Making the Grade

Tristan Harris' new mission; Crackup at The Markup; Internet health; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Tristan Harris, the founder of the Center for Humane Technology, rolled out a major new agenda for his fledgling organization Tuesday with a big TED-like speech at San Francisco’s SFJAZZ center in front of an elite tech audience, which Casey Newton of The Verge nicely summarized for his Interface newsletter yesterday.

  • Here’s the insider preview piece on Harris’s big rollout, by Nicholas Thompson of Wired. Is there something wrong with using today’s technology of elite persuasion (the TED talk, the WIRED feature) to battle the pervasive effects of mass persuasion? Let’s leave irony for later. Harris is trying to do something very hard, and using his media leverage as best as he can.

  • I watched a simulcast from the offices of Betaworks Studios here in New York City, and here’s my quick take: Harris has done a terrific job marshaling an array of disturbing data about the impact of tech on our culture. Americans now spend 1/4 of their lives in “artificial social systems,” he notes, arguing that it’s not a coincidence that the percentage of women with high depressive symptoms has spiked to 29% as of 2017. (Intensive social media use, with its compulsive ranking and liking and judging, has been tied to increased feelings of low self-worth.) With mobile users watching YouTube videos more than 60 minutes a day and 70% of what they watch based on algorithmic recommendations, it’s shocking to learn from Harris that YouTube has promoted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones videos 15 billion times to other users. Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to drive more Facebook users into “meaningful communities” in the last two years probably does have something to do with the fact that the World Health Organization now lists anti-vaccination beliefs as one of the world’s top ten health threats. Harris calls all of these effects the “downgrading” of human culture by tech, and he’s hoping that term—downgrading—will become the new buzzword for his effort to upgrade how tech behaves.

  • All that said, Harris’ proposed solutions leave much to be desired. After declaring that “human downgrading is the global climate change of culture,” Harris made a jarring statement: “Unlike climate change, only about a thousand people need to change what we’re doing” to fix this problem, and he suggested that many of them, present and former employees of the big platforms, were there in his audience in San Francisco. Wait, what? Harris frequently talked about how “we” need to make tech that prioritizes finding common ground, or “we” need to make AI that serves more of a fiduciary role, or “we” need to set off a race to the top for tech that supports well-being. At no point did he mention that the “we” who currently run the big companies and decide what to make are predominantly pale, male, and mainly motivated by their stock options. To date, despite many promises, Big Tech has gotten nowhere in improving the diversity of its own workforce or governance bodies. The word “power” was never mentioned, if I’m not mistaken, over the course of Harris’s carefully scripted 45 minute speech, a glaring absence. So while the decisions that tech workers make matter a lot, they alone do not have the power to shift their industry. It may not be possible to see that from inside the TED-WIRED echo chamber.

  • Related: The World Health Organization has issued new guidelines recommending that electronic screen time for children under the age of 5 be drastically limited, Emily Rueb reports for The New York Times. (Alas, it says nothing about how much screen time their parents should be limited to.)

  • On the global measles outbreak, MEP Marietje Schaake writes in the Financial Times it is time for “systematic scrutiny of the algorithms that make anti-vaccination and other toxic information go viral.”

  • Mozilla’s 2019 Internet Health Report is out, and to be honest, there’s a lot to digest here! So start with Mozilla Foundation ED Mark Surman‘s introduction.

  • About 1,500 people have signed the Founders Pledge, promising to give at least two percent of the personal profits they may make if their tech start-up is a big success, Theodore Schleifer reports for Recode.

  • Say hello to the Digital Service Collaborative, a new program of the Beeck Center (supported by the Rockefeller Foundation) to provide expert support for government digital teams.

  • Salesforce.com is buying its nonprofit Salesforce.org, its reseller of Salesforce software and services to nonprofits, for $300 million, and Ron Miller argues in TechCrunch that this makes sense.

  • Transitions: Kevin Bankston is stepping down from his post as the director of the Open Technology Institute to become a director of Privacy Policy at Facebook. Filling his shoes is Sarah Morris, OTI’s current deputy director and head of its open internet policy team. Bankston notes that he is going to Facebook in part because he’s been critical of the company, but also because he believes in the “promise” of what the company is building. How he fares there should be a good barometer of the company’s new stated commitment to privacy.

  • John Paul Farmer, Microsoft’s director of technology and civic innovation for the last five years (and a very good friend and frequent presence here at Civic Hall), is going back into government to serve as New York City’s new chief technology officer. Kudos John!

  • Markup crackup: Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative journalist Julia Angwin, one of tech’s toughest watchdogs, has been fired from her post as editor-in-chief of The Markup, the as-yet-to-be-launched startup that she left ProPublica to create, as Peter Sterne reports for Columbia Journalism Review. Sue Gardner, the former head of the Wikimedia Foundation who co-founded The Markup with Angwin and is its executive director, pushed Angwin out. Angwin has written an open letter to Craig Newmark, whose foundation had given $20 million to The Markup to get it off the ground, seeking his support and arguing that Gardner was changing its mission from journalism to advocacy. Several other core Markup staff have quit in protest, and an impressive list of journalists, advocates, and academics have expressed solidarity with Angwin. Gardner, for her part, insists that The Markup’s mission has not changed and that Angwin’s departure was a “personnel matter.”

  • The six philanthropic organizations that collectively donated $23 million to The Markup have issued a joint statement saying they remain committed to its mission of focusing on “data-driven journalism covering the ethics and impact of technology on society,” and that they are taking steps to “reassess” their support.

  • In my humble opinion, Angwin and Gardner have each done incredibly valuable work over the years, the former as one of the best watchdogs on the Big Tech beat, and the latter in growing the Wikimedia Foundation and also in her service to a number of organizations in the digital rights arena, including the Sunlight Foundation (where she joined the board just as Andrew Rasiej and I both were ending our role as senior technology advisors to the organization). About a year ago, I met informally with Angwin and Gardner together to hear about their plans for The Markup, and I couldn’t have been more excited about its prospects. The news of the crack-up of their working relationship couldn’t be more saddening.

  • Tech and politics: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had a 30-minute closed door meeting with President Trump on Tuesday, Motherboard’s Joseph Cox and Jason Koebler report. Apparently Trump complained that his follower count had dropped.

  • Related: According to a new survey by the Pew Internet Center, adult Twitter users in the US are younger, more likely to identify as Democrats, more educated and better paid than American adults overall. Most Twitter users tweet infrequently, with about 10% responsible for 80% of all tweets created by US users (not counting bots, we assume).

  • Kirstjen Nielsen, the former director of the Department of Homeland Security, wanted to hold a cabinet-level meeting on the new and rising threats of Russian interference in next year’s election and she was told by White House chief of staff not to raise this concern in front of President Trump, Eric Schmitt, David Sanger and Maggie Haberman report for The New York Times. This is fine.

  • Life in Facebookistan: The Federal Trade Commission is likely going to fine Facebook somewhere between $3 billion and $5 billion, the highest ever leveled by the agency against a tech company, as Mike Isaac and Cecilia Kang report for The New York Times. That sounds like a lot, until you remember that the company makes about $15 billion every 3 months. Facebook’s stock price jumped at the opening bell yesterday morning, so that should tell you all you need to know about this news.

  • Writing the words “white men are so fragile” can get you locked out of your Facebook account, Jessica Guynn reports for USA Today, delving into the experience of many black users of the social network. They call it getting “Zucked.” Even a former Facebook employee, Mark Luckie, who called out the company for how it treats black users and employees, had his post deleted for several hours.

  • Jack Poulson, a former Google research scientist, adds his voice to the growing number of company insiders trying to pull the brakes on Google’s plans to expand in China and accede to the censorship and surveillance demands of the Chinese Communist Party.

  • Brave new world: Here’s a how bad license-plate data and automated surveillance can lead to an armed confrontation with police, courtesy of Charlie Warzel in The New York Times.

  • Amazon’s Alexa team knows where its users live, Bloomberg’s Matt Day, Giles Turner and Natalia Drozdiak report.

  • A hacker has figured out how to break into the accounts of users of two CPS tracker apps, gaining the ability to not just monitor the locations of thousands of vehicles, but in some cases turn off their engines while they are in motion, Joseph Cox reports for Motherboard.

  • End times: This is a tribute to something, I’m not sure what. Great product design? Our need to be more humble about our real place in the natural order?

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