Upbeat Notions

Are fake bot followers as harmless as mascara?; the smart city con; and more.


  • Tech and government: The federal govtech office 18F has shrunk by half under the Trump administration, Mark Sulivan reports for Fast Company, although the U.S. Digital Service has continued recruiting new team members.

  • Internet of Shit: Writing for The Atlantic, Bruce Sterling skewers the smart city ideal, writing, “the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.”

    “Back in the internet days, the fact that everybody had broadband and cellphones made it look like city government would become flat, participatory, and inclusive,” Sterling writes, reflecting on the civic tech movement’s early years. “You still see this upbeat notion remaining in the current smart-city rhetoric, mostly because it suits the institutional interests of the left. Community leaders, grassroots activism, the people who want to “participate”—to point, click, and fix the potholes—there are plenty of such people around. However, they’re always the people who think a city-council meeting or a labor-union rally are interesting. They’re not interesting. They’re important, but they’re dull.”

  • In a letter from parched Cape Town, where water stores are expected to run dry as early as May, Adam Welz writes that social media has become a forum for nasty, racially-tinged blame-throwing and conspiracy theories. (h/t Emily Jacobi)

  • Life in Facebookistan: Facebook is offering users a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service called Onavo that allows the company to track their users’ online habits even more thoroughly under the guise of privacy protection, Dell Cameron reports for Gizmodo.

  • A German court has found that Facebook fails to adequately inform users about how their personal data is used, a breach of Germany’s consumer protection laws, Hans-Edzard Buseman and Nadine Schimroszik report for Reuters.

  • Natasha Singer reports for The New York Times on the rise in university courses on computer science and ethics. “Compared to transportation or doctors, your daily interaction with physical harm or death or pain is a lot less if you are writing software for apps,” Joi Ito, director of the M.I.T. Media Lab, told Singer. “As we start to see things, like autonomous vehicles, that clearly have the ability to save people but also cause harm, I think that people are scrambling to build a system of ethics.”

  • Data & Society’s danah boyd has published a rather impassioned defense of bots, even the kind people buy to puff up their online image, which boyd compares to “mascara for your digital presence.” She makes a fair point about the hypocrisy of journalists and politicians wringing their hands only now after playing the game for years, but makes assumptions about who these bot buyers are (“deeply engaged users”) and doesn’t examine the potential repercussions and harms of a social network heavily populated with bots (and no, I’m not talking about @censusAmericans or @NYTimes).