsoft.”

  • If you’ve never questioned Metcalfe’s Law (the idea that a network’s value grows in proportion to the square of the number of people connected to it), take the time to read Dan Hon’s excellent critique of the value system of unbridled tech.