Reptiles vs Gods

Why "human downgrading" doesn't work; Relational organizing apps; de-cloaks; and more.

This is civic tech: Say hello to Witness’ new Legal Video Advocacy project, which is “supporting advocates, lawyers, and incarcerated individuals in using video for sentencing mitigation and to advocate for decarceration through clemency and parole.”

Keep an eye on, a new effort to build a decentralized social media alternative to Facebook that is being led by Evan Henshaw-Plath, Tom Coates and Christoph Moskalonek, and which just announced an investments by Biz Stone. Henshaw-Plath, aka @rabble, was Twitter’s first employee (and code he originally wrote to help protesters swarm the RNC convention in NYC in 2004 went into Twitter), and as he explains here, Planetary is drawing on a lot of hard lessons learned from Twitter’s evolution.

Before she was an accomplished sci-fi writer, Malka Older was an aid worker in Darfur. And in this terrific piece for Foreign Policy, she takes a close look at the Satellite Sentinel Project, a highly acclaimed effort backed by actor George Clooney that sought to use satellites to expose genocide being committed by the Sudanese government. What she finds is sobering: the project was wildly successful at not only tracking but also predicting large-scale violence before it happened, but one of the key learnings of the project is that “documentation is no substitute for political will.”

Apply: The Center for Humane Technology is looking to hire a new executive director.

Applaud: The Cognizant US Foundation (which is a supporter of Civic Hall’s workforce development program) has announced a new $1.2 million grant to the Flatiron School for technology training designed to create job opportunities for underrepresented communities, including women, minorities, veterans, and those with disabilities, in five cities.

Speaking of the Center for Humane Technology, our friend Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, who runs the Emotion Regulation Lab at Hunter College, has written a smart critique of CHT’s core concept of “human downgrading” for Psychology Today. As she writes, “CHT’s mission is to raise awareness about the negative impact of the digital ecosystem on human well-being and to nudge tech companies and power players to combat what they refer to as Human Downgrading – a host of societal problems like addiction, social isolation, outrage, misinformation, and political polarization that they believe result from tech platforms’ efforts to capture and commoditize human attention.” But she argues cogently that this framing understates the resilience of human beings and overstates the power of tech. “Where things go off the tracks is that they think like the Silicon Valley denizens they criticize – in black-and-white, binary terms. For them, it’s our Paleolithic, reptile brains versus god-like technology. It’s the unassailable genius of the tech industry and the superiority of those who run it versus the cattle-like mindlessness of the rest of us consumers who click where they tell us to click.”=

Tech and politics: Democrats have the edge when it comes to developing apps to support “relational organizing,” Gilad Edelman writes for Wired. He highlights the Team app built by the Tuesday Company, which enables campaigns to “organize, coordinate, and measure volunteers’ relational communication and social media activity.” Edelman says, “it turns the kind of informal conversations people are already having about politics into the medium of organized persuasion and turnout efforts. Volunteers upload their contacts—friends, family, coworkers, whomever—to the app. The campaign matches those contacts against their voter lists and tells the volunteers which ones to reach out to, when, and on what subject. Organizers can suggest scripted messaging, but the volunteers are ultimately in control of what they write, as well as what medium they use—texting, Facebook, Twitter DM, and so on. They can also use the app to post to social media in a way that allows the campaign to track engagement.”

It’s interesting that this kind of harnessing of personal contacts is being referred to as “relational organizing” when it’s actually not really about building relationships so much as it is about exploiting them. But that’s what you get when political tech is developed to meet the needs of top-down, short-term campaigns rather the needs of horizontal, community organizing.

Voters in the Greater Seattle area will be able to vote by smartphone in a board of supervisors election just getting underway, Miles Parks reports for NPR. But while advocates for online voting like Bradley Tusk are cheering the news, saying, “This is the most fundamentally transformative reform you can do in democracy,” others are not so sure. “There is a firm consensus in the cybersecurity community that mobile voting on a smartphone is a really stupid idea,” Duncan Buell, a computer science professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in election technology, told NPR. “I don’t know that I have run across cybersecurity experts whose mortgages are not paid by a mobile-voting company who think it’s a good idea.”

End times: You’ve been given $10,000 a set of conference rooms, and a weekend. You’ve been instructed that you must hold “your name”-Con. What do you do? What does the event look like? Are there games? panels? speakers? The answers to this tweet are hilarious.

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