New Visions

Subconscious tech vs conscious engagement; benefit apps that talk back; Zuck's conversion; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Matt Leighninger and Quixada Moore-Vissing of Public Agenda are out with a big new paper called “Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement and the Future of Politics.” Print out a copy and ruminate on it.

  • Using examples like HealthCare.gov and the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s development of Alia, its new online portable benefits platform, Tara McGuinness and Anne-Marie Slaughter argue in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that a new approach to public problem solving is crystallizing, one that starts by figuring out what people actually need and then testing, improving and scaling the solutions that work.

  • Apps that seek to improve Americans’ access to the safety net, like Propel’s FreshEBT are beginning to integrate approaches that also improve their users’ abilities to talk back, and as Justin King and Afua Bruce write for Slate’s Future Tense series, “these voices could revolutionize the safety net and even improve our democracy.”

  • Related: Code for America has launched a site called SnapStories for collecting and sharing the personal stories of California’s recipients of food aid.

  • Apply: Democracy.Works, the makers of voting information systems like Turbovote, is looking to hire a chief technology officer.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Having built one of the world’s largest data-mining companies by forcing, I mean encouraging, people to keep sharing more about themselves and disparaging, I mean discouraging, their innate need for privacy, now Mark Zuckerberg writes that he has a more “privacy-focused vision.” That is, having pulled people into something that he believes is the equivalent of a “digital public square” he wants Facebook to build a more privacy-focused social platform centered on the equivalent of “digital living rooms” where people share more intimately with each other. To his credit, he notes that “many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform — because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing.”

  • This could be an major pivot for Facebook, though lots of people have their doubts (see, for example, longtime tech industry macher Walt Mossberg). It’s notable, however, that Zuck’s vision of privacy isn’t quite the “your home is your castle” version that he himself is known for. To wit, he writes, “We plan to build this the way we’ve developed WhatsApp: focus on the most fundamental and private use case — messaging — make it as secure as possible, and then build more ways for people to interact on top of that, including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.” If I’m an advertiser seeking to target people or a data-miner looking to build more behavior-prediction tools, that sounds like pretty big arena of opportunities.

  • Putting time limits on how long big platforms retain user data is a good idea, but this isn’t necessarily that big a concession, since “Users share more when they think the content won’t be around forever,” as Nick Wingfield and Jessica Lessin note in their analysis for The Information. And as Zuck admits in an interview yesterday with Nicholas Thompson of Wired, giving people more encrypted messaging tools won’t hurt his business because “we aren’t really using the content of messages to target ads today anyway.” So, instead of a genuinely big shift from forced transparency to greater privacy, maybe what’s really going on is the colonization of new territory and securing of existing property.

  • It could well be that Zuckerberg is right that users want more privacy. But as Anand Giriharadas has put it in other contexts, should we trust arsonists to now help put out fires? Does Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook has, in essence, built a “town square,” have merit? If you go to your town square, does the mayor track your every move? Now, do you want that mayor building out your living room? More practically, given how much of a utility Facebook has become for its 2.3 billion users, why should this infrastructure be built and owned by one company controlled by one man?

  • It also remains to be seen how long this “new vision” will push aside stories like this one—an 18-year-old Ohio teen who testified Tuesday before a Senate committee explaining that he vaccinated himself against his mother’s wishes, and that she learned her entire anti-vaccine ideology from Facebook, as Michael Brice-Saddler reports for The Washington Post.

  • Tech and politics: Long-shot presidential candidate Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur who started Venture for America and who is running with a focus on Universal Basic Income, is on track to clear an important threshold for being included the the Democratic primary debates, Sam Stein and Will Sommer report for The Daily Beast. He’s already got 47,000 individual donors and is on track to go over 65,000 in the next two months, one of the two key benchmarks announced by the DNC.

  • Activists, journalists and social media influencers involved in covering last fall’s “migrant caravan” are being monitored in a government database and alleged targeted for intense scrutiny by border officials, Tom Jones, Mari Payton and Bill Feather report for Channel 7 San Diego.

  • Social media dynamics and journalistic competition for clicks had the result of intensifying tensions between India and Pakistan last week, Farhad Manjoo explains for The New York Times, which is only a little bit important because both countries have nuclear weapons and a semi-hot border dispute between them. He writes, “Besides outright lies, just about everyone, including many journalists, played fast and loose with facts. Many discussions were tinged with rumor and supposition. Pictures were doctored, doctored pictures were shared and aired, and real pictures were dismissed as doctored. Many of the lies were directed and weren’t innocent slip-ups in the fog of war but efforts to discredit the enemy, to boost nationalistic pride, to shame anyone who failed to toe a jingoistic line. The lies fit a pattern, clamoring for war, and on both sides they suggested a society that had slipped the bonds of rationality and fallen completely to the post-fact order.”

  • End times: And with that happy note, how’s this for a chaser?