Humans, Not Robots

Civic Saturdays spread; Jigsaw in pieces; fighting online bullying; and much more.


  • Civic engagement in challenging times: We’ve long been fans of Eric Liu and Jená Cane‘s “Civic Saturdays” project, so it’s wonderful to read Courtney Martin‘s stirring NY Times portrait of the spread of this “civic religion” movement across the country.

  • When “respected institutions” that are not normally partisan or political speak out on current issues, they “can cause sudden, sharp changes in what societies perceive as right or wrong,” Amanda Taub writes for The New York Times, looking at how the recent walkout by Wayfair employees protesting their company’s profiting from the sale of furniture to migrant children detention centers may augur a shift in public opinion.

  • Is this civic tech? Google’s Jigsaw subsidiary has long been a crown jewel in the company’s corporate crown, founded by longtime CEO and chairman Eric Schmidt to dream up tech solutions to hard social problems and run by his protege and sometime co-author Jared Cohen. But as Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reports for Vice, current and former employees describe Cohen as “tone deaf” with a “white savior complex” who is going to “save the day for the poor brown people” and who is widely disliked by his colleagues. He adds:

    “Current and former Jigsaw employees describe a toxic workplace environment, mismanagement, poor leadership, HR complaints that haven’t resulted in action, retaliation against employees who speak up, and a chronic failure to retain talent, particularly women engineers and researchers. Sources describe a place full of well-intentioned people who are undermined by their own leaders; an organization that, despite the breathless headlines it has garnered, has done little to actually make the internet any better.”
  • Here’s Cohen’s email to his staff responding to the story, which someone leaked to Franceschi-Bicchiera. Cohen says he is “frustrated and disappointed” by the story and insists that the company has been hard at work making internal improvements. Why does this matter? With 60 employees, Jigsaw is one of the most significant efforts by any of the Big Tech giants to devote significant resources and talent to using tech for the public good.

  • Tech and politics: This Thursday, the White House is hosting “digital leaders” for a “Social Media Summit,” but as CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports, Facebook and Twitter aren’t invited.

  • Tech workers, unite! Amazon warehouse workers in Minnesota are planning a six hour work stoppage on July 15, the first day of Prime Day, Josh Eidelson and Spencer Soper report for Bloomberg. “We are humans, not robots,” one of the organizer’s signs reads.

  • The climate crisis is going to drown the Internet within 15 years. OK, now do we have your attention? That’s the upshot of a new academic study that looks at how much of the net’s infrastructure lies along vulnerable coastlines, Alejandra Borunda reports for National Geographic.

  • California has become the first state to require that political or commercial bots reveal their “artificial identify” in a manner that is “clear, conspicuous and reasonably designed,” but as Noam Cohen explains in the New Yorker, there are still lots of questions about whether this will squelch legitimate speech.

  • Related: Privacy International has created a Twitter bot called @adversarybot which, if you follow it, will follow you back and share its thoughts about privacy, freedom and humanity, along with offering “insights” into who you are based solely on your published tweets. Time to be the person your Twitter followers think you are!

  • Life in Facebookistan: Mark Bergen and Kurt Wagner report for Bloomberg on how Facebook zealously monitors and works to stamp out rumors related to the company itself, using tools called Stormchaser and Night’s Watch. “According to a former staffer who worked with Stormchaser, the initiative showed how the company prioritized projects refuting fake news about Facebook over other forms of misinformation spreading on the social network.”

  • Katy Steinmetz reports for Time magazine on how Instagram is trying to use AI to reduce how much the platform is used for cyberbullying, but as she notes, “it’s much easier to recognize when someone in a photo is not wearing pants than it is to recognize the broad array of behavior that might be considered bullying.” Oh, and the person in charge of this whole effort, Adam Mosseri, previously was in charge of the development of Facebook NewsFeed, so this should inspire confidence. (How does your AI read sarcasm, he asked.)

  • One problem with Steinmetz’s article is that she accepts the frame of all the blitzscaled platforms, which is that connecting the entire world online requires massively open platforms, unfortunately creating massive toxic effects. But cyberbullying isn’t, as Steinmetz writes, “a problem that crops up anywhere the people congregate online.” It’s a problem that crops up wherever a platform has been optimized for engagement over any other value, and where there is limited to no human moderation. For example, a user of Front Porch Forum in Vermont, where each instance is centered on a neighborhood of roughly 1000 households and a paid part-time moderator helps keep the conversation civil, does not experience cyberbullying, as a recent study found.

  • Privacy, shmivacy: The debate over facial recognition is heating up as more cities embrace the technology despite the demonstrated problems it has with correctly identifying people with darker skin color, as Amy Harmon reports for The New York Times. Her story is focused on Detroit, where surveillance cameras are prominently used and the police are seeking approval to match faces against 50 million driver’s license photos and mug shots held in a state police database.

  • Related: In at least three states that offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, Immigration and Customs Enforcement have asked to comb through their photo databases, searching for matches using facial recognition, Catie Edmondson reports for The New York Times.

  • #NoTechforICE is starting to gain traction, as this demonstration outside the NYC office of Palantir yesterday shows. (As background, here’s a report from last fall by Mijente, the National Immigration Project and the Immigrant Defense Project, that zeroed in on companies like Amazon and Palantir as being in “the forefront” of working for ICE.

  • Background: Last fall, Pew Internet found that majorities of Americans are opposed to using algorithms for criminal risk assessment, automated resume screening, automated video analysis of job interviews and personal finance scores.

  • GrabHub: Before you order lunch today (yes, I’m talking about you!), read this story by H. Claire Brown in the New Food Economy on how GrubHub and its subsidiary Seamless are squeezing thousands of small restaurants, charging them increasing fees to get higher search rankings and squatting on more than 23,000 web domains to keep local retailers from building their own online presences. GrubHub claims it grabs the domains in order to build microsites to help its clients gain business, but Brown shows that those sites link directly to GrubHub’s ordering platform, when a real restaurant site can take its own independent orders.

  • RIP Ross Perot, the quirky Texas billionaire who ran for president in 1992, garnering nearly 20 million votes and demonstrating, years before Donald Trump, that America’s two-party establishment was not nearly as solid as it seemed. I spent a small chunk of my misbegotten youth tracking his movement, so a tip of the hat is in order. (Sadly, this was all in the embryonic days of the net, but if you want back issues of the Perot Periodical, let me know!)

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