The meme-ing of the president?; MIT friends like these?; and more.
As this newsletter evolves, it’s going to continue to offer a mix of longer commentary on big topics and short annotated links. Obviously one big ongoing topic right now is the reckoning underway as big tech and civic tech grapple with the repercussions of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. More on that below. But first, let me riff a bit on a different topic of ongoing concern: tech and democracy.
First, some context: Americans live in a diminished democracy, to use the title of one of Theda Skocpol‘s books. Unlike our grandparents and great-grandparents, who if they were here seventy-five or a hundred-plus years ago experienced politics as something close to home, with vibrant local membership organizations that elected leaders that funneled up into national federations, most of us now have no experience with formal participation in civic structures beyond things like voting and serving on a jury every now and then. To be sure, those old formations—things like unions and churches and civic clubs like the Elks and the VFW—were also stratified by gender and class and often quite racist. But they also gave tens of millions of people lessons in local civic organizing, and that was how people learned to grow and use their own democratic muscles. All of that has been hollowed out by suburbanization, mass entertainment, and the rise of new forms of professionalized organizing largely around single interests and identities, and more and more mediated through direct mail and then mass email (think MoveOn and the like). To some extent, the pendulum has begun swinging back in the last few years, as the shift toward “distributed organizing” and open networks like the Tea Party, Black Lives Matter and Indivisible (along with a general sense that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” and “no one else is coming to save us” has propelled a new wave of locally-based organizing.
Unfortunately, mainstream journalism almost never tells the story about how politics is organized at the ground-level. Instead, it’s transfixed by tech and social media. Exhibit A: Culture writer Amanda Hess just took eight pages of New York Times print real estate (plus a fancy suite of online interactive)s to make an absurd claim, that “fan culture is swallowing democracy.” You can read the whole thing, an entertaining tour-de-force survey of meme wars featuring the current crop of presidential candidates, and focusing on amusing questions like why Marianne Williamson has so many memes featuring lasers coming out of her eyes. Or you can trust me: When Hess writes, “the internet threw a fit,” about some Twitter tiff over TV personality Kylie Jenner and the Handmaid’s Tale,” you have all the evidence you need to realize that Hess has been spending too much time on screens. The “internet” is not a person and generally speaking when one of those tiffs happen the number of people involved could fit inside a Trump rally.
Unfortunately, actually covering how democracy in America is practiced on the ground in political campaigns requires things like travel, and hotels, and talking to people, and all of those things are a lot more expensive and hard to do than look at Hootsuite and watch memes go by. It was only a short time ago that we had the Blogging of the President, an homage to Theodore White‘s Making of the President books (but informed by Joe McGinnis‘s Selling of the President). It was a moment when the open web empowered a wave of intense and informative journalism about the political process. Now if you go by Hess we have “the content creator in chief.” Look away, it’s easy if you try. Civic life in America is bubbling with innovation and activity. If you don’t think so, you’re looking in the wrong places. This newsletter will try to help rectify that.
OK, back to the shockwaves from the MIT-Epstein scandal, which continue to reverberate. If have you time to read only one new thing about it, make it this speech by Danah Boyd, which she gave a few days ago upon receiving the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Barlow/Pioneer Award. Not only does she reckon with how she has “benefited from men whose actions have helped uphold a patriarchal system that has hurt so many people,” she describes an early encounter with MIT Media Lab cofounder Marvin Minsky that raises questions about his m.o. around young women:
She writes: “At the incoming [MIT Media Lab] student orientation dinner [in 1999], an older faculty member sat down next to me. He looked at me and asked if love existed. I raised my eyebrow as he talked about how love was a mirage, but that sex and pleasure were real. That was my introduction to Marvin Minsky and to my new institutional home.” Recall that Ethan Zuckerman, whose resignation from the MIT Media Lab faculty back in August started this whole story, wrote then that “unanswered questions about Minsky are part of the horror of this situation for some of my colleagues at the Media Lab.” Virginia Giuffre has alleged that she was forced to have sex with Minsky while he was visiting Epstein’s compound in the US Virgin Islands. Minsky’s defenders say the accusation is false and unfair since Minsky died in 2016 and cannot address the charge.
Bringing fresh meaning to the phrase “move fast and break things,” Linkedin founder and VC Reid Hoffman tells Axios’ Felix Salmon that he is “deeply regretful” for agreeing to participate in MIT fundraising that “helped to repair [Jeffrey Epstein’s] reputation and perpetuate injustice,” saying that he did so because “I was told by Joi [Ito] that Epstein had cleared the MIT vetting process.”
Harvard professor Larry Lessig gets a full-page interview in the New York Times to explain himself and instead keeps digging into a deeper hole trying to defend Ito and MIT’s decision to conceal Epstein’s donations from public view. Noticeably, he continues to avoid mentioning Ito’s decision to take Epstein money into his own personal investment fund.
Computer scientist Richard Stallman, one of the founders of the free software movement, has resigned from MIT as well as his positions with the Free Software Foundation, after coming under criticism for saying that “the most plausible scenario” is that Epstein’s underage victims were “entirely willing,” Joseph Cox reports for Vice.
Stewart Brand, another giant of the early days of tech, set fire to his reputation with this tweet defending Epstein for supposedly caring about science “long before he had a (deservedly!) bad reputation to launder.”
This is civic tech: Say hello to TeachingPublicService.digital, a new initiative from civic tech and govtech veterans like David Eaves and Tom Steinberg.
Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media has just launched BotSlayer, an app that can spot bot campaigns on Twitter before they escalate, hoping to help journalists and political campaigns better monitor potential disinformation efforts.
Here’s a new guide from Salesforce offering ways to use artificial intelligence for good (note you have to fill out a form to download the guide).
Coil, Mozilla and Creative Commons have launched Grant for the Web, a five year $100 million fund aimed at supporting individual creators, promoting open-source content and content monetization infrastructure. (Don’t miss Maciej Ceglowski’s riposte.)
Attend: The Public Interest Technology University Network is holding its launch Monday, October 7 at Georgetown University, featuring talks by filmmaker Ava DuVernay and Harvard computer science professor Latanya Sweeney.
Tech and politics: After years of controversy, three founding board members of the Women’s March are stepping down and a new cast of 16 board members are joining the organization, Marissa Lang reports for The Washington Post. Unfortunately, some of the new board members are themselves quite controversial.
Workers at Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform, are trying to unionize, April Glaser reports for Slate.
Tech worker organizer Irene Knapp is leaving Google after five years, but as she writes on Medium, she is planning to continue her activism from the outside.
Life in Facebookistan: If you need more evidence that Facebook has failed to figure out how to approach its commitment to fact-checking in a serious way, see this op-ed by Drs. Daniel Grossman and Robyn Schickler, two practicing obstetricians who describe how the company has failed to remove a video posted by an anti-abortion group falsely claiming that abortions are never medically necessary.
The funders of an unprecedented partnership with Facebook aimed at getting the company to release reams of data to enable academic researchers to study how the platform impacts democracy have been forced to threaten publicly to wind down their project because of delays in the program’s implementation, Craig Silverman reported for BuzzFeed at the end of August. That warning blast has now been at least partially heeded, according to Solomon Messing, one of the data scientists working with Social Science One, the research consortium.